Such a strange package Horizon: Zero Dawn is: controls and graphics as polished as glass, yet with story and gameplay conventions that are as shallow and transparent as, again, glass, openly reflecting concepts and ideas most of us have seen before. The game features mechanical dinosaurs—a novel concept—set in a post-apocalyptic world—a concept done to death—with a female protagonist for a huge blockbuster IP—which is relatively fresh—who is thrust into a sprawling world on a journey that feels like too many other open world games bunched into one.
Without a doubt, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a joy to play. Roaming around the world as Aloy is a wonder to behold. As for the familiarity, borrowing ideas is fine. The main issue I have is that the developers didn’t make them their own.
Going in, I was ready to not care so much about this. Sometimes I can see past tropes or clichés if the presentation as a whole succeeds at suspending my disbelief with sparks of inexplicable, creative magic. I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen for me here. This is a game that feels like it was designed to not tread on anyone’s sensibilities for fear of pushing them away from this beautiful, yet artificial venture for Sony and Guerrilla Games.
Combat with bows and arrows is effective and fluid, while other supplementary tools such as slingshots and machinery to set down traps or tie down enemies add many new dimensions of strategy and tactics. Sneaking up on machines and overriding them to either use them as a mount or make them attack other enemies adds a great incentive to stealth play. Approaching each encounter feels satisfying with the right amount of strategy, as it is easy for Aloy to be overwhelmed by enemy packs. Going in with whichever tools the situation requires and coming out unscathed—even against larger foes such as Behemoths and Thunderjaws—feels rewarding with a great payoff. Knocking off a Ravager’s heavy weapon from its back, picking up the weapon and using it to kill that same enemy is one example of the many ways Aloy can take down her opponents.
While combat against machines is fun and engaging, the humans feel barebones in comparison. Their AI feels like an afterthought; landing kills, especially headshots, doesn’t feel like anything. Melee combat against them is also mediocre. Swinging Aloy’s spear at them lacks the impact and inertia from using archery or traps.
As with that lack of impact, playing through quests and sidequests didn’t excite me. I had plenty of enjoyment traveling to a new area, picking up a quest, and then turning it in once it was done, but the content was hit-or-miss for me. I had more fun running around the landscape doing nothing than I did while accomplishing an objective.
I had no illusions that Horizon: Zero Dawn’s narrative would be groundbreaking or innovative. Yet I didn’t expect the story to be as derivative and predictable as it is. The main character, Aloy—an often sarcastic, yet compassionate and capable young woman—grows up as an outcast, raised by her father-figure, Rost, who trains her in combat, hunting and survival techniques. Wishing to find out the reasons why she is a motherless outcast, she takes part in the trials of The Proving to indeed prove herself, and then sets off to find answers, only to discover a larger mystery along the way. The unraveling of the mystery itself kept me intrigued, but I found the actual reveals themselves lacking. Here, the journey itself was more rewarding than the destination.
I adore Aloy. I love her disdain for higher powers and authority, her distaste of the religious indoctrination that gives the world the audacity to discriminate against her, her intelligence and drive, and her personal reasons for her journey. Toward the beginning of the game, controlling her as a child, I immediately grew attached to her. Even at such a young age, she shows how driven and curious she is: adapting to situations, exploring on her own, and figuring out a plan to help someone in need. When she interacts with a hologram figure, thinking it to be real like most children would, I smiled in a sad way for her, as she had sorely missed out on meeting and speaking with new people as an outcast. As a young adult, she’s independent because of her forced isolation, yet it also makes her a tragic character; this tragedy slowly unravels as a special foil to the more obvious plot twists.
I smiled again whenever someone she helped or saved would thank a tribal deity instead of her, and Aloy would grumble under her breath about how it wasn’t the god that had done all the work.
Wishing to find out the reasons why she is a motherless outcast, she takes part in the trials of The Proving to indeed prove herself, and then sets off to find answers, only to discover a larger mystery along the way.
But she stole the show for me because I had a hard time caring about anyone or anything else. Every other character has their purpose from a design perspective: mostly bigoted tribespeople who view Aloy as less-than simply because she’s an outcast. While this conflict agrees with the us-versus-them mentality of the tribes and their willful ignorance, it rarely felt organic to me.
I took away a few heartfelt moments from the story. When the moments related to Aloy, her beliefs, her struggles and her frustrations with the people in the world who respect her only after she risks her life time and time again, I was enthralled. When the moments were more grand statements and sweeping universal themes, I didn’t care, because Horizon: Zero Dawn doesn’t link these ideas back around to its core. There’s only a loose connection between the larger lesson that the plot tells about humanity and sacrifice, and the more interpersonal lesson from Aloy’s journey as a woman in a world that neither values nor deserves her contributions or discoveries.
There’s only a loose connection between the larger lesson that the plot tells about humanity and sacrifice, and the more interpersonal lesson from Aloy’s journey as a woman in a world that neither values nor deserves her contributions or discoveries.
Gorgeous visuals. Breathtaking vistas. Lifelike settings. Sandstorms in the deserts and overcast in rainy forests. Sunrays. Lens flare. Horizon: Zero Dawn is an impressive-looking game. The day/night cycle feels natural and adds plenty of dynamism to the environments. The sheer amount of detail on every surface, fabric and character model does wonders for immersion. The graphics elevate the package as a whole; because of how good everything looks, I was almost deceived into ignoring the game’s flaws.
One nitpick involves the facial animations. Mouths and lips in movement from most NPCs lack a certain realism that the rest of the game has. That dissonance threw me off, but not enough to detract from the game’s rating.
Aside from the pleasant main theme, I didn’t notice the music. The sound effects while fighting against machines were authentic enough to the point of distracting me from anything else. Any music I purposely paid attention to during story cutscenes fit the mood. But nothing stood out to make me want to buy the soundtrack.
Ashly Burch does a wonderful job portraying Aloy. I was surprised that the same voice actress as Chloe Price from Life is Strange also contributed to Aloy’s range of empathy, cynicism, and quiet expressiveness. Burch brings Aloy to life in a way that will stay with me for a long time to come.
Ashly Burch does a wonderful job portraying Aloy.
Horizon: Zero Dawn offers a fun experience. Paced well with plenty of sidequests, there’s technically a lot of value here. The 50 or so hours it took me to get the platinum trophy didn’t leave as much of an impression on me as I wanted them to. Despite the amazing graphics and cohesive gameplay, I saw the seams of “the open world formula” almost everywhere: collectibles, (interesting) towers to reveal parts of the map, secret puzzle areas scattered throughout the world, an extra “sense” with the Focus, dialogue wheels, skill trees, and more. Even down to the writing for side quests—particular comma splices that give away the writer’s mark from another game, for example—Horizon: Zero Dawn is a mish-mash of nearly everything that came before.
Aloy is an amazing protagonist who I want to see succeed. If a safe story is what it takes to cement her legacy as an iconic PlayStation heroine, then I can deal with that. There’s potential for a franchise here. I hope that Guerrilla Games takes more creative risks should they decide to continue Aloy’s story.