Some things take time. A good meal, takes time to prepare, a relationship takes time to mature, and sometimes a game needs the right time to show it’s greatness. As a husband, father and guy who works two jobs, time is the most important and fleeting thing in my life and it can be difficult to find enough of it for all of the games I want to play. Over the years I’ve found that I’m a pretty decent judge of what games are right for me based on previews and coverage, but sometimes a game just slips through my fingers. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of those games. Having released alongside Breath of the Wild and the Nintendo Switch I think a lot of people find themselves in the same camp as I was. Horizon is a game that received critical praise and looked amazing out of the corner of my eye but time got away from me like it usually does and I never got around to playing Guerilla’s open world adventure title. But fast forward to March 2020 and now at the mark of it’s the three year anniversary, I found myself in a rare lull of new releases and decided to finally sit down and Focus on Horizon Zero Dawn.
Set in a far-off future with the feel of a long-ago past, Horizon places you in the role of Aloy, a hunter living in a world where mankind and human advances have been long buried and replaced with metal beasts and tribal mystery. The world is a techno-infused prehistoric one where Guerrilla has crafted everything in the game around you with a beautiful blend of nature and technology. Mountains mesh with the skeletal remnants of skyscrapers, the silhouettes of animals in the dark give way in the light to robotic parodies, and the very clothes on your back are a clever blend of animal skins, furs and metal wires. The design of Horizon is ingenious and a great part of the wonder of this game.
As an outsider in your own clan, Aloy’s journey of self-discovery and survival will take you far from the relative safety of your homeland, to barren deserts, arctic peaks and foggy swamps in an open world game that takes cues from many familiar experiences. As you play your first several hours of Horizon everything will feel familiar in a way that is both pleasant but also initially unsatisfying. A game that feels like so many others can be a difficult sell in a time when there are so many choices for gamers. However once Horizon gets it’s hooks in you, it becomes apparent what makes it stand out in the pack.
Horizon’s ecosystem is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a game. With a vast map packed densely with quests, creatures and camp points, Horizon is at it’s best when you allow yourself to loosen the leash of what the game is telling you to do and allow yourself to simply live in its world. While the story and quests are entertaining and strong, I found that I enjoyed myself the most when I was wandering the map and engaging in new encounters with the worlds massive catalog of creatures and enemies. Every machine Aloy engages with has it’s own unique set of strengths, weaknesses and behaviors which make every single battle feel fresh and unexpected. Add to that a satisfying cache of weapons and traps as well as an environment which you can use to your strategic advantage and you have the makings for some of the best non-boss encounters I’ve ever played in a game.
Horizon has it’s own set of issues though and they’re not to be overlooked. First, the game stumbles under the weight of its own ambitions in certain story respects. Guerrilla has such a massive tale to tell in a brand new universe that I found myself often either getting confused about what the game was trying to tell me, or just not caring in respect to some of the side quests. Something that is a big turn off for me is when a fictional world creates silly names and jargon to identify key characters, areas or story points. This is a big reason why I could never get into Game of Thrones and it is in full effect here. I can’t make myself care about a group of people when their clan has a silly fantasy name that I cannot distinguish from the other clan’s silly fantasy name. After playing this game for over 40 hours and completing the campaign I still couldn’t tell you the difference between the Carja and the Oseram and that’s a big problem because I’m pretty sure they were important figures.
Also in regards to storytelling, while the main campaign has a wonderful mystery told with excellent cut-scenes and a brilliant performance turned in by Ashley Birch as the protagonist Aloy, a lot of the side quests and secondary story beats are told in a very stilted manner that feels jarring in comparison to the main through-line. Conversations are awkward and robotic as characters animate poorly and emote even less. Dialogue branches don’t seem to actually matter and again as mentioned before, everyone has a goofy name that is impossible to remember.
In closing, Horizon is a game that is more than the sum of its parts. Fantastic moment-to-moment adventure, a world that is bursting at the seams with wonder, and a core storyline that is mysterious, intriguing and even touching, rise above a few missteps in regards to story delivery. All of this culminates in an experience I am sad that I let slip by me for so long. Guerrilla has crafted a landmark franchise to add to the stable of Sony flagship titles. I cannot wait to see where Aloy’s journey takes her next, and lucky for me, having waited so long to play, the sequel isn’t that far over the horizon.