So, as one might surmise from the title, I’ll be giving my review of Horizon Zero Dawn, hopefully keeping it as spoiler-free as possible. Of course, I’m sure there’s no shortage of videogame journalism sites or random people on the internet proclaiming it’s a masterpiece, so what would I have to say about it?
That’s a really simple one: A review. I intend to tell what the game was, add my own impressions, and help you make an informed decision if you’re thinking of getting it.
We Have To Get Back To The Future!
So, let’s have a quick rundown of what this game IS before we begin. Like the majority of Japanese anime openings, the title makes absolutely no sense.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a third-person action-adventure game with stealth, shooting, combat, and crafting mechanics. It takes place in the future, after an apocalypse has left mysterious animal-shaped machines to roam the earth while mankind’s civilisations were wiped out.
In their place, a new generation of humans have formed new tribes and cultures with no knowledge of their past, now brought back to the Bronze Age of spears and bows. They have fought each other and the machines in order to survive and thrive. This is the story of one of these humans, raised in the ways of the totally-not-Native-American Nora tribe, has her world turned upside down. A great evil will use the past to destroy the present, and it is up to Aloy (that’s you) to uncover the secret history of the world if they are to have a future.
So that’s Horizon Zero Dawn in a nutshell. Now let’s get to the review!
Oh Right, You Can Play It
Gameplay, story, and graphics. These form the trinity of a videogame’s aspects, though many will say that graphics are the least important. And since there’s a lot more to say about the story, I’ll go into gameplay!
Horizon Zero Dawn uses a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge sandbox map that you explore as you complete missions and kill machines. While the missions still unfold in sequence, you’re actually completely free to explore the whole world to discover everything and delay the main quest indefinitely. Because OF COURSE the world is incapable of moving or solving its own problems unless the Player Character is present.
That being said, the deeper into the map you go, the stronger the enemies get. This won’t be a problem for those who follow the questlines normally, because then they’ll have gained enough levels and upgrades to meet the rising power levels. On the other hand, it could be either a challenge for hardcore fighters, or a potentially disastrous accident for explorers. You might be trying to find secrets at the edge of the north, only to come across a herd of machines you’re too weak to fight and get trampled to death. Certainly, I found the boss monsters long before I was actually scheduled to fight them.
It’s a large and beautiful world, with plenty of gorgeous landscapes to explore in order to find every secret and machine out there. Certainly, a LOT of care was taken to make the game as beautiful as possible: The designs are distinct and attractive, the landscapes are sweet to look at, and you’ve a diverse mix of weather and times to shake things up. And with the ease with which you can move and fight, you’ve plenty of options for the route you want to take. Though I think there’s one potential problem: While the designers probably intended players to find the right paths or climbing routes to scale mountains and hills, a lot of the world can be circumvented with shortcuts using the power of…jumping.
Shopping and crafting are pretty streamlined, which is a good thing. It’s infuriating when you need to jump through hoops to upgrade equipment (or worse, maintain it), as that is either one more thing to calculate and optimise, or something you forget about until the absolute worst time when you need it most. Here, itemisation is simple: Get the stuff you need, put it together. Get the enemy drops you need, use it to buy stuff. No need to overcomplicate things with a labyrinthine table of which materials offer the best bonuses; the only things you actually craft are ammo, ammo space, and consumable items. Weapons and armour are offered as complete items from shops.
And better still, you don’t necessarily HAVE to do it because a lot of the game is skill-based; sure, your odds will improve if you have more types of weapons at their highest level, but you can just sneak, shoot, or smash your way to victory.
But all that is but the packaging and the side stuff. The meat of the gameplay is its combat, and that can be boiled down to the aforementioned options: sneak, shoot, or smash. And that, in turn, pretty much sums it up; for all the beautiful attention to detail, for all the care taken in making this world, gameplay is elegant and simple: kill those machines. And, occasionally, the odd human or two.
