Horizon Zero Dawn, developed by Guerrilla Games, is certainly one of Sony’s new top-tier franchises; one that will surely have many more instalments to come – and for good reason. With a story that is expansive and well-told (though I did feel it struggled at times – conceptually) a diverse selection of characters (which is one of the few positives I can think to say right now), and gameplay that – when you get the hang of it – is really rewarding and ever so slightly addicting (prepare to find yourself running around various environments looking for the right animal skin to get you that next ammo-pack upgrade). Horizon has much to offer (but that’s not necessarily a positive). So let’s wrap-up this intro and get onto the full review and see what it is that makes this game so mixed, yet worthy of praise.
You play as Aloy – voiced by Ashly Burch – who is an outcast that was shunned by her tribe at birth. Aloy’s only mission at first is to complete a trial (‘The Proving’) which will gain her acceptance back into the tribe, but that mission soon becomes secondary when a much larger mission (threat) arises. It sees her traveling the lands and uncovering the mysteries of ‘The Ancients’. Secrets buried for years will be uncovered and they’ll need to be used to defeat an entity known as ‘Hades.’ The entity seeks to gain full power and with it, wipe out all life – leaving only the machines. It’s up to you and any allies you can make along the way to defeat the approaching dangers that seek to wipe out all life and start a new world.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this game as there is much to talk about. And weirdly, despite my general liking of the game (in the end) I still have many issues with it; issues that would usually stop me from playing most games…
Let’s go with the story first, which took an interesting path – not only from a narrative standpoint but also from how much my enjoyment would dip but then comeback and then dip, but again comeback (you get the idea) as it would progress.
In the beginning, the only thing that kept me wanting to play Horizon was the story. It did a good job of setting up its world – a really beautiful world – and then filling it with its own sense of identity and rules. Now it did take a while for the main story itself to get going; much of the beginning being dedicated to setting up the protagonist, Aloy and her particular situation. It had me intrigued early on and I knew it was only going to build from there.
And it did it smartly; it introduced and slightly endeared me to certain characters; it got me acclimated to the environment and how things would play, and then it pulled not only the rug out from, Aloy but also me. And that was the point I really found myself hooked onto the story. It lay out some bread crumbs, it gave me reasons to want to follow them, and follow them I did.
The story then proceeded down the expected path for a while, but I still wanted to learn more. I wanted to uncover the mysteries of, Horizon Zero Dawn and learn why things where now the way they were and what Aloy’s part was in it all.
And then that’s where things took a turn. There was a particular moment in the story where there was a large revelation; the mystery of who certain people were and what it is that they had allowed to happen became very clear. And instead of being more intrigued and eager to find out more, I was instead disappointed. The realisation of what went wrong all those years ago and what the cause for the ancients disappearing, felt so uninspired and pretty generic. The machines have gone bad and soon they’ll wipe out all life on Earth – how original. I was really hoping for something much deeper and more philosophical, rather than just another story where the robots go bad. It was at this point that the larger overall story turned for me and I was no longer that excited to learn more about it.
The primary story in Horizon Zero Dawn would never be the main driving force for me in the game again after that. But interestingly other aspects to the story would still drive me in some ways and they would become more stimulating than the actual main plot itself.
It was in the subsidiary content that I found the more interesting, meaningful stories, which kept me engaged in the larger narrative. Like many games, Horizon comes packed with secondary content; audio logs, diary entries, transcripts etc. All from characters who don’t necessarily have a main part to play in the main story, but if you’re interested in learning more beyond what is shown to you in a cut-scene, then this is the stuff for you.
I found myself completely transfixed and desperate for more of the secondary content, as it was telling a side to the larger story that I found to be fascinating and at the same time really personal. Weirdly, it was the secondary content which is there to be found and then consumed, that I re-connected to Horizon’s story. Learning about what was done to try to save the history and accomplishments of humanity through what were more-or-less time capsules, was fascinating to not only learn about but then also think about beyond what the game had given me. And then it is bolstered by the fact that it has its own little cast of characters who slowly overtime build into these well fleshed out individuals. I never would have expected to grow attachments to people I was only reading about or listening too, but what they were doing and how they were doing it was so different in how interesting it was, and there was some real care and attention put into it all.
