When it first debuted in 2015, no one was sure of what to make of a feral-looking girl stalking robot deer before a mechanized dinosaur overshadows her. Was this the future? The past? Some alternate reality? Gamers were intrigued. They wanted to know more. Well, now Horizon: Zero Dawn is in the hands of players, and the PS4 exclusive is topping sales charts, outshining the much anticipated Nintendo Switch launch. But do sales mean Guerrilla Games has been successful in breaking away from its Killzone past? Or will their attempt at RPGs scare this developer back into the world of first-person shooters?
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn starts off with Aloy, a motherless newborn, given to Rost, an outcast from the Nora tribe, to care for by Matriarch Teersa. Aloy and her foster father live in the wilds just beyond the embrace of All-Mother, the Nora’s goddess, and every contact with their fellow tribesmen is met with harassment and neglect. Fed up with the way people treat them, Aloy demands to know the truth about her motherless status. But Rost, faithful to the Nora ways and the will of All-Mother, instead trains Aloy so that she may compete in her proving to become a brave, best her peers, and receive a boon as her prize. Matriarch Teersa and her sisters would then be bound by Nora honor and tell Aloy the truth about her mother’s fate.
The journey Aloy takes from this point is one that sets up a lot of the world’s lore. Along with everyone else in this future, thousands of years after the 21st century, Aloy is ignorant of the ancient people whose ruins jut out of the earth at odd angles, just ready to fall off like dead skin. Questions tied to the world, Horizon’s entire lore bible, is pretty much on display for this reason. It makes it almost impossible to talk about Aloy’s story in any meaningful way without spoiling the entire thing. That’s not something that should be read in a review. It should be witnessed while playing through Horzion’s sprawling landscapes, to better understand what led to tribal societies living in fear/respect of robotic wildlife. What can be said is that a very common sci-fi dilemma is at the heart of Aloy’s main story, but the reactions to it, the way it plays out, is very different from what is usually seen. That there’s a respect for science and academia accompanying that makes it all the more special.
This makes data points worth picking up. These are like journal entries found in any other RPG, but in Horizon they tie directly to characters engaged in the world. By reading them, a new level of understanding is obtained, and together with the main narrative nearly all the questions one could have while playing (and there are many questions to ponder) are eventually answered by finding these.
Aloy herself is easier to talk about. Though outcast, she is a member of the Nora tribe, an amalgam of First Nations with some fantasy aesthetics thrown in for good measure. Of all the peoples in the game, the Nora are the most ardent in their belief in gods and demons, which informs an ignorance of the past. Unlike the post-apocalyptic worlds of The Last of Us and Fallout 4, no one alive in Horizon has any point of reference to make sense of the past. There are no survivors from that era. So superstitions were bound to return as man had to make sense of the post-post-apocalyptic world around them. But Aloy doesn’t succumb to the same beliefs as Rost. At times she’s agnostic to the idea of All-Mother and scoffs at tale of metal devils, and at her angriest she’s militant in her refusal to accept cultist superstitions in a world of sentient machines and rejects archaic customs.
Though there’s a dialogue wheel that gives player input to determine some of these opinions, the choices don’t change much in Aloy’s character. Players are given, at times, choices between a compassionate response, a logical retort, or an angry outburst, as well as several story decisions. But these are largely different ways of expressing the same sentiment, and that’s a good thing. Aloy is written as fixed character, much like Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher 3 or Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. She’s more intelligent than most in this anachronistic world, which makes her plucky and combative in the best of ways. She’s a woman on a mission and there’s little that can deter her from that.
Strict writing of her character makes it so the actual narrative that runs through the course of the game is more cohesive, allowing Aloy’s true humanity to show. She may have passed her proving and is wise beyond her years, but her motivation for engaging the Nora at all is to find her mother, a desire rooted in childhood. How that plays out, what she ultimately discovers, what she learns along the way, makes her stand out in a medium of beefy-necked marines and return protagonists in series that appear to have no end. Even without considering her story, the character of Aloy makes her own mark by traveling from a place of ignorance to one of knowledge, but harboring a deep insecurity and anxiety over what she learns that she refuses to show that vulnerability to anyone but herself. She’s one of the more human video game characters to date.