That’s not to say there’s no depth to it, of course. For starters, each machine has weak points you can scan, things you can shoot or disable to make the fight easier for you. Usually, you have the option of picking them off from a distance, smashing them when they get too close, or lying low and waiting for the right time to strike. Of course, not every enemy will oblige; some will get in your face, others will stay away, and a few you just know you don’t wanna be anywhere near them. But the means to do that, at the end of the day, are simple.
The game’s stealth mechanics do their best to be simple yet refined. Essentially, you won’t be seen if you’re either really far away or hidden in tall grass (yes, tall grass). However, if your attack doesn’t kill the enemy, or your kill is spotted, or your shot misses, enemies will be alerted that you’re sneaking about and start looking around…the open walkways and paths, instead of, I dunno, the bushes and undergrowth capable of hiding a skilled assassin. Seriously, the only ways to blow your cover are to charge in headfirst, or to miss your shot. And if they don’t find you, eventually they’ll go back to their normal business.
But that’s the limits of programming, and really, these guys do the best they can. After all, they do have the sense to be suspicious if they spot a dead body, calling guys to search the immediate area (minus bushes). And if they DO spot you in the bushes, you won’t be able to hide at all while they keep firing into it like it attempted to make a live film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. And honestly, the game’s world and terrain complement the stealth mechanics perfectly, as while most battlegrounds have fixed stealth points to hide at close range, you’re actually rewarded for exploring for a vantage point where you can snipe with impunity.
Of course, that’s stealth. It’s just a matter of watching, waiting, sneaking, and scoring the right headshot or instant-kill attack. Actual COMBAT has a few more options…or rather, stealth borrows from a few of THOSE options while it stays concealed.
Melee is simple and threadbare: evade, fast attack, strong attack. These are all the tools you’ll ever need, which is good because they are also all the tools you’ll ever get up close; no parries, no special moves, no secret critical hits, no air combos. Much like Arkham Assassins of Mordor used the simple “hit minimal buttons and respond to prompts”, melee is a simple matter of hitting enemies and evading when you see the flashing icon telegraphing their attack. Simple, sure, but don’t underestimate it; like any game that involves skill, the more enemies are involved, the harder it gets to make sense of everything going on while you consider three different attack types.
Of course, sometimes you just know that it’s a bad idea to go head to head with the giant mecha-croc. And that’s when you start shooting, which is the game’s main source of damage and variety. Although the issue of weak points and disabling still applies, it’s in the variety of ranged weapons that you have different options, each weapon capable of being modded to hit harder or faster.
There are different weapons that fit different styles of combat. Your beginner’s bow represents the middle ground of an assault rifle, but you also have the close quarters fury of a not-shotgun and the precise damage spikes of a not-sniper rifle. As you learn more about your enemies and yourself, you’ll soon learn to pick the right tools for the right fights, whether you need bombs to cover a wide area, ropes to tie down big targets, or traps to methodically trip up and blow up something that’ll chase you down.
There’s a lot of potential for different builds, techniques, and tactics with these weapons, even after my descriptions, and it’s one of the game’s main delights which helps make combat a bit more interesting than just “shoot it until it stops moving” by making it “shoot it in the right places so it’s easier to shoot”. But here are a few different examples to illustrate how these weapons can work out:
- Tie down the big machine so it’s out of the fight, while shooting down the smaller ones so they won’t buzz around and complicate things.
- Lie in wait and study their walking paths. Then place traps in their paths and where you plan to be so that when they chase you, they’ll be running into
- Get up close and lay down elemental damage so they’re out of the fight and easier to kill. Then bombard them with grenades to hit a bunch of them at once.
- Start the fight by using a weapon made just for tearing off their parts and guns. Without those, they’ll start charging, making them much easier to avoid than if they started firing bullets and lightning.
