I’ve galloped across miles and miles of terrain for a seemingly endless amount of time. Where the green grass my heroine had called home all her life had now withered away, and a dry desert now emerged. The sights of familiar trees had morphed into rare cactuses; robot horses into robot bulls. We were in a new territory now, which meant more bandit camps to liberate, more Tallnecks to climb, new settlements to visit, more strangers to send me on fetch quests and beg me to find their lost loved ones, and most importantly, more things for my character to hardly bat an eye at despite her greatly alienated upbringing, par for the course at this point. Horizon Zero Dawn pulls in every open world action RPG whim it can muster, and forgets the most important part of an RPG: justifying the existence of these many parts.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a re-established post-apocalyptic society, where there’s a twist to remind you of its distance from our present day: robot beasts roaming about—subsisting relics of the future-past—and none of them are particularly friendly. While some may simply dash away should you come too close, others take your threatening presence personally, and opt for trying to kill you instead.
The game quickly tosses you into the shoes of the perpetually sarcastic, redhaired Aloy. We see her first as a blanketed baby, then a voracious kid, and later as a fully-realized young adult. Aloy is a feisty outcast raised by a surrogate dad of sorts, a man named Rost. Together they live away from civilization (civilization, in this case, is the local tribe, as Rost and Aloy remain “outcasts”). Rost teaches Aloy everything she knows, like how to hunt (with a bow, of course), how to be stealthy (just crouch in the omnipresent tall grass), how to survive in this brutal post-post-post-apocalyptic world.
Then Aloy (as a wee little kid) discovers a mysterious device reminiscent of what we know as a Bluetooth. Little does she know, the device (which she dubs her “Focus”) will usher her into a mixed reality hell forever. In the story sense, the Focus becomes Aloy’s leg up above not only robotic creatures, but the people she interacts with. In the gameplay sense, it gives her a slow-moving Detective Vision, where interactive objects emanate a purple glow and weak spots on enemies are highlighted in a neon yellow.
A Familiar, Boring Grind
The Focus becomes the source of all the game’s initial intrigue and drama. What is this device and where did it come from? Why is she the (seemingly) only one around with it? What is its significance? Of course, as Aloy embarks on her world-travelling quest, she seeks the answers to all these things. A few story twists later with her Focus, handy-dandy bow and arrows, and robot-overriding gear in tow (overriding is the ability to hack robots to be your buddies in arms and noble steeds), she gallops into the horizon to reach the ends of the nature-and-robot-overrun world, hungry for answers.
It’s here where Horizon Zero Dawn settles you into a familiar grind, if you’ve played any modern RPG ever. You pluck herbs from the ground for health and supplies. You hunt (robotic) creatures using a variety of upgradeable bows (alongside other less-useful weapons) along with infinite boars and foxes (literally the only living animals that aren’t robots) so that you can craft more things. You talk to strangers on the road and in towns that you’ve never met before, and help them with their troubles despite any trust issues Aloy should bear inherently. Horizon Zero Dawn is a conglomerate of familiar RPG tasks, and fails to make any of them feel worthwhile; lacking the strong narrative to pull you through or differentiating hook to set the game apart from others in the genre.
The side missions in Horizon Zero Dawn are consequentially stale, in that they feel repetitive and pointless to a fault. In one, I help gather supplies for a woman's superpowered gun. I slaughter some people, get the supplies, slaughter more people with the new gun, and then we're pals. In most cases, you're fetching something for someone, you're helping someone fight (whether it's against robots or bandits), or you're finding a missing person. In another, a distressed father worries his daughter has fled to commit suicide, so I investigate to track her whearabouts. In the end she's not dead, just cornered by an alligator-like robot. I kill it, she thanks me, then she sends me to find another person (her lover), who winds up dead. She returns to her father, heartbroken, but alive. Aloy leaves, to likely track down another stranger. Aloy is everyone's reliable hunting cat, with people throwing constant mice at her feet to chase.
