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Horizon Zero Dawn review: beauty in the apocalypse

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a remarkable game. Developed by Guerilla Games, creators of the Killzone franchise, it represents the studio’s first foray into third-person action and open world games. For such a significant departure from Guerilla’s previous mode of operation, Horizon manages to be a surprisingly polished, inventive, and even moving experience with some of the most satisfying gameplay systems I have seen in years. It’s a game that arrests your attention and doesn’t let go.

A Strange, Wondrous World

The stage for Horizon is a post-apocalyptic world. Small pockets of humanity that managed to survive the mysterious cataclysm of the past, have reverted to tribal states of society, each with their own mythology, values, and culture. It’s fascinating to discover the behavioral patterns of the new societies you discover. The Nora strictly adhere to a mystic code reminiscent of animism while the Carja are like a blend between Roman style imperialism and Westeros cultures from Game of Thrones. Side quests flesh out the smaller human details of the world’s inhabitants, and while many of these tend towards repetitive fetch quests, the generally stellar script and believable voice acting help contextualize even the most minor of quests within the broad framework of the world. There is a depth and humanity to Horizon’s dystopia that few games manage to capture.

Horizon Meridian
The thriving Carja have started to build new cities

You play as Aloy, a woman raised by surrogate father/protector/trainer Rost, as an outcast of the Nora tribe. We don’t know why Aloy was shunned at birth, but we do know that she is barely considered a citizen within the Nora’s strict cultural code. From the start, the characters you interact with, especially primary ones, feel like multidimensional, real people. The story begins with you preparing to earn your way back into the tribe’s society, but it doesn’t take long for much more sinister forces to emerge and the world to open up. The game’s story touches on surprisingly mature and complex themes that, despite some predictability, provide emotional payoffs.

Horizon EcosystemHumans aren’t the only inhabitants of this new world though. Machines roam the ruined wilderness, creations from the “ancient ones” that mysteriously turned against their makers and are becoming more and more hostile as the years progress. Like a melding between science and prehistoric animals, these machines come in numerous forms but the most remarkable thing is how organically they behave. Striders are easily frightened by your approach, circling vulture-like glinthawks will pester you continually if you step into their territory, and the raptor inspired Watchers will seek you out of hiding places to alert herds of grazers (read: deer) to your presence. Despite the mechanistic essence of the machines, the ecosystem of Horizon feels organic and it is beautiful to sometimes just take a moment and watch the machines inhabit the world.

It doesn’t hurt that the game is absolutely beautiful. From creature design, to the falling snow, to character animations, everything about the game’s aesthetic screams fluidity and polish.Whether you’re exploring the wilderness or learning about the mountain-dwelling Banuk people, the environment of Horizon is a joy to explore with each new discovery inspiring you to delve even deeper into the world.

Skill and Difficulty

All the context and world-building wouldn’t mean much if the world wasn’t fun to explore, and fortunately this is where Horizon has its trump card. Defeating enemy machines is never a simple matter of spamming arrows into their bodies. Doing so can work on some of the lower level machines, but such practice is both inefficient and unsatisfying. Each creature has a set of weak points you can identify by using Aloy’s focus, a personal-information device from the ancient world. Hitting these spots will do increased damage and remove machine parts that can be used to upgrade equipment or craft resources like elementally charged arrows or explosive devices.

Horizon Shellwalker
Bravery will only get you so far

As a result, every engagement requires intentionality and focus, and some of the bigger fights are true tests of your awareness. Having to juggle between weapons like bows, trip wires, and spike launchers, dodge attacks from several different machine types, and make effective use Aloy’s time slowing Concentration ability means that every battle is always more about knowing how to best utilize resources rather than simple spamming. It also means that almost any battle can turn deadly if you aren’t careful. This balancing act is what makes Horizon’s combat so satisfying.

You will also encounter human enemies during the game and these battles are Horizon’s unfortunate low point. Taking out a bandit-controlled outpost is somewhat engaging the first few times, but the limited stealth options, easily abused enemy AI, and lack of difficulty quickly makes fighting humans feel like a chore in contrast to the frenetic action of the machine battles. Fortunately you’ll spend most of your time in conflict with impressive creatures, like the thunderjaw.

Thunderjaw

I approach the thunderjaw for the fifth time. Its hulking presence shakes the earth as it carelessly destroys boulder formations with its tail. It dwarfs me. The past four engagements have all ended with me barely able to make a dent in the creature’s health pool. But this time is different. I slide into the tall grass just outside the creature’s territory and set up a couple of electric trip wires as a “safe” space to retreat to. Readying my bow with arrows specially designed for ripping apart vulnerable machine parts, I pop out of cover. I land three shots on the creature’s back before my concentration runs out, being sure to hit the massive cannon the dinosaur can use for artillery strikes. Then I roll away as it charges past me. The trip wires stun it briefly, allowing me to gain some distance and pelt the heavy armor plating with rapid-fire arrows, trying to strip away its shell while still landing shots on the cannon.

Horizon Thunderjaw
The Thunderjaw

Finally I manage to knock off the cannon. I slide over to it and, as I pick it up, get slammed by the thunderjaw’s massive tail. Rolling over the ground I can only hope that my health doesn’t drop below zero. I stand up, aim the rocket launcher, and, as the thunderjaw starts to charge, fire several rounds directly into its face. It falls to the ground, but before it can struggle back to its feet I fire every single explosive in the cannon at the now exposed power cells. When the smoke clears the thunderjaw lays on its side, defeated. I stand over it, taking a moment to watch dust settle over the machine.

These kinds of moments happen frequently in Horizon: Zero Dawn, especially if you’re willing to take the ill-advised path of challenging every wondrously dangerous creature you run across. It is a game that rewards nearly every action not just with experience points or loot, but with a deep sense of immersion. Whether it’s the story’s emotional themes, the sense of empowerment in overcoming danger, or the awe-inspiring view of a mechanical dinosaur lumbering through a forest, losing yourself in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is a truly rewarding and striking experience.

Evan graduated from Chapman University in 2017 with a BFA in creative writing and a minor in leadership studies. A love of storytelling propels his interest in video games, though he is equally comfortable on the battlefields of multiplayer games as in the middle of an RPG grind. When not gaming he can be found producing music, writing stories, or pondering the big questions in life.

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