The Consequences of Your Actions
When returning to her village early on in Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy is hit by a rock. You are subsequently given a choice on how to respond: retaliate, knock the rock out of the throwers hand with your own rock, or grin and bear it. These choices seemingly don't have a great deal of import outside of some light roleplaying, but they will ultimately have an effect on how the story unfolds. Asked if characters will remember you being mean in a conversation, for example, de Jonge paused for a moment, then replied, "There are some characters who will remember, yes."
He also alludes to sidequests, which have the potential to be an interesting aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn. Among other things, there are bandit camps to clear out, and plenty of errands to run (find the missing person, for example). In the distance, there is a foreboding area called the Cauldron, which harbors many secrets. Finding hidden quests sometimes requires delving deeper into the dialogue tree, de Jonge says. "[T]he dialogue of the NPCs might change depending on what options you've chosen and if you've accepted a quest. But the main thing is that you have some control over how you would react in a certain situation, that it feels like you as a person has control over how Aloy should respond. So it's another form of attachment for the player."
As for whether there will be multiple endings, de Jonge says, "There will be one ending, but there are a number of quests, and if you decide to help people in those quests, that will determine who shows up for the final battle. So you have some influence on that ending, but there is one ending. At some point we thought about having multiple endings, but we felt like it was too far on the RPG side. We thought we were maybe building a lot of content that a lot of players will never see, as opposed to one story that everyone will see and we can put all of our efforts into making as strong as possible."
That Horizon Zero Dawn gives you any degree of control over your character's narrative is heartening. As I've often said on Axe of the Blood God, the difference between an RPG and a straight action game is in the choices you make. The trick will be in making the decision points seem substantial enough to warrant notice.
Walking the Line
When do RPG elements become more than superficial attempts to give a game a veneer of sophistication? When they offer meaningful choices and give players a degree of control in how a character develop. Loot quality, conversation choices, and skill trees are all ingredients in this, but they don't define an RPG by themselves.
Like most games of its ilk, Horizon Zero Dawn is at pains to walk the line between sophisticated and accessible. It's deeper and more narratively focused than, say, Far Cry, but still more of an action game than your average RPG. I'm honestly curious to see what it becomes once the narrative choices begin to bear fruit and the weapons become more numerous. Right now I would say its biggest strength is in the diversity and personality of its robots, which I will cover in more detail later in the week. Suffice it to say, they are consistently interesting foes, and they do more than anything to elevate the overall experience.
As for its pedrigree as an RPG, it's fair to say that Horizon Zero Dawn is pretty basic. Guerilla is upfront about its intentions to craft an accessible and enjoyable action game with RPG elements, and they've intentionally avoided overly sophisticated systems. Whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing is mostly down to taste, but it isn't exactly The Witcher 3.
It is, however, an utterly gorgeous open-world action game with a stronger story than you might expect, as well as a real sense of danger that comes from dodging large mechanical foes that want to stomp you into the dirt. Those are Horizon Zero Dawn's main selling points—the RPG elements are mostly there to lend the action and the narrative some texture. From what I've seen, they'll be more than enough.