Vibrancy springs from each curled patch of grass and untended tree, the sun shimmering from every upturned surface. Fantastical machinations lumber about in peaceful patterns, nibbling on the light offered by each of the many natural ecosystems that balance and swirl as a massive, invisible venn diagram. Moving on the wind, Aloy has her own mission that cuts through the diagram, tugging or tightening each circle with her dedication and veracity. She does it for love, devotion to her people, currency, pride, and a variety of other intentions that sharpen each of her flown arrows.
That’s the finely constructed ecosystem of Horizon Zero Dawn in a nutshell, full of motivation, character, and beauty of construction at every turn. For this core alone, as sublime and original as it is, I’m not here to convince you that Horizon is good or worth your time – it just is.
The world is George Miller levels of draw, absorbing you into the original promise of mechanical dinosaurs set in a far-future world where you scavenge and sleuth through grass to analyze and dismantle the aforementioned ancient-made-modern beasts. You battle, trap, and lure entire herds to your ultimate goal, which isn’t always destruction especially as you climb the healthy, simple upgrade tree. The ruins you may be accustomed to in games like Enslaved or The Last of Us are made even more sparse, making you feel like this world is far more decayed and removed from our own age.
Aloy’s bow, as you might expect, is the centerpiece of her offense but a surprising amount of other weapons come into play. You’ll have access to fire, electricity, and ice elementals for tripwires that you can use in conjunction with your digital eye that alerts you to weaknesses and grazing patterns. The weapons all feel solid and useful with patterns changing per species of automaton you meet, but I felt the rope anchor becoming less and less useful at the point where you hit the majority of the map. Her melee attack is a hammer when it hits but the animation – a massive windmill overhead strike or a slashing uppercut – is achingly long to where you have to time about five seconds out to really nail your opponent.
My issues with gameplay come when the game decides that you, suddenly, can’t handle figuring out the next steps. Dropping into a few of the early hives of past technology called Cauldrons will allow you to upgrade your spear and learn about a small group of the machines at a time, feeling out their weaknesses while getting stronger in a tight loop. Going through the motions to these ends has the odd design choice of copying Prince of Persia and swinging the camera to the destination, the only time in the game this happens. This is a relic of game design that has no place amongst the progressive, open approach Guerrilla Games took in nearly every other aspect. It’s a harsh buzzkill to put your trapping and killing strategies on hold so the camera can basically put a cartoonish arrow above the exit.
Horizon Zero Dawn has a story that feels greater than the sum of its parts for the simple inclusion of effort. World building is where it shines, characters are where it dips slightly, then the main story is where the equalizer hits. Basically everything from the first paragraph is the sublime world building I’m talking about: the promise displayed then fulfilled. You can say that Aloy being as strong a character as she comes across as is a cherry red orb atop white fluff cloud, but if that’s your approach, then the main story is the ice cream soup just beneath.
As I said, the futuristic technology feels like a B-plot pull that keeps the leash tight throughout, which is informed and fueled by in-world spelunking spots. This loop reminds me of The Phantom Pain and how connected each of the activities were to your main mission, and it makes me wish all of the mission and categories were equally tightened. The side quests can be emotional and pull you into completing their usually mundane objectives, but I can pick out many more that can be summarized as “Feel like helping me?” and off you go. Simplicity, especially in a world where you’re basically learning a new offshoot language as you play, is golden, but threadbare doesn’t equal simple.
The main story splits Aloy from her tribe until she’s shown to be a “chosen one” of sorts, able to use technology in a form that appears to be sorcery to everyone else. She is then set against a subset of machines and remaining humans that are growing into a world-ending army as she learns more about her ability to interact with the long-dormant machines. While this isn’t airtight story telling by any stretch, the novelty of the concept raises the main storyline into a seldom-occupied space where the main thrust is both interesting and boring.
The mecha and fauna juxtaposition – the split between the two that is one of the oldest in recorded human history – follows Aloy in an almost even split across her backstory and what’s happening in her present day. The backstory speaks to something a little too close to spoilers to talk about here but suffice to say it’s, by far to me, the more interesting well. Present day activities, which is most of the mission-to-mission filling, is presented too often as Aloy muttering to herself or being needlessly obstinate. A reluctant hero makes a happy audience and all that but her arc never reaches a satisfying conclusion. Her answers just come and Horizon: Zero Dawn passes over them for an after credits setup. My grievances aren’t hard or heavy with this but it’s tough not to feel the dilution when other sections taste so damn sweet.
To the point, Horizon: Zero Dawn has enough effort and untapped lore to pull me along with little friction, and the originality of the participants in this post-world war makes combat accomplishes the same. I do, however, lament some of the missed opportunities that could’ve knocked this into another level, from Enter Sandman territory to an O Fortuna. From The Avengers to the Dark Knight (it’s better, shut up). No shocks will be felt when Horizon comes back with another game in the series so, for as far as an initial entry goes in a new cornerstone series, I guess I can be content with an entertaining, beautiful, forward-projecting entry into my gaming library. This one time.
Horizon: Zero Dawn Score