So that tells you WHAT the combat is. Is it fun? Absolutely. It’s very satisfying to have a plan go off perfectly, or to shoot off a weapon and make the fight that much easier. And the fact that it relies mostly on your skill and wits means you don’t have to obsess over getting the best equipment, even if they do help. Though I should also note that, at the end of the day, it’s simple: bring the life bars to zero. Therefore, like most gamers, what tends to happen is that once you find what you think is the optimum strategy, you likely won’t use anything else unless it’s for a REALLY different fight. And remember that, even though stealth can get a little derpy, the simple fact is that the moment you’re spotted, your plan will likely fall apart because every enemy will start CHASING you.
Once that happens, of course, it tends to devolve into either a simple third-person shooter or a simplified action sequence out of Arkham Assassins of Mordor.
Also it has a bunch of collectible items, because of course it’ll have something for those 100% completionists. There’s also a few dialogue choices where you can define her personality they claim, but it doesn’t really change anything.
The Distant Future Of 21XX
So that’s the game at an interactive level. Beautiful to look at, fun to play, simplified mechanics. But what’s the story behind it?
Well, this IS a spoiler-free review, but I’ll at least talk about the overall plot, the characters, and the world-building.
At its core, Horizon Zero Dawn is essentially a Fantasy story built on the skeleton of a Sci-fi post-apocalypse. Where most post-apocalypse scenarios try to focus on the bleakness of humanity and the future as well as the grittiness of surviving the fallout, this game chooses to wait for that miserable period to end and THEN get started.
And when it DOES get started, it’s…well, it’s essentially a sort of coming-of-age fantasy story. You have the special protagonist who’s a bit of an outsider, you learn a bit about what moves them, and then something BIG happens to overturn their lives and threaten what they cherish. From there, the story beats of discovering the world at large and uncovering hidden mysteries to save everything are VERY MUCH in the spirit of fantasy and hopeful high adventure. The backstory is suitably bleak, mysterious and detailed, of course, but despite its importance as the foundation of the story setting, the whole thing is actually…pretty straightforward. Special Main Character goes on a quest, learns stuff, has conflicts, saves the day.
And I have to say, I actually really dig this world. There are three major (and one or two minor) cultures, each of which have their distinct characteristics and style. Yet even with the ‘stereotypes’ surrounding each race being embodied in their biggest representatives, writing doesn’t ignore the fact that these are PEOPLE, and each has its share of dissidents and diversity, in that they behave like REAL people and not stereotypes: each tribe has its cowards, its loving parents, its innovative trailblazers, its cowards, its nerds. They all feel DIFFERENT without seeming like strawmen of a particular stereotype (except for a few people, because let’s face facts: some people actually behave like strawmen).
This new world has cultures which feel delightfully old, earthy, or mysterious, and a compelling history of its own, dropping you in at a time where a previously tyrannical kingdom is undergoing massive political reform. Which is why I must regretfully say: I don’t really like the main character exploring it.
Aloy is perfectly serviceable as a heroine, of course; she’s resourceful, brave, compassionate, and has the right plot elements to be the special one. She has emotional moments, she’s undergoing a personal journey, and she has the brashness and self-confidence of a teenager which is fitting. Yes, we see her SHOW her virtues of cunning, courage, and compassion, if only because we DO those quests ourselves.
But at the end of the day, we’re just kind of told to take it for granted that she’s an amazing yet relatable heroine, so I felt like she was neither. I didn’t see much that was amazing because it was normalised through game mechanics (“Wow! You can do this thing! …Press X to do this perfectly normal thing.”), and I didn’t relate to her because quite frankly…I think she’s kind of a tool.
In her interactions, there are two big parts to her character: That she’s an outsider relative to her tribe, and that she’s curious and inquisitive.
She’s an outsider both for her attitude and for story reasons, which is all well and good, all justifiable. But because she spends so much of her time in this conflict with her own people all but saying “I can’t wait to get out of here and away from you people”, she doesn’t really have a strong identity or supporting connections of her own, making her a freaking TOURIST in her own game. She has nowhere or no one to belong to, no home town, no people waiting for her, so EVERY place is a foreign land she’s just passing through. So when the story takes turns to stress her concern for her fellow man, it feels less like she has something she cares about, and more like “she’s caring about life, and it just so happens these people happen to be life.”