So it was in the secondary content that I found myself returning to a place where I cared about the main story, and that’s something that has never happened before. Never has it been in the subsidiary content that I found a returning enjoyment of the primary focus. Usually they both just go hand-in-hand or one falls to the way-side, never to return to the forefront of my attention. So I highly stress consuming all of the content that the game gives you, as it really does result in a more fully formed and engaging experience.
And so while the main story was flip-flopping around and going from my main/only driving force to the thing that began to take a backseat. The element of the game that then took control of the wheel and became the thing I was most eager to get more of was the very addicting gameplay.
In the beginning, the gameplay didn’t really grab me. Now I’ll admit that was primarily down to me. I wasn’t utilising everything at my disposal (the various weapons, traps and ammo types) and so at first things seemed a little repetitive. But then it struck me – and I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to realise it, but hey-ho. Experimentation and continually changing up my tactics made the gameplay interactions with both the machines and the humans the most rewarding way to play a game.
Usually in a game you’ll find the weapon(s) you like and you’ll find the method for dispatching with the enemies that is most efficient and then you’ll begin to unintentionally enter into a routine of completing the game. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, with some games it can still be really fun to do it that way. But with, Horizon the best thing I found to do was to continually experiment. You have a lot of different tools at your disposal, and you also have a few different ways to approach a situation. And with that, comes the ability to try out all sorts of tactics and permutations of weapon/ammo combinations. Some of the most fun I would have would be when I would think: “What would happen if it tried this.” and then going from there. Nothing is more satisfying or rewarding than pulling off a carefully orchestrated set of traps and stealthy movement throughout an area you are trying to conquer, and it working out successfully.
But the gameplay does have one major hang-up: and that is the unintuitive menus. Scrolling through the items you’ve picked up after a successful hunt; attaching mods to a weapon, upgrading your pouch so you can hold more loot – it’s all so messy and difficult to navigate. Things are not laid out in a way that clearly makes sense, nor is it easy to swap between weapons or select a different arrow type. It’s all scrunched up together and more often than not you’ll find yourself selecting the wrong thing or being frustrated and panicked as you try to get the tool you want as a large machine is bearing down on you. The fact that you can’t easily compare the stats between a currently held weapon and one that you’re considering purchasing is bizarre. And don’t even get me started on how fast-travel is handled – truly a mystery as to how they thought that was a smart idea (thankfully fast-travel is not an issue that lasts for the whole game).
So there is certainly a learning curve with Horizon Zero Dawn – obstacles and unnecessary hindrances that you have to overcome. And the best way to overcome them is to just try everything and anything, while also adapting to the hurdles put in your way by the menus. But beyond the clunky interface, the best thing you can do when it comes to the gameplay, is to do what you know and understand, it’s simply the best course of action. But also… absolutely make/take the opportunities to challenge yourself and the game. And as you progress and attain more abilities, stronger weapons, different ammo-types; you’re freedom to try new things and find new, satisfying ways to accomplish a mission will increase. It took some time to find the right rhythm with Horizon, but once I did, the gameplay became the most standout, rewarding, fun element of the whole game. It continually tested me, it through new obstacles my way – whether that be a new machine or a different location – and I always felt like I was improving. In the end there were always reasons to want to keep playing, and if anything, isn’t that the thing you want most from a game?
Well I hope it is because one of the things the game certainly never delivered on (except in only one instance) was its varied character offerings. Unfortunately the games main protagonist, Aloy is a bland and at times unlikeable person, whose main motivations within the game get lost the more it goes on.
There is much that goes against the main characters ability to ever resonate. The first one that immediately stood out to me (and then never went away) was the distractingly bad facial animations. Now this isn’t an issue that is relegated to just, Aloy (unfortunately). Every single character in the game greets you with a dead, lifeless stare, and it is only from the tone of the voice that you can somewhat discern the characters stance/feelings etc. But sadly much of it is lost behind the vacant eyes; the immovable face that gives no hint as to the emotion of the character. For a game that is so full of machines, it was not the people who I interacted with that I thought would be the most robotic.
