Horizon Zero Dawn - First Impressions
For those of you that don’t know, I really love video games! I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember, my first game probably Pong on Atari, then Mario, and then Sonic… My most favorite types of games are RPGs, that is, role-playing games. They have tons of story and character depth, and sometimes your choices actually influence how the game turns out.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that’s been out for some time now. I’ve heard the fanfare pretty often, but since I don’t own a PS4, I never got a chance to play until it came out on PC. While I primarily write fantasy, I’m also really interested in post-apocalyptic sci-fi settings. Hey, they still hold fantasy elements. ;) Fallout 4 is a big favorite of mine, and while the gameplay differs greatly from this, I’m super excited to play!
Horizon Zero Dawn is an action RPG set on a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Earth, where machines roam the planet like animals do, and the people have gone back to tribal roots. The opening cinematic follows an outcast, a man named Rost holding a redheaded baby he was given by the matriarchs, the leaders of his tribe, and he takes the journey to perform the naming ceremony for the child, something of apparent great importance, as the other matriarchs are against it, except for Teersa, who performs the ceremony.
I was so impressed with the cinematics. The way the characters (and later on the enemies) move around on screen, even as you’re playing, is both realistic and smooth. Later on I’ve noticed during gameplay that faces can look a little strange, not as smooth or impressive as the cinematics, but that’s to be expected, I think.
The baby is named Aloy (hard A, rather than Alloy which I keep wanting to say haha), and when you start a new game after the main cinematic, you play as her, probably around the age of eight or so. Aloy falls into a pit, and the only way forward is through a dark cave. You soon find that this is no ordinary cave, as Aloy uncovers mummified bodies, and old technology that is far advanced for the civilization currently living on Earth. One body has an odd triangular shape attached to what’s left of its ear, and Aloy takes the device and puts it on.
An abrupt sound and light appears beside her ear, and she rightfully panics and tosses the device to the ground. Curiosity gets the better of her, though, and she puts the device back on. A digital, purple sphere appears around her, and she can suddenly see digital screens on the old, broken down computers on the dilapidated, frozen desks in what appears to be a lab. It’s impressive that these machines still have power to them, but there are still working mechanical doors in this bunker, while others have been destroyed or lost power altogether.
You learn small bits of who these people were as your device picks up old, corrupted audio files. These people were part of something, an experiment perhaps, and were ordered to leave audio diaries. As you move on, the audio recordings become darker, and from what I could decipher, it appears they were given some drugs to ease their passing, as their untimely deaths were apparently known and inevitable. One of the bodies willingly refuses the drug, saying something like wanting to go out with an exclamation mark, and I think shoots himself? Dark stuff, but given the looks of the lab, the whole situation looks pretty dark to me, so I’m not surprised by the poor man’s decision.
Aloy hears Rost’s voice and makes it out of the cave in one piece. Hooray! Rost isn’t interested in hearing about the cave, though, as the Nora tribe, even as an outcast, are forbidden from exploring these metal, desecrated grounds.
The next day, you go on a training mission with Rost, a tutorial of sorts to teach you how to use this new device on your ear (called a Focus), although Rost refuses to acknowledge the device as anything useful. For an outcast, he’s very law-abiding!
The way Aloy moves around is immersive: when going up an incline (or stairs like in the cave), she will put her hands out to help her climb, or stoop slightly if she’s losing her balance. I thought it was a realistic representation of a child exploring the wild world.
There are a lot of controls that all do different things, but they become intuitive after messing around a bit. The sneaking tutorial was helpful, as is learning how to track a watcher’s movements—a watcher being a machine that behaves like a sentry and will attack you if it notices you in its beam, so you hide in the grass to wait for it to pass.
Eventually there’s a montage of Aloy training with Rost until she’s eighteen, and her next big venture is to attend something called the Proving, a ceremony where even a child outcast can participate in to become a brave and return to the tribe. It’s not the tribe Aloy cares about so much, but the questions she can ask if she wins the Proving in regards to why she was made an outcast, and who her mother was, and what happened to her.
I won’t spoil the details, but actually participating in the Proving was a fun lesson in learning how the climbing mechanics work, as well as run-jumping. Back in the wilds of the Embrace (the enclosed land this tribe lives in), I didn’t find all that much climbing to do, besides up ladders.