The other part about her, probably to make her relate more to “the players” who know things in hindsight that the world has forgotten, is that she has a tendency to be a rational, secular skeptic. Meaning that while you get tribes that worship the sun or speak about their spirits being tied to the land, she’s the character that goes “Uh, the sun is the sun, right? How can the sun be a male god if I haven’t seen anything dangling? And can you really be sure about spirits, I mean, what, does the spirit come flying out or something?”
That might be a damning testimony, but it’s not the case, or the full picture. Aloy, to be sure, isn’t some self-righteous elitist eager to make sure everyone knows her opinion about their opinion. She doesn’t go into some sort of anti-religious tirade, and is actually perfectly civil to different people as long as they are. From a perfectly objective standpoint, the best way to describe her is egalitarian: she gives everyone a fair shot, and does unto them as they have done unto her.
But there’s only so many times I can hear her raise an eyebrow and throw snark at a character’s traditions or beliefs. I get that it’s a big part of her character: she is inquisitive and curious, she is outspoken, and she is a teenager. In terms of portraying a character for who they are, I can applaud the writers for that. But at no point does the story actually call her out for being disrespectful or detached. It never reprimands her for anything unless the person doing it happens to be a racist ass. And when the morals of the game seem to point in the direction of “she was right all along”, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
But there was something in those interactions which I DID like: Everyone else stood their ground. What it DOES acknowledge is that while she might be technically right, she doesn’t have the FULL picture, and she IS still a punk teen who thinks she knows it all. And it does that by writing the other characters VERY well, in all their vulnerabilities and wisdoms. To be specific, there are two occasions where that happens which stood out to me:
- In one questline, Aloy is gathering food for a villager who’s extremely devout and forbidden to speak with her, so she only speaks in prayer to the tribe’s goddess. Aloy is, of course, as annoyed at this as the internet is annoyed at people who thank God for medical recoveries, even though I’m aware that a) that villager is speaking to Aloy indirectly through prayer, and b) thanking God does not mean forgetting the experts involved. I was relieved to find Aloy might have finally, FINALLY realised the villager was speaking to her as well the whole time at the end of the quest.
- In another, a priest asks Aloy to help clear spaces for pilgrims seeking to mourn lost ones so that they can carry out their tribal rites. Aloy bluntly (but not unkindly) states “You know those rituals can’t bring anyone back” (WOW), but the priest calmly explains “I know, but those rituals help people cope with and accept their losses” (OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!).
That’s good, measured writing…for everyone except her, at least by my personal tastes. And those are just two NPCs out of a whole world of really interesting, diverse people. Which is why I felt quite some regret to find that some of the most important supporting cast members had their stories reduced to second-hand accounts and one or two appearances. Going by how most stories are written, you’d think those would have been major questlines featuring those same characters making recurring appearances in order to drive home how important they’re meant to be in Aloy’s life.
But while I may gripe (one of my own pet peeves, I note hypocritically), I should note one thing which is a VERY good point: this game was built for an OPEN WORLD. Therefore, it can’t really follow a linear dramatic progression like most RPGs; it has to write its world in such a way that it makes sense for Aloy to be there at any and all times, which means making her involvement as light as they can afford. Those quests have to be available at all times, and so there isn’t much they can acknowledge as having happened before; the Aloy they’re meeting is the same Aloy at the end of the game having achieved everything as the Aloy at the start of the game who got lost adventuring and stumbled upon their village.
So there you have it. My thoughts and explanations of what is Horizon Zero Dawn. All in all, I’d say it was a VERY good game. Simple when you get down to it, but done VERY well, using those different, bare components to create something much more diverse.
And it’s one heck of a world, a really intriguing story. I just didn’t like the parts with the main character in them.