And so this issue really affects Aloy’s ability to ever feel like a genuine person. The voice work by, Ashly Burch is good, and she certainly brings an identity to the character. But unfortunately so much of it is wasted by the off-putting, distracting, void, that is the characters faces.
The problems unfortunately don’t end there. Another one that became noticeable after a while – and again never went away – was how Aloy interacts with the people around her. Aloy never has a normal human conversation with anyone. Everything feels like an exposition dump. You approach an NPC (Non-Player Character) and they either start to unload information on you or you begin asking questions to which they unload information on you. It became so prevalent and so unengaging that I soon began to rue having to interact with anyone, because I knew it was just going to be me standing there, while they unloaded all the necessary facts and exposition that I need to know. It never felt like an involving experience. I felt like I was in a classroom and had a test to study for. I mean, I’d love to see the finished script for the game because I’m sure the most prevalent symbol in the entire thing would be a question mark.
This plays into why Aloy didn’t work as a character for me. She was never allowed to properly be one. She was simply a conduit for information to be fed to you, or she was the vessel for which I hunted and killed machines. I never felt like she had those little moments that made her feel real – she never reacted to a crazy moment like a normal person would. And the same could be said for when she was interacting with an NPC – she’d instead just ask another god damn question!
Beyond Aloy there aren’t any other people to really hold your attention either – except for the characters that exist within the secondary content that I spoke about earlier. And that’s because they don’t run into the same issues that the primary characters in the game do; facial animations, exposition delivery, wonky dialogue etc.
Perhaps the only character in the main story that peaked my interest was, Sylens – voiced by Lance Reddick. Now he was also plagued by the same issues, but he had things the others didn’t: history, personality, purpose. He was mysterious and I never trusted him, which made him someone who intrigued me. What was his story that led him to meeting, Aloy. Why was it he was so emotionally cold and unforgiving. There were questions to him, and those questions made him infinitely more interesting than any other person you interact with. I mean, I don’t even see a reason to talk about the games antagonist(s) because they are so one-note that it doesn’t even make sense to discuss them – they exist and that’s about it.
And so this very mixed bag of characters left me feeling very disconnected at times. I didn’t feel like I had any one to latch onto fully. No one’s involvement in the main story (other than Sylens – slightly) ever had me fully engaged.
I said it in the beginning and I think my review points it out clearly: Horizon Zero dawn is a great game – in certain areas – and in other areas it is a game that is still requiring some polish. But overall I don’t think the negatives take away from the positives. Most people play games for good gameplay, and Horizon has that in droves. It ultimately was the reason I kept wanting to play. And even though I’m a lover of a well told story and memorable characters, it was the gameplay and the well-constructed and fun to explore world, that I found the most engaging.
So when I look back on my time with Horizon Zero Dawn there are clear high-points and clear low points. But overall I did still enjoy my time with it – I did play the game to completion, and I’m intending to now go back and tidy up the side quests and collectibles. So it is clear that there are elements to the game that are pulling me in and holding me there, which I’m happily compliant with. But it is not a fully successful package and my review clearly highlights that. I understand why so many people love this game and why it is getting the praise it is getting. It’s just for me a little overstated and a little… overrated.
In the end though, I am going to recommend Horizon Zero Dawn. It is a fun, memorable experience, which I’m sure many will enjoy (and many already have). I’m certainly intrigued to see what will become of the franchise going forward because I’m confident we’re going to see much, much more of it – which I’m okay with.
I’d love to know what you thought of Horizon or my review, so feel free to leave any comments, thoughts or feedback down below. If you’re interested, you could follow my blog directly or follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. That way you’ll always know when I post something new. All that’s left to say is thank you; thank you for taking the time to read my writing, it truly does mean so much to me – even if you weren’t necessarily thrilled with what I said.