"I mean, who doesn't want to shoot a robot dinosaur with arrows while hiding in grass?"
While I wouldn't go so far as to say Horizon Zero Dawn is the best open-world action-RPG I've ever played, it is quite memorable. You'll follow tribeswoman Aloy evolve from a young, naive exile into a battle-hardened savior capable of both fighting off the hostile and dangerous robotic beasts strewn throughout the world, while uncovering the secrets left in the ruins of its former inhabitants. Why are these robots so hostile and only getting worse as time passes? Exactly who is the mysterious guy who keeps contacting Aloy, enlisting her to do all the heavy lifting to unearth those secrets even though he's just as interested in finding the answers? Why are even the most advanced civilizations extremely primitive by "giant robots killing folks" world-building standards?
Don't be impatient -- it will take some time to scratch the surface of this stuff. Initially, you see Aloy's early years. She was born in the isolated Nora tribe's territory under strange circumstances that fell outside the Nora's extremely strict laws. Fortunately for the girl's life expectancy, her tribe's Matriarchs were able to enlist the aid of a renown warrior-in-exile to raise her. Like her adoptive father, Rost, she’s considered a tribal outcast, but she’ll at least get the chance to gain full membership upon coming of age.
In short, Aloy's youth wasn't all that great. Sure, Rost was able to teach her the arts of stealth and robot-slaying in the form of tutorial missions, but he's a middle-aged guy inoculated in Nora culture and having no apparent issues with being an outcast. She, on the other hand, is a young girl who's incapable of understanding why Nora children can't play with her or why adults treat her like she's invisible. No wonder she's so happy to find a Focus. While outside one day, she falls into a pit and finds herself in a metallic structure where she finds a small object through which she can see things, whether they be messages from the past or indicators of a robot's weak spots. Think of it as something akin to Geralt's Witcher senses in that series, where she'll be able to use it to follow tracks and find hidden items.
Flash forward to Aloy's 18th year and she'll be ready to try her hand at the Nora's Proving to become a full member of the tribe -- a trial that proves to be a complete success, at least until a band of heavily-armed outsiders show up and start killing everyone. Aloy is injured, but survives the ordeal thanks to Rost fulfilling his duties as a mentor and heroically sacrificing himself. While the Nora have laws forbidding people from leaving their territory, one of the Matriarchs is at least open-minded enough to see that matters in the world have progressed beyond her tribe's limited understanding and that Aloy just might be the key to gaining the necessary knowledge. And so, Aloy gets named a Seeker, a title which gives her permission to go anywhere she needs to go in order to get to the bottom of things and get revenge.
Of course, there are a few complications. That attack on the Proving was no coincidence, as some malevolent force somehow sensed her through her Focus and definitely does not want her unraveling a bunch of secrets. Said force also has one hell of a bodyguard in Rost’s killer Helis and his army of followers. And another character, the enigmatic Silens, also takes an interest in Aloy's adventures. Claiming to also seek answers, he serves as an uneasy ally in that "You do the work, I get the information and if I feel like it, I might enlighten you a tiny bit" sort of way.
Having recently played Witcher 3, I found a lot of the basic mechanics of HZD to be pretty similar. You'll travel the land, get quests from people and work towards big revelations. As said before, her Focus is like Geralt's Witcher senses, so things often will even play out in a similar fashion, with you scanning places for clues and then following an unearthed path to your next objective. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was stepping back into a much-loved game -- just with the superficial stuff changed.
Combat is where this game differs most from Geralt’s. While both games give you a diverse assortment of tools, I found it more necessary to delve into them in this game. Early on, Aloy is pretty weak, both in terms of delivering and receiving damage. Therefore, stealth is key. You’ll hide in tall grass and shoot robots with arrows from a distance, avoid them while they look for you and then go back to whittling away their health. Destroy each one and you can loot its body for components used to craft more ammo on the fly -- a task also helped along by scavenging from plants and opening every single supply box you can find.
