Horizon Zero Dawn Review: A Coming of Age Story
Horizon: Zero Dawn could easily stand the test of time and be the best PS4 game whenever this generation ends years from now. The studio that brought you Killzone, a FPS franchise with an uninspired name and story but unique world and one of a kind mechanics, has successfully created one of the boldest new IPs in several years.
A mix of Zelda, Uncharted, Tomb Raider and The Phantom Pain, Horizon takes a lot from many other blockbuster franchises and crafts its own identity. The platforming/climbing of Tomb Raider, the open world strategy of Metal Gear Solid V, the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda and the arrow-based combat recent Tomb Raider games all mix to form a solid set of gameplay systems that keep the game exciting and fun.
Scavenging for supplies so you can craft the type of arrows you need to weaken a particularly difficult enemy, surveying a bandit settlement or pasture of machines and engaging with a diverse cast of characters that mostly have stellar personalities is an addictive gameplay loop that will make your 30+ hours with the game fly by. Zero Dawn also features some of my favorite side quests in recent memory, with many of them adding fully-realized characters in a variety of scenarios.
All of this is held together by superb writing, voice acting, art design and characters. The explanation for why machines rule the Earth is elegant enough to satisfy players while not being Batshit insane like something out of the previously mentioned Metal Gear series.
Aloy is one of my favorite characters in gaming in recent history. While she starts out a little generic, a child who was wronged at birth by a tribe who outcasted her for unknown reasons and is now out for revenge and answers as an adult, Aloy quickly evolves into a well-rounded heroine. The voice acting performance by Ashley Burch is instrumental in establishing Aloy as a protagonist the player should care about.
There are so many fine, tiny details that make Horizon a stunning achievement in game design that it is difficult to list them all. The way Aloy, and most characters, faces move during conversations is highly realistic and helps tremendously to get players invested. The jaw dropping environments and outright stunning sky boxes, sprawling towns and dungeons all look fantastic running on a standard PS4. The art direction has no flaws, with a wide range of colors being employed to make the varying locales stand out from one another. Not only that but character models are diverse as well, with each new settlement spawning a believable, living world with its design variety for both towns and town inhabitants.
So we not only have a terrific gameplay loop of loot, craft, stealth and action but the game is damn near impossible to criticize visually. The finishing touch is a world with countless secrets hidden in places like Cauldrons and other places off the beaten path that reward player exploration. Horizon does a fantastic job of balancing all of its open world content, never making navigating the world overwhelming or tedious. I often found myself ignoring the fast-travel system just so I could explore the world on-foot, a testament to how much of a pleasure it is to venture through Guerrilla’s world of dino-machines.
The machines themselves have a healthy amount of diversity to them, each possessing unique abilities, attacks and habits. While you won’t see as many different robo-dinos as you would see in a game like Monster Hunter, you will often wonder what type of machine you will discover next as each present their own unique challenge.
Zero Dawn’s story does have its fair share of plot twists and startling revelations. If I had to point out a flaw, it would be that the game’s main villain in the end and the individual who helps Aloy on her journey feel half-developed. Without spoiling anything, the final boss fight is engaging but felt like it lacked something extra, some pizazz if that makes sense. The game does weave a well-tangled and understandable narrative and the mystery of the planet and Aloy’s past is serviceable. I feel conflicted as I somewhat wished it had a more intense plot twist and final villain but also feared for how hard it would be to properly execute a crazier story. And of course the game ends with Aloy saving the world because its a video game.
Horizon also continues PlayStation’s trend of featuring strong female characters in their games, which seemed to take off with 2013’s The Last of Us. Not only is Aloy a fleshed out character, she is a badass who is equal parts vulnerable when needed for story purposes and determined at other points. The writing cannot be undervalued here as Aloy’s interactions with Olin, the Carja, the Nora, Sylens and others would fit in with nearly any award-winning HBO/Netflix drama.
Horizon should be an easy GOTY winner had it not launched in an insanely packed year. As is, it will go down as one of the best PS4 games ever made and easily grabs the crown of best new story-driven IP this generation. Like Naughty Dog with the release of Uncharted in 2007, Guerrilla Games has officially taken the leap from very-good first party Sony developer to legendary status. A digital bildungsroman, Horizon Zero Dawn is a coming of age story not just for its main character but for the studio that created it as well.
Horizon Zero Dawn would be GOTY any other year. Guerrilla has finally realized its true potential after years of "pretty goods" and near misses. Aloy is one of the best characters in gaming this generation and the sense of discovery and adventure make Zero Dawn an instant classic.