I’ve always been a bit skeptical about open world games.
I’ve always been wary of the possibility of looking at beautiful views but finding that there is little depth to them. I’ve never thought of linearity as a bad thing, especially if an open world turns out to exist at the expense of a solid story.
Upon my first moment of seeing Horizon Zero Dawn's E3 trailer several years ago, I was awed by the stunning visuals and its concept captivated me. I worried that despite its beauty, it would fall short narratively and end up as a game remembered only for its image.
That's why I was pleased to find out that this worry is an unfounded one. Horizon Zero Dawn is deeply rich in both image and substance. It's expansive and filled with tasks to do and places to explore. On top of that it also contains an enthralling story that eagerly pulls you into this mysterious, often haunting, and endlessly gorgeous world.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes you to a distant future on Earth in which our technologically advanced civilization is no more. Instead, humanity exists in the form of scattered tribes that attempt to live peacefully and separately from the mechanical beasts that roam the land. Aloy, the game’s protagonist, lives among the people of the isolationist and matriarchal Nora tribe; she's shunned and outcasted for being motherless. Through a series of events, she is thrust into a journey with the purpose of finding the truth about her origins and the world that lies beyond the walls of the tribe.
The world that awaits Aloy is a marvelously huge one that brims with life in every corner. There are lush meadows to run through as the sunlight peaks through the trees; villages and towns with architecture unique to the people of that land; and dark depths of foreboding caves waiting to be explored. Horizon Zero Dawn is so breathtaking that I had to resist the constant temptation to pause and open the game’s extensive Photo Mode. With every new step I took, I was welcomed with an even more astonishing view than the last. It runs smoothly as well - I experienced very few stutters or frame-rate drops despite all the details that make this world look so breathtaking.
While the landscapes are stunning, there’s also something beautiful about the mechanical beasts that dominate this world. These beasts have a society and ecosystem of their own in which each species has a specific role. Sky-reaching and majestic Tallnecks are peaceful beings that monitor the land around them to ensure everything is operating as it should. Shell Walkers prioritize protecting the cargo they carry on their backs over fighting. Rock Breakers… well, they break rocks!
Horizon Zero Dawn’s combat incorporates a great balance of stealth and action. Often, you’re not meant to rush into battle with your bow raised. Instead, you’re a hunter meant to seek cover from enemies first to observe and analyze them using the Focus – a relic from the old past of rapid technological advancements. While the Focus will allow you to inspect items, open certain doors, and temporarily control enemies with the Override ability, its most crucial power lies in analyzing beasts for their strengths and weaknesses. Enemies are powerful and can kill you in a few hits no matter the difficulty setting, so it’s important to formulate and execute an effective strategy.
To do this, there are various weapons at your disposal besides Aloy’s trademark hunter bow. There are slings that are helpful for taking down large groups of enemies and Sharpshot Bows that are best used when trying to snipe an enemy. There’s the Rattler, which is crucial in taking down huge beasts like Rock Breakers or Behemoths; the Trapcaster, which lays a tap wire that will shock any enemy that runs through it; and the Ropecaster, which makes an encounter with flying enemies like the almighty Stormbird a lot easier once you’ve taken away their mobility. Weapons can be slightly modified with special runes that will increase your stealth or resistance to an element, but modification for weapons is generally quite limited in this game.
For example, one skill allows you to strike an enemy that is standing above a ledge you’re hanging from, while another allows you to aim while walking on a tightrope. While these skills aren’t useless, they don’t feel like they add much to the gameplay; they’re only relevant in specific situations in which I’d probably have an easier time taking out the enemy in simpler and faster ways. There could be more interesting skills to unlock here – and there could be more skills in general, since the skill tree doesn’t take too long to complete.
Despite this, Horizon Zero Dawn’s core gameplay is enjoyable. It’s what makes sidequests like clearing bandit camps and monster zones exciting despite having no plot to maintain your interest. I loved the sense of adrenaline that would run through me as I would approach a bandit camp, use my Focus to find out that there were up to twenty bandits surveilling the area, and form a plan to eliminate them one by one without getting noticed.
I knew this was entirely possible because I had the right tools; I just needed the right strategy. With all the tools at your disposal, the game encourages you to have fun and try out more than just one way of going about a fight. It loves to challenge you, making you feel like the odds are against you when you’re facing dozens of enemies in one area or fighting a monster that seems to take up an entire room. As a result, there’s few things as satisfying as the moment when you finally beat that boss battle you’ve worked so hard and spent so much ammo on.
In addition to combat-focused sidequests are ones that help further bring this vibrant world to life, through developing the universe’s lore and characterizing its people. Some quests are as simple as tracking down an item for someone while others span over several tasks and end in unique boss battles. While the characters in these sidequests aren’t necessarily key characters, they feel like fully realized individuals because they have compelling character arcs that make them memorable.
As immersive as this world is with all there is to see and do, Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative is compelling enough to eventually return your focus back to the main path. The same amount of love and care that has been put into Horizon Zero Dawn’s image has been applied to its substance; it’s fantastic and only gets better the more you see of it. I was amazed by the level of the story’s complexity and the depth of the lore that Guerrilla Games has created for this universe.
However, it must be said; the specific reason as to why the story accomplishes to be so emotionally engaging is because of its protagonist. At its heart, Horizon Zero Dawn is a tale about Aloy – about her identity, backstory, and the history of the world she lives in and is trying to understand. It’s the story about her search for her mother and her journey to save this world because she is the only one who can. Through the careful crafting of this world and the characters that she comes to know and befriend, Horizon Zero Dawn makes you care about it and, like Aloy, find that despite all the chaos, hurt, and death, this is a world that’s worth saving.
Aloy is a wonderful hero to play as – she’s courageous, determined, independent, and compassionate. She’s also an underdog who often finds herself lost. She experiences loss, defeat, and has a raw vulnerability to her. The truth behind the concept of a “strong female character” is that it’s not about creating a female character that always smiles in the face of adversity – it’s about creating one that has both virtues and flaws, strengths and weaknesses, and motivations and goals of her own. She’s neither a damsel in distress nor an unrealistically invincible warrior – she’s Aloy, who is multi-faceted and beautifully human.
While she’s fierce both on and off the battlefield, her story of figuring out who she is and where she belongs is incredibly empowering. Aloy is the spearhead of this moving story, and despite all the numerous wonderful things it has going for it, Horizon Zero Dawn is the powerful experience that it is because of her. The game’s final moments feel like a perfect culmination of all the things Aloy learns and experiences through her emotional and heartwarming journey, and few endings I have played through have felt so right.
I took approximately thirty-five hours to complete Horizon Zero Dawn’s main story, but the first thing I did after I finished was dive right back in. There were still exciting quests to do, gorgeous places to discover, and fascinating characters to meet. I’m still falling in love with this world and all the magnificent things it has to offer. Guerrilla Games has created something truly impressive and memorable with their first dive into the genre, and I have only endless excitement for all that’s in store for the future of this universe.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.