Teen Girls Really Will Save The World: A Review Of Horizon Zero Dawn

While Horizon Zero Dawn has been out since February of this year, I’ve only had a Playstation 4 since August and just finished the endgame last Sunday. Completely by accident, I have remained spoiler-free this entire time and am choosing to pass that courtesy on to you, dear readers.

No spoilers contained below!

In a lush, post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed the ruins of a forgotten civilization, pockets of humanity live on in primitive hunter-gatherer tribes. Their dominion over the new wilderness has been usurped by the Machines – fearsome mechanical creatures of unknown origin.

This game has been in development since 2011, and I’m truly impressed with the level of time and thought that Guerilla Games put into developing the gameplay aspects of this game. Maybe that’s because I’ve grown used to what Bioware has become since EA took them over, but truly, the breadth of this world is astounding. This is also the studio’s first attempt at a role-playing game, and I’ll get more into that in a bit. 

To get this out of the way: I loved this game, and I do feel honor-bound to mention that I initially played the game on narrative, because I’m a weenie. My new game plus is on normal and is significantly harder. It is by turns heart-stoppingly terrifying, super interesting, incredibly challenging, and totally beautiful. Sure, there are frustrations and some boring bits, but what game doesn’t have those? This game’s true strengths are the protagonist, the open world, the gameplay, and the story.

You play the game as Aloy, and in the prologue you watch her grow from an infant on her naming day to a sixteen-year-old girl ready to take part in her tribe’s “Proving,” a ceremony meant to celebrate the passage from childhood into being a Nora Brave. Aloy and the man who raised her, Rost, are both outcasts of the tribe, and successfully completing the Proving will grant her full status in the tribe again.

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Things go awry, as they often do in the prologues of video games, and Aloy is instead sent out into the world to find out why the group that attacked her tribe are able to control the machines that populate the wilderness. She’s also trying to solve the mystery of her birth, why she was left abandoned, and who her mother really is.

The thing about Aloy that’s different from the other role-playing games I’ve done (which are just the Bioware games, actually) is that Shepard, Ryder, and whichever Inquisitor you choose to play as are actual empty shells that you impose a personality on by way of the dialogue choices you make. Aloy, by contrast, has a very strong personality. She’s resentful of her tribe for making her an outcast, and her choice to help them as a representative of the Nora tribe seems to have more to do with her desire to solve the mystery of the mountain they live under. She’s fiercely independent, frequently turning down help from others and boasting of her prowess with killing or overriding machines.

She’s actually pretty good at it.

This clip is one of the times overriding works perfectly. There’s another clip that I’m not sharing where I tried to override a machine, another machine saw me do it, and I ended up getting trampled to death by striders. When I said this was heart-stoppingly terrifying, what I meant was, sometimes you’ll be spotted by machines you didn’t even know were there, and you’ll try to run away and hide in grass, and you’ll have ended up running right toward them in your panic. My favorite thing is to make the machines kill each other. I get all of the XP and none of the damage.

Her ability to override machines is a game mechanic you stumble across pretty early in the game, and it’s also something that no one else in the game can do (except some of the bad guys). Aloy is continually set apart from her peers by her birth, her background, and her abilities. It made me miss the camaraderie and banter of the group-driven missions in games I’ve played before, but it’s also nice to not have to hear someone’s battle dialogue every time they use one of their special skills, so it’s really a trade off.

You do have dialogue options infrequently during the game, and most often during side quests, where you get to choose between a fist, a heart, or a brain, signifying whether you are taking an aggressive, loving, or thoughtful approach. Whether those have any significant effect on gameplay or your relationship with the person you’re conversing with is not something I’ve been able to detect, it just seems to give you a slightly different cutscene. Either way, it is a true RPG, but I’m not surprised to discover it’s the studio’s first attempt at one.

This is Aloy at six years old during the prologue, confronted by children of the tribe. Most of your dialogue options will just be to ask for more information, but occasionally you will be given these options. With a few of the non-key players with multiple sidequests (who shall currently remain nameless), you’ll have the opportunity to accept or reject their help, which will have an effect on whether they show up later in the game. But the only difference is that they won’t be available to talk to, and the outcome of the final missions won’t change.

The story takes you all across the map, and each mission in the log will helpfully tell you how many steps you are away from it. Walking the map is useful for building up your XP by fighting machines in your path, but when you’re tired of doing that, or you’ve already maxed out your levels (heyooooooo, but it’s not actually that hard to do if you’re at all thorough), there’s also a fast travel option. Fast travel will take consumables, so you’ll want to be sparing with it, at least at first, but it’s really useful when you’re being asked to complete a sidequest that would literally take you hours to walk. And that’s real time, not game.

And the story itself is so worth it. I will stick to my no-spoilers commitment, so here it goes with the vague. Aloy stumbles across clues as she goes in the form of vantage points, metal flowers (that actually grow from the ground!), and voicemails, journal entries, and emails she finds in the ancient ruins. Plus, as you progress through the story missions, you’ll have access to holographic recordings of meetings between both the people responsible for the end of the world and the people trying to ensure a future for the human race.

This video has a little bit of everything: the climbing, the vantage point, clearing a cache, and the rappelling. You’re welcome.

The plot is original and interesting and while the hints laid out certainly give a pretty clear picture of the downfall of humanity, the twists and turns that led to the actual state of the world today kept me guessing until the very end.

All that’s left are the nuts and bolts. The game is beautiful and crisp on my 4k TV, and while the facial animation never lets you forget how close you’re straying to the uncanny valley, the hair animation is absolutely gorgeous. So much better than the floppy ponytails of Mass Effect Andromeda. The mechanics aren’t too hard to pick up, even coming from an entirely different system. My advice to new players: forage EVERYTHING, kill all the machines and harvest their parts, and you’ll have to occasionally kill boards and rabbits and rats too, but it’s all in the name of making bigger bags to carry your stuff around in. There’s a really cool climbing animation that requires absolutely no platforming skill at all, just the ability to push the up button, which I am so grateful for. Likewise a really cool rappelling animation that in the real life would leave Aloy’s palms completely skinless, but in the game looks really flipping sweet.

Don’t ask how this works, just go with it and be grateful you’re not having to aim for these outcroppings yourself.

For an added bonus, the game also comes with a photo mode that is so much fun to play with, and you’ll want to, because the scenery is just flipping gorgeous.

Final verdict: This game will take you roughly a frillion hours to beat, especially if you’re even mildly interested in being thorough. The last time I looked I’d been playing it for about 80 hours, and I didn’t even come close to 100%. (I really hate the timed challenges on the hunting grounds and refused to do more than was strictly necessary.) But you’ll have a ton of fun, because even when you’re wandering around and stumble across a new crop of machines to kill, there’s roughly a billion ways to do it and none of them are wrong. In the end, the story itself is so, so worth the journey getting there. I also learned about three days after finishing it that DLC called The Frozen Wilds is due out on 11/7/17, so new adventures await!


Picture of Aloy courtesy of Wallpaper Abyss. Videos 1, 3, and 5 are my own, captured on my PS4. Video 2 is from Klone Wolf and video 4 is from Chico Chiago.

2 Comments

  • Shara White September 19, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    I don’t game. I watch others game. And I loved watching my husband play this one. For starters, yay female protag! But also, the animation was just flipping gorgeous. The story was really cool too, the way it unfolded in really unexpected ways. I know I’m looking forward to seeing what the DLC has to offer at the end of the year! So glad you loved this one, Merrin!

    Reply
    • Merrin September 19, 2017 at 9:34 pm

      Me too! It was a really fun game.

      Reply

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