Environments in Horizon are the peak of PS4 performance. Both on the pro and the standard console, frames may be locked at 30fps but every frame is used in making environments look lifelike and react to Aloy’s presence. There’s a great diversity in terrain and weather conditions. From snow-capped mountains to scorching deserts to ruins of a world gone by–this is a time where nature has reclaimed the earth despite the robotic presence upon her, and she takes every opportunity to stretch her dominance. This makes for a world that is both vast and unique in its design and nearly everything is destructible without tearing or frame drops. Factor in scant loading screens and this is even more visually impressive.
Character designs, however, aren’t as robust. Aloy, of course looks great, as do the Nora Matriarchs, Rost and Sylens. Especially Sylens, who is a spitting image of his voice actor Lance Reddick (Fringe, The Wire, John Wick). The rest are rather samey. But this is quickly forgotten the first time you pay attention to animations, which is where most of the power of the PS4 may go unnoticed by some.
Whether it’s the leap and slash of a sawtooth, the whipping tail of a snapmaw, or the clapping wings of a glinthawk, the robotic wildlife moves with uncanny grace that puts actual biomimetics to shame. It’s gratifyingly relaxing to watch a tallneck grace its pasture from the right vantage. Its toes spread as it digs its mammoth feet into the ground, then they collapse back together as its legs raise over trees and smaller machines, disinterested in the rest of the world. Each machine type is unique in design and movement, and the animations that articulate their behavior lends a credibility to the lore.
Impressive animations are also there for Aloy. While Marcus Holloway may move with ease across San Francisco’s streets, Aloy can outrun, out-climb, and out-leap any parkour master regardless of terrain and does so with an athletic awareness of movement and space while maintaining grace. It’s possibly one of the best looking set of climbing animations out there, and the same attention to detail is present everywhere. As Kotaku has pointed out–Aloy can sit on a mount, whether standing still or in motion, aim her bow, and follow the arrowhead; when tracking a target, Aloy makes subtle shifts to angle just right, turn when needed in order to fire. She never stops moving, never stops shifting. That attention to movement is a first for open world RPGs.
But to truly appreciate all Horizon does with visuals, access the photo mode. Players have been utilizing it as a personal mini game, and the tools there are more refined than in other games with this feature. Used at the right moment and the wilds beyond Mother’s Embrace is like finding a painting Aloy just happens to run right through.
Horizon’s score is minimalist, giving just enough sound to gently lift Julie Elven’s haunting voice. The music never wants to draw attention from the prehistoric feel the simulated nature Horizon presents with synthetic wildlife moving through whistling deserts and drenched marshes. But when spotted by herd of chargers or a massive rockcrusher the tune changes to a heavy electronic beat that puts the rhythm of drums in Aloy’s heart, encouraging fast movement and thinking if she intends to survive. A soundtrack fit for a hunter.
Voice delivery is a bit hit and miss. NPCs rarely make a big impression like in other RPGs. This may discourage taking up certain side quests, though there are a few standouts.
The main cast is quite different. Sylens possibly has the best delivery outside of Aloy. Lance Reddick’s alien yet authoritative voice gravels as he delivers cryptic bits of information to Aloy, making his character all the more intriguing. Meanwhile, Matriarch Teersa projects with an evangelical respect for the Nora goddess in a bid to convince Aloy of her people’s beliefs. Rost manages to be both fearsome and reticent, making you believe he’s capable of slaughtering the whole Nora tribe but knowing that his deep sense of honor wouldn’t allow it.
The characters from the main story make lasting impressions due in large part to the voice actors in those roles. It’s not just what’s being said that makes the player pay attention, but the delivery at these key moments urges them to take note of what’s going on. This is what makes data points worth pursuing, as they feel left behind by characters who lived rather than a way to deliver exposition writes couldn’t fit elsewhere.
And then there’s Aloy. Voiced by Ashly Burch (best known for playing Chloe Price in DONTNOD’s Life is Strange, the same studio behind Remember Me), Aloy’s character grows on you as you follow along from her earliest days as an outcast to proving herself as a Nora brave. Her confidence, fear, and anger are delivered with a level of intensity that’s often forgotten in open world RPGs where the main character is a blank slate to impress a personality upon and the size of the playground is the main selling point. In Horizon, it’s watching Aloy grow through her journey, and Burch does such an impressive job it almost begs the player to forsake exploration and continue with main quests because of how committed she sounds to learning more.