I struggled to see why Aloy would go on these needless side tasks along the way of her ambitious quest. She doesn't have an all-encompassing job, like another grey-haired RPG hero. And growing up as an outcast, Aloy was openly shunned by other adult strangers even as an innocent child. Because of this, it's puzzling as to why Aloy would literally risk her life for the welfare of randos and that of the local tribe (and other tribes) that disregarded her mere existence throughout her childhood. There are painfully few instances over the course of the game where Aloy stands up for herself and grows a personality outside of the cookie cutter “sarcastic hero” that video games are prone to embedding in their protagonists. And the rare times it does happen, it’s oddly refreshing. But then the game reverts back to the grind, and back to the bland, eye-rolling wise cracks.
Horizon Zero Dawn has an Identity Crisis
Horizon Zero Dawn is at its best when you’re not chasing down a mission or a missing person; it soars when you're coasting in between. Like creeping through the tall grass, overriding a potential steed, trotting away into the world’s vast emptiness. The game’s beautiful, too. Arguably one of the best looking games on the PS4 to date (side note: I played the game on a regular PS4, and not a Pro). But all those positive feelings melt away once you enter another main mission, and you find yourself quickly roped into more claustrophobic corridors and arena battles, stripping the player of the freedom that makes the travel between locations feel so pleasant.
After about fifteen hours with the game, the game’s main plot reaches an apparent climactic point. The story plateaus at this point, dragging out the additional revelations and twists, and slogs at a painfully slow pace for approximately 15 more hours, remaining there until you battle the third iteration of a particularly large machine. The main story within Horizon Zero Dawn has hardly any variety, like the side quests. Seemingly every main mission ends in an arena fight of sorts against a giant-to-medium-sized machine, with a plethora of corridor battles against living humans to get there.
Horizon Zero Dawn waddles in an identity crisis. The game is action-packed and "open world" to the fullest extent of the definition, but then it shoves you into another battle of running in a big circle, flinging arrows aimlessly at your devilishly (and as the game drags on, redundant) massive target. It urges you to embark on bountiful side quests, but the bulk of them feel pointless and distracting to the central, pressing conflict. It attempts to tell a grand science fiction tale of humans and the mistakes we make with technology, but its central heart feels cold and unearned, and grows increasingly reliant on boring information dumps.
In an endgame level grind, I'm feeling especially burned. I try to revisit the few things I enjoyed about the game over its 30 or so hours. I climb a few more Tallnecks, giraffe-like creatures that are multiple stories high, to unlock a view of more of the world map (and take a screenshot or two). I venture into the depths of another mountain’s Cauldron, where I sneak past machines and behold its labyrinthian, tentacle-like wired halls.
These Cauldrons bear the game’s rare insight as to how the robotic creatures were created and have ravaged the earth. By a Cauldron’s end, Aloy is rewarded with more knowledge on how to override additional machines. She exits, and I see that yellow waypoint in the far distance, signifying a main quest I've ignored for some time. It’s raining now—it wasn’t before I entered—and with Aloy, for the first time, it feels like I’ve accomplished something. For the first time, I've gained insight on this world, without being knocked over the head with expository audio logs as with the primary campaign. But as with all things in Horizon Zero Dawn, that positive feeling doesn’t last too long. And it's back to everything else.
The menus are easy to manage—which is essential for any game with incessant inventory management. The HUD is clean and uncluttered.
As with any RPG, Horizon Zero Dawn lives or dies by its breadth of content. But with Horizon Zero Dawn the problem isn't the quantity, but the quality. If you're the type that loves meticulous crafting and meaningless side missions, you'll find plenty here. If not, then, well.
Over the course of my 30-something hours, I don't remember any of the sounds or score. Take that as you will.
If Horizon Zero Dawn has one thing going for it, it's that it's absolutely breathtaking.
Horizon Zero Dawn is disappointing. It has a story that I struggled to care about (complete with massive expository dumps—yay), a bland protagonist, and overtly repetitive and constraining missions that worked against its open world sensibilities. When Horizon Zero Dawn hit its rare strides—from its gloomy Cauldrons to traveling across its sprawling vistas—it only made me wish the rest of the game were as worthwhile.