As time goes on, your options start getting really diverse. Early in the game, you’ll learn to craft fire arrows. Coincidentally, a common early-game robot is the Grazer, a fairly non-aggressive deer-like creation containing a number of quite flammable Blaze canisters attached to them. Send a fire arrow into a canister and after a few seconds, Mr. Grazer is exploding, destroying itself and greatly damaging any nearby robots.
And that’s just the beginning. Ropecasters can immobilize enemies, Tripcasters erect tripwires augmented with some sort of elemental damage and Slings fire various sorts of bombs. There are multiple types of bows, each with its own ammo. Some, like the fire arrows, are elemental; others either cause additional damage or are more useful at stripping away parts from robots. That is another key element of combat. Some foes, like Ravagers and Thunderjaws, are equipped with powerful weaponry. With the right ammo, you can break them off to remove one of their attacks or even to use yourself. With so many types of ammo and so many ways to improve weaponry via installing modifications, this game has options.
All you have to do is look at the skill screen to see just how many options. You can override robots to fight for you or, in some cases, serve as your personal transportation. You can increase your damage output greatly by firing two or three arrows at once. You can obtain multiple damaging stealth attacks. I probably had more fun with combat in HZD than I’ve ever had in either a stealth-oriented game or an open-world action-RPG previously. Aloy’s just weak enough that I had to be careful or risk getting torn apart, even if she’s capable of harvesting plants for on-the-fly medication, while also holding a pharmacy’s worth of potions. Because of this, I wasn’t able to fall into my typical complacency and just spam what works. There were times to be aggressive and times to be very cautious and success often came down to simply learning my opposition.
I found the alligator-inspired Snapmaws to be pretty intimidating for a while. They were powerful, had a number of attacks and tended to come in groups. And then I noticed they were weak to fire. Three fire arrows into one of them would usually set it on fire, causing nearly half its health to be neatly removed. And suddenly, a formerly tough enemy simply required a bit of patience to become child’s play.
There also is a certain poignancy to this game that is brought out by its world’s history. Throughout Aloy’s explorations, you’ll use her Focus to read and listen to all sorts of messages left by the land’s former inhabitants. The ones associated with the main plot regularly deliver bombshells that, at times, seem all too realistic. Others simply tell the stories of people trying to make the best out of how things were, putting everything they have into trying to preserve whatever they can. Or maintain an important personal relationship through all the turmoil. Or simply be able to say, when it all comes crashing down, that they were able to do one noteworthy thing in their time on the planet. This is one of the lucky few games of its ilk that actually made me want to dig up its world’s secrets and to feel a bit miffed that my database shows a LOT of holes where I missed recordings.
The only actual aspect of the game itself that left me annoyed, though, was how it could have used a bit more enemy variety, or at least spaced out the introductions of new robots a bit more. You’ll have seen virtually every kind of enemy by the time you’re about two-thirds of the way through HZD and from there, the magic does start to fade a bit. The same handful of massive, powerful robots become the main quarry of several missions, giving you that “Oh, another Thunderjaw…” feeling. The final boss is little more than a tougher Corrupted version of a robot that served as the boss of a couple other missions, but with a time limit this time.
While a fine expansion, its The Frozen Wilds DLC did add a bit to that ending fatigue. While a few new robots, skills and weapons were added to the game through it, you’ll also spend a lot of time fighting even tougher versions of what you’ve been killing for many, many hours. It’s a fun expansion and if you liked the base game, you’ll find more of the same; however, it does feel a bit anti-climactic after finishing HZD’s main quest and mainly seems to exist to provide a sequel hook, while implementing a few improvements and additions to the overall experience.
Still, playing this game immediately after Witcher 3 is the sort of thing that makes me feel lucky to be alive now. Being able to go through these vast open-world games with so much freedom as to what I do and how I do it is nothing short of awesome and I’m more than willing to put up with such flaws as “I found myself getting a little tired of things by the end”. Give me a big world to explore, a variety of ways to battle enemies and a lot of quests to complete and have the whole thing put together professionally where it looks great and plays just as well and it’s a no-brainer that I’ll be enraptured for hours upon hours, simply happy to be able to experience another large and vibrant world that feels so alive.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (July 26, 2020)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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