Review: “Horizon: Zero Dawn”

After moving three times in as many years, my Laddie and I vowed to accumulate less stuff. And so last December, instead of exchanging presents, we bought ourselves a single joint gift: a new game console. We agonized for weeks over which system to get, but finally settled on the PS4 because it was the only system that featured a game I’d been dying to play–Horizon: Zero Dawn (HZD).

If that’s the only game I ever play on our new console, it was worth it.

HZD captivated me from start to finish (and through hours of expansion content in The Frozen Wilds) with adrenaline-infused gameplay and a refreshing protagonist who lead me through one of the best science fiction stories I’ve encountered in any media in a long time.

The Play

Even as a casual gamer, I recognized the high quality of HZD’s technical elements. The soundtrack, with its spine-tingling blend of tribal instruments and electronic effects, evoked my favorite sci-fi composer Bear McCreary. Lonesome flutes and heart-pounding drums create an aural landscape to mirror the graphic ones, which are also stunningly rendered. Every time I reached a tower or mountain peak, I’d turn a slow circle and admire the post-apocalyptic panoramas. (The game is set in western North America, so futuristic visions of places I’ve been, like Bryce Canyon, lent extra impact.) I enjoyed the clever artifact designs as well, seeing how characters in a post-industrial world repurposed machine parts and other modern items into armor or weapons.

You’ll need both once you start hunting the deadly animal-inspired machines that roam through every set. I played on “normal” difficulty mode (there’s also a “story” mode for non-gamers to enjoy the narrative) and found it just challenging enough to earn the big victories without getting so frustrated that I chucked the controller at the wall. Despite her formidable fighting skills, heroine Aloy is usually outnumbered or outgunned. Cleverness is her keenest weapon. She must use traps, terrain, and tactics to defeat opponents. But what makes her exceptional is not how she dismantles traps, but tropes.

HZD FW.png
Photo from my last hiking trip, or screenshot of HZD? They look so alike in my head… (Image from the PlayStation Online Store)

The Protagonist

As a girl, I played many old Tomb Raider PC games because at the time they were the only action games with a female lead, even though Lara Croft’s character design—clearly constructed under a “male gaze”—irritated me. Aloy is my avatar messiah, the long-awaited RPG heroine who proves that a girl can carry a hit game without looking like an exotic dancer. HZD may be the first RPG I’ve played where a female character wears appropriate clothing for her activities. No metal bikinis or spiky boots here! Aloy’s monster-wrangling ensembles very sensibly cover her vulnerable parts. (With the exception of the Carja Blazon outfit—I’m not sure how it confers protection from fire with a bare midriff. However, to the game designers’ credit, a male NPC wears the exact same costume. The fact that he’s an arrogant chauvinist, strutting around with his bellybutton out, makes it even better.)

The revolutionary nature of this approach became even more apparent when my Laddie walked into the room as I was adding new mods to one of Aloy’s outfits. “Playing Barbie?” he snickered.

My wrath skewered him faster than a Precision Arrow from a Shadow Sharpshot Bow. “When you were choosing a new loincloth for your Assassin’s Creed guy last night, it was hardcore gaming, but because this is a female character, it’s dress-up?” He earned a fifteen-minute diatribe on sexism in video games, and every time he played a game for a week afterwards, I’d hiss “how’s Ken?”

His comment especially vexed me because it’s not Aloy’s looks that make her such a terrific character, but her personality. She’s my ideal “strong” heroine—candid, courageous, inquisitive, and determined. Her attitude, snarky without becoming obnoxiously flippant, lights up the dialogue with some zingers that made me laugh aloud. Ostracized since birth for her dubious origin, she resolves to train as a brave and force her rigid community to support her quest. (Maybe part of my affection for Aloy came from her striking similarities to my own heroine, Skye; more than once the resemblance had me cackling in the middle of a somber cutscene.) No matter what the game’s dire situations throw at her, Aloy never loses her grit. And she needs it, because while fractious tribes squabble over old conflicts, a second cataclysm brews.

The Plot (no spoilers)

HZD takes place a thousand years in the future, after the collapse of technological civilization. Nature reclaims the broken skylines, and machines prowl beyond the campfires. Humankind has reverted to a primitive state. How did the planet become this way? In two spoiler-free words, climate change. Yes, HZD has a cli-fi story at its core, with the classic set-up of people trying to fix a problem they created with a solution that ultimately proves even worse.

Relics collected throughout the game reveal this history through a variety of written and recorded narratives—stories within the story, featuring characters and conflicts to rival those in the main game. The Guerrilla team clearly invested a lot of love and creativity in the world-building, giving HZD the narrative depth of a sci-fi novel. Aloy’s investigation into her own history quickly unfolds into a much larger plot. Mysteries of the past and the conflicts of the present combust, threatening the future. The story resonated deeply with me because it’s so akin to those I write myself: environmental devastation, insidious corporate interests, unexpected consequences of technology, and a dauntless heroine fighting alongside her diverse allies to save the world. 

Perhaps this is why I’m now a little obsessed with HZD. Despite our pledge against stuff-acquisition, I’m shopping for concept art and Aloy action figures. When my Laddie—almost atoning for the Barbie remark—sent me rumors of a sequel in the works, I did the Nora huntress happy dance. (Guerrilla, if you’ll count general science fiction writing in lieu of the game writing experience requested on your jobs site, call me. Seriously. You can pay me in metal shards for all I care.) I’m not normally a “completionist” gamer, but I finished every side quest and scrap of DLC, just to spend a little longer in Aloy’s universe. HZD is more than just an engaging video game, it’s also a brilliant piece of science fiction that dazzled and inspired this author.

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