“The following is a guest review by The Timely Mage.“
Intriguing narratives. Artfully crafted worlds. Clever gameplay. This is what I game for. This is what Horizon delivers.
Before we go into Horizon’s execution, let’s first of all set the stage by nailing down exactly what the game sets out to be. To be honest, I didn’t have a very clear understanding until I played it for the first time. Guerrilla Games’ latest AAA title is very different than what they have produced in the past, namely their gritty sci-fi shooter series, Killzone. Yes, in fact Horizon is a full-fledged open world action RPG, set in a colorful post-post-apocalyptic land populated with tribal clans and robotic beasts.
Being an open world action RPG, there are certain expectations which have become very refined over the years. When I delve into such a game I expect a large map filled with collectibles, side quests, and a living ecosystem. I expect accessible, versatile combat. And if it leans more heavily on its RPG influences I expect satisfying character development, inspiring world-building, and a colorful cast.
It’s from my experience, along with the way the game was marketed, that I believe these are the expectations they attempted to meet and truly exceed in. It’s also through this lens that I will try to fairly measure its success and shortcomings.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty can I just say…this game is AMAZING! It’s been quite a while since a game has managed to feel so adventurous to me like playing a really good RPG when I was a kid. Often times the most I can hope for in a game is for it to merely meet my reserved, realistic expectations but Horizon managed to transcend these pre-determined boundaries by terraforming the foundation according to its own unique vision rather than borrowing a used canvas from its contemporaries and touching it up.
A Honed Predator
Horizon’s success doesn’t come from doing one thing exceptionally well. Nor does it succeed because it does everything at or above average. It comes from all aspects of the game being handcrafted for one purpose, like every part of a predator that has been specialized to take down its prey in a single attack. Each interaction reveals more about Aloy or her world. Each ruin and remnant of the old world is designed to stir your thirst for discovery. Each skill and weapon gives you a meaningful way to survive and thrive in the world.
There is no wasted effort put into this game. In fact one of the most astounding things to me is how everything actually works as intended. For example a lot of third-person games try to have a stealth mechanic for the sake of being able to say there are multiple ways to play the game when in reality it’s a painfully slow task that usually ends with guns a-blazing or a pitiful bonus rarely worth the effort. Horizon actually manages to make stealth not only doable but even desirable while giving you a tangible upper hand needed in battle.
Another example is in how it handles an area in RPGs that can be quite delicate, that area being its side quests. Each quest revolves around the people and their various human struggles, often surprisingly poignant. It’s through these interactions that you learn not only about the people and politics of the world but also about the protagonist, Aloy. It’s often not communicated through on the nose dialog but rather her tone, her reservations, and catching things that peak her interest.
As impressed as I was with the attention to the small (but significant!) details, personally one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is its story. Sci-fi stories and settings are my favorite by far and Horizon once again blew me away with how well developed it was when compared to other games in the genre.
Like just about every other aspect of the game, I had no idea what to expect from the game’s story. All I knew about the setting came from the trailers which hinted that the earth was overtaken by robots and now the remaining humans live in tribal communities. The heroine Aloy also appears as a confident and curious woman who seems to play a key role in discovering what happened to the previous civilization and the events that are actively unfolding.
I won’t go into any of the details because it’s best when you know very little going into it. What really sucked me in was uncovering the mystery of what happened in the past and learning why things are the way things are in the game.
Most games (or any media for that matter) that are driven by mystery often start off with an intriguing premise but then as more is revealed the less interested I become. Horizon, however, managed to intensify my interest throughout the game and the final payoff was very satisfying. I can’t promise this will be everyone’s experience but I was thoroughly impressed.
Woman vs. Machine
Going back to the trailers, what stuck out to me was that the earliest footage we got to see was Aloy taking down a Thunderjaw which tells me the gameplay is something Guerrilla is very proud of and for good reason. From the story to the battles, your brain is constantly engaged and rewarded for it.
Each robot behaves differently and so you must study them to find every weakness that can be exploited if you want to survive. As your skills and arsenal expand they provide you with new and creative ways to exploit these weaknesses rather than encouraging brute force through increased power. The balance is genius and satisfyingly fun.
The 8-bit Review
A visual masterpiece. I constantly found myself awestruck by beautiful vistas and atmospheric scenery, taking screenshots in photo mode (which is great by the way) every two seconds. The art direction is consistently impressive across the world and its inhabitants.
Character design specifically stuck out to me as each individual you run into seems naturally unique and diverse without feeling like a caricature or a statement.
The mechanical wildlife is particularly inspiring and certainly the most iconic aspect of the game, for good reason. Seeing such natural qualities from a synthetic frame gave Horizon’s world a sympathetic soul.
Horizon boasts a unique and robust soundtrack filled with tribal percussion and wind instruments which fits the world perfectly. The soothing sounds of the natural environment and exotic noises of its artificial inhabitants give a sense of both familiarity and mystery.
I was particularly impressed with the voice acting and found it to breathe a uniqueness and history into each character. Some of the side characters were less consistent than others but overall (especially when measured against the expectations of the genre) it struck a fine balance between being distinctive and convincing that other games struggle to find.
Horizon’s gameplay is one of the core strengths that makes it unique and better than its peers. Taking down machines is challenging but not necessarily in the controller smashing Bloodborne kind of way. There are plenty of dodge-rolls to be had but it’s the challenge of figuring out how to progressively dismantle these mechanical beasts where you’ll find the sense of accomplishment comes from.
The setting and story kept me interested from beginning to end. It managed to build up mystery and still deliver a satisfying ending. Aloy’s story was layered and convincingly human. A few familiar plot elements are certainly utilized but when you’re having so much fun who really cares?
This game displays, at least to me, the perfect balance of challenge and accessibility. You can’t just fling a bunch of arrows at a machine and call it a day, in order to take down even some of the simpler machines you have to understand its physical weak spots and elemental vulnerabilities, otherwise your attacks will barely put a dent in their armor. It reminded me of the RPGs of old where strategy mixed with simple to understand mechanics were the basis for a satisfying battle.
Simple and smart implementations such as slowed time during weapon changes and enemy offscreen indicators mitigate frustration so your fight is with the AI rather than the UI. You can also change the difficulty at any time without it affecting the basic mechanics or earning trophies.
Since Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG, I rated its replayability with this in mind. It may not have multiplayer or procedurally generated levels but that’s not the type of game this is. Rather I find it to be one of the most replayable games in its genre primarily because of the hunt.
Most RPGs lose their appeal once the story is over, all items have been acquired, and all challenges have been conquered. When you’re completely maxed out you’re typically way overpowered, especially against normal enemies that wander the landscape. Since Horizon’s progression largely expands utility rather than raw power, the thrill of the hunt only increases the longer you play.
Horizon is such a rare gem. Every aspect of the game is unique from the story to the characters to the gameplay. I found the character designs and story to be particularly special. Outside of the game, Guerrilla’s amazing achievement of creating a new IP in such a different genre than they’ve worked on in the past was very inspiring.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Definitely a contender for game of the year and arguably one of the top games on the PS4. One of the most enjoyable, beautiful, inspirational games I’ve played in a long time that renewed the wonder and joy of gaming for me.
Aggregated Score: 9.9