There’s a mechanic where you can choose your response in certain scenarios. The first one is when you’re still a child, and a boy throws a rock at you, mocking you for being motherless and an outcast. You can choose to throw a rock back, to knock the rock from his hand, or to drop the rock. I chose to knock the rock from his hand. Just aggressive enough to make this brat think twice about what he’s doing. When you’re older and at the Proving, you meet this kid again, and interact with him in regards to this meeting. His name is Bast, and boy is he a jerk. I thought it was a nice touch to bring that memory back up, however, and eventually you put the kid in his place, at least for the rest of the night.
There are other scenes like this where you can choose wits, aggression, or empathy to move forward in a scene. I haven’t come across any other scenes where these choices affect later scenes, but I wouldn’t be surprised that there are some. I think it’s a clever, immersive tactic, although I can’t say I’m not curious as to the outcome of the choices I didn’t make.
After the Proving, you wind up in the belly of the mountain, a sacred land to the Nora tribe, and gain an important quest that will allow you to leave the Embrace without the risk of being exiled. I found myself a little on the edge of believing and disbelieving the characters’ behaviors: while Aloy is an outcast, it’s understandable that she’s more interested and willing to accept the possibilities when it comes to the technology in the world. The Nora tribe, on the other hand, find tech to be disgraceful, and evil, and sometimes don’t even recognize tech for what it is. Like for instance, **SPOILER**, their goddess is actually just a giant, metal door with a robotic voice. //END SPOILER// It reminds me of a Vault from Fallout, something that probably hosts humans that survived whatever came long before this tribe of people took over the mountain. Teersa, the matriarch that’s had your back since you were born, really thinks the door is her goddess, as do the other matriarchs, from what I could tell. Seeing as the Nora tribe are considered “savages” compared to the other tribes, though, I suppose it makes sense that they’re so willing to continue this cognitive dissonance and denial of the tech world around them.
As you’re making your way to leave the Embrace, you run into an annoying, bitter Nora warrior named Resh, who really, really hates Aloy. He refuses your request to leave at first, but after learning you’ve become a Seeker, he reconsiders and thinks the sooner you leave, the better. Unfortunately, a complex new tech beast shows up and takes over some of the other, less aggressive tech in the valley, and they attack the village.
This fight was tough! In the wilds, I did pretty good with my bow and spear combo, but this guy is FAST. There are two canisters on his shoulders that your Focus points out as a weakness, but I had a lot of trouble landing a shot on them. Eventually, I just smashed the guy with my spear and used a lot of herbs to heal, haha. Oops. Still, I survived!
When you do finally leave the Embrace and go out into the world, you come across remnants of old, dilapidated cities. You can find small data packets that tell you bits about the old world, as well as where you are geographically. (It’s the United States, but I won’t say where.) These are fun little easter eggs that make the game all the more immersive.
As usual with big sandbox games like this, I get lost in the side quests. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but sometimes it can be overwhelming and I wind up needing a break. I don’t want to miss out, but they’re not usually nearly as interesting as the main quests. I spent some time doing area quests until finally moving on to the big quests, and while I still have a long way to go, getting to Meridian has been a really fun experience. I’ve thus finished the quest with Erend and Avad, and I can’t wait to go on the next adventure.
Aloy as a character is strong, perceptive, inquisitive, and resourceful. She prefers to work alone when she can, and she isn't afraid of the taboos of the world. She's a great character to play as, because I am just as curious as she is when it comes to uncovering the past, and learning about the tech creatures, and using that tech to her advantage. She has a sense of justice about her, and I don't blame her, considering what's led her to the path she's on now.
One thing that frustrated me was being unable to get back into the main village where the Proving took place, once I left. (Although you're able to "cheat" your way back in, but it's not really usable, if that makes sense.) I felt like that area had some important elements that I should have been able to uncover later, once I learned more about the world? Maybe it opens up later, for all I know.
For those who like fantasy and sci-fi both, I highly recommend Horizon Zero Dawn. With a strong female lead, immersive gameplay, fantastic cinematics and graphics, wonderful music and environment, and challenging enemies, this game has a lot to give. I think I’ll be entertained for a while yet.
Have you played Horizon Zero Dawn? What are your thoughts? What are your favorite moments in the early parts of the game? Please be mindful of spoilers. :) Let me know in the comments, and I'd love it if you'd subscribe for new updates!