Aloy starts off with a bow and a spear when sent out into the world, but before long she’ll be able to tie down machines with ropecasters and make them fall over with tripcasters. All weapon types have models that fire elemental ammo like shock, blaze, chill, and explosives. Purple weapons rank the best, and with the model she can fire several ammo types from the same weapon, saving on resource space. Another round of purchases players will have to consider are outfits. Each clothing option offers buffs that compliment Aloy’s Prowler, which are stealth skills, Forager, resource management, and Brave skills, combat abilities. To make most of the RPG mechanics, Aloy will have to compliment skills unlocked with clothes and align them to weapons and play styles.
Unlike most RPGs there are no gameplay tutorials outside of the very first mission that teaches how to sneak past watchers. Beyond that point the player will have to experiment to see what works best. While there are some human enemies in story missions and bandit camps to liberate, they pose little threat. All the experimentation with weapons are for engaging machines, and this trial-and-error method of tutorial mirrors the dynamic nature of the world players will encounter as they travel.
Like wild animals, machines own their respective patches of land and are mostly territorial. In order to travel safely the player must learn to read the terrain, spot machines from meters away and decide to avoid, engage, or sneak past them. And the stealth mechanics here are robust enough that sneaking past machines is an option almost every time. While Aloy can’t drag bodies into the shadows she can run silently with the right upgrades and climb past enemies, or stalk watchers from tall grass, lure them in and get that first critical strike or outright kill them.
Mastering stealth is a must, and applying those skills to an open world feels odd but intuitive. Aloy is a hunter, moves like one–setting up traps and trip wire, spying from hidden places, then striking when conditions are right are exactly the tactics a Nora brave would employ when facing down machines. So players should get used to the idea of plotting how to fight early on rather than avoid it, especially since they’ll have to hunt if they expect to level up.
Crafting is a big part of Horizon. Animals have fat and meat for potions, and pelts and bones for bigger bags to carry supplies. Machines have all the material needed to upgrade clothes and weapons, and they provide the elemental components of ammunition and traps. Some of these things can be purchased with metal shards, the game’s currency, but there’s no replacing the need to forage for supplies.
Another form of required engagement, should the player wish to make the most of machines, is to explore a Cauldron. Inside, Aloy will have to solve climbing and jumping puzzles, and deal with enemies all so she can get new bits of code that allow her to override machines. At first, this allows Aloy to access different mounts like scrappers, broadheads, and chargers. By stalking one of these models, Aloy can sneak up and brand them with her spear, triggering an AR interface that changes their their programming from hostile to friendly. This can be expanded to taking over more powerful machines like sawtooths, making them indifferent to Aloy and hostile towards machines running on original programming.
To locate these Cauldrons, Aloy will have to first find tallnecks. These massive giraffe-like machines are walking jump puzzles that work in a manner similar to watch towers. As they move, and as other machines try to keep Aloy from accessing it, the player will have to locate the right vantage point, fight their way to it, time their jump, land on the tallneck, then climb to its wide, flat head and access its visual data to complete a section of her map. It’s an engaging challenge and a fun way to make players do something that’s been deemed tedious by so many games copying the watch tower staple from one another. And there’s the awesome reward of getting to watch tallnecks walk. It’s really soothing.
Horizon: Zero Dawn was always a risky venture, and investors are notoriously risk averse when it comes to new IPs in this medium. But this time it paid off–a unique, massive open world populated with distinct, responsive enemies that lends the narrative a presence that’s felt at the turn of every corner. And it rests on the shoulders of a character than doesn’t succumb to the ludonarrative dissonance that affects so many games. While it may seem odd that Lara Croft, a pampered twenty-something college student, is confident and capable of killing dozens of rapacious cultists, or that Nathan Drake can be a smiling charmer after snapping the necks of mercenaries in between one-liners, there’s never any confusion as to why Aloy does what she does or how she’s capable of doing it.
That trick–consistent, logical motivation fleshed out in gameplay–is not something most developers know how to pull off. It may seem like a small thing but that robust gameplay complimenting an imaginative approach to an old premise deserves proper recognition in a medium mired by blatant plagiarism and a fear of creativity. It also goes a long way in making Horizon’s small flaws fade away.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a new IP that has a hero players want to see succeed as their investment in gameplay and narrative weaves with Aloy’s deeply personal hunt as the hours go by. It’s a surprising RPG success from an unexpected studio, the first great game of 2017, and the bar it set for the competition is higher than a tallneck. You can get a copy here.