REVIEW: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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Horizon Zero Dawn Title Screen
Title Horizon: Zero Dawn
Developer Guerrilla Games
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date February 28, 2017
Genre Action RPG
Platform PlayStation 4
Age Rating ESRB T for Teen
Official Website

The comparisons between Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were inevitable. In fact, during E3 last year when the first major trailers for both games were released, I came to the opinion that Horizon: Zero Dawn seemed to be the adult Zelda game that I was looking forward to more than the Switch canon release. Now it has turned out that both games were released within a week of each other, so in many ways they will always be tied together. Zelda has the additional pressure of trying to be a system seller, and Horizon has the pressure of trying to start off a brand new franchise that Sony and Guerrilla hope to be the new face of their system for several years to come. Now I have played Horizon: Zero Dawn to completion, and the first question I should answer (since that article was so long ago) is whether the game did indeed turn out to be a take on the Zelda formula. That way we know if we are comparing apples to apples or whether it is some other flavorful fruit.

Horizon Zero Dawn | Princess

The princess of this castle can save her own kingdom.

It has turned out that Horizon is even more similar to Zelda than I knew from the early trailers. It’s true that I went on a major media blackout after those first couple trailers, but even then it’s still a little surprising how much they did with that established formula. There are indeed dungeons in the game, particularly the Cauldrons, but also a few other similar buildings and outposts, and they include a large boss fight in them (usually at the end). The focus on bow and spear combat also gives a fairly common feel between the two series, as well as the option to ride mounts (only mechanical this time). But the largest Zelda feel is in figuring out how to use all your different weapons and items to take out giant creatures in a strategic method. In that area I would say that they take that Zelda classical style and move it forward several steps. Not only does it end up being a lot of stressful fun figuring out how you are going to take out these creatures, but you have many creatures just wandering around in the world that would have been dungeon bosses in the old Zelda games. So in fact you are getting to actually play with your weapons and items and the game mechanics much more than you would in the other series. But, make no mistake, that feeling is still there in Horizon: Zero Dawn and it’s super satisfying. Because you can take those giant monsters on in several locations and in several situations, you end up learning so much more about how those monsters operate, how they are weak and different situational strategies to use.

Horizon Zero Dawn | Aloy

Aloy is an outcast among her people for reasons that are no fault of her own.

Aloy was raised as a child by an older gentleman named Ros, who was an outcast of their primitive tribe, called the Nora. The tribe is a very matriarchal society, governed by a council called the Matriarchs, and it becomes apparent very early on that she is an outcast due to her mother or the situation in which she was found. It remains an early open question (one that you will not find out the answer to until well into the game) whether Aloy is even a Nora at all, or whether she was just found among them. Either way, without a suitable mother she is considered an outcast and some of the Matriarchs strongly disapprove of anything to do with her, calling her a curse. This attitude permeates among the lower class Nora as well, as it would, and therefore she is treated with open disdain any time she gets near one of the village folk. Forever alone, with only her outcast caretaker to associate with, she trains to become a great warrior so that she can earn the right to join the tribe and to learn the secret of her origin.

Horizon Zero Dawn | Old World

The Old World can provide boons and it can provide objects of terror.

When she is young she accidentally falls into the ruins of the Old World, and in the efforts to find a way out she discovers an electronic interface item called a Focus. You can basically consider the Focus to be a smart device that overlays its UI over your vision and interfaces with your own brain waves to translate what you are seeing into an interface for you to make use of. In other words, it can translate text or it can label hostile or friendly creatures and it can store memories of what you see and hear. Thankfully it is very small and fits into one of her ears, barely sticking out. The Nora are deeply offended by any relics of the Old World and would not take kindly to seeing her using it. In practice the Focus often works like the Witcher Sense in The Witcher 3, such as tracking and finding things of interest. Only in many ways they added some very useful mechanics to this because the Machines in this game are so complex, with different regions of their body that are susceptible to different types of damage being displayed. This, added to the physical training with a spear, the bow, sneaking, and climbing that she is taught, makes her a very formidable warrior.

Horizon Zero Dawn| Place

She earns their respect, but it is no longer a place that she can stay.

The training Aloy has gone through earns her the respect of her tribe, but the events which occur during her Proving show that she does not really belong there and that a much larger destiny awaits her. It becomes apparent fairly early on (even if you ignore how little of the map you have explored by that point), that the Nora live in a very closed off world and there is much that she needs to see in order to find out her origins and about the people who seek to destroy her personally. It is really difficult to talk about some of this in a review because there are so many wonderful twists to the story, and I would be horrified to spoil that for anyone else. The story in this game is definitively a major strong point, it is both personal and epic in scope. There is a very fine line between the struggles of a girl trying to find out who her parents were, and the needs to save a world that doesn’t know how much danger it’s in. At times several NPC characters will get frustrated with her over how narrow her view is, but to me it felt very accurate to how anyone would react in that situation. In fact, the tragedies of her circumstance are handled quite well by her, in my opinion, and the worst reactions that you are going to get from her are a bit of self pity at times and a whole lot of snark (which I found quite endearing).

Horizon Zero Dawn | Badass

Aloy is such a badass character, a wonderful action heroine in her own right.

That range of emotions and reactions with Aloy turned out to be a very strong plus in the game. She was never one note or entirely predictable, and she was quite powerful but also vulnerable. In short, I’m very happy that my primary console of choice has her as their mascot for the foreseeable future, now that Nathan Drake has retired. The game ends on a very satisfying note, but there is no doubt at all that this is planned to be a series and that Aloy is intended to be the continuing protagonist of it. And while I’m not one to promote diversity only for the sake of diversity when it forces an alteration on a creator’s vision, I’m also one to celebrate when the creators themselves come up with something new and fantastic that does include a new demographic. I can tell you that if I had a daughter, I would be sitting down in front of a TV to play it with her for hours on end because she is such a positive female character in so many ways. My one issue with many other “strong female characters” such as Commander Shepard (as much as I loved Jennifer Hale’s performance), is that they often make them gender neutral so that they only look female. But with Aloy she is definitely a woman, but still has a full range of human emotions. The only thing you really don’t see much from her is romantic love (which is a fascinating decision, in and of itself), but when you consider all the other things that are going on with her, that is quite understandable. Although I strongly suspect that you’ll see the potential for it in the sequel, they already have the dialogue option system in this game, so it would not be out of the realm of possibility that she will have optional romantic interests as well.

More Horizon on Page 2 ->

About William Haderlie

Born in the 1970's, I've been an avid participant for much of video game history. A lifetime of being the sort of supergeek entrenched in the sciences and mathematics has not curbed my appreciation for the artistry of video games, cinema, and especially literature.

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