Horizon Zero Dawn
It's been almost a month since Guerilla games released their latest IP, "Horizon Zero Dawn", and just last week, Sony Interactive Entertainment announced they had sold 2.6M units of the game in its first two weeks. This is extremely impressive for a game that was released just days before everyone jumped on the Zelda train. "Horizon Zero Dawn" is truly a breath of fresh air for the post-apocalyptic RPG genre, and should be a strong potential candidate for game of the year. With the release of "Mass Effect: Andromeda" this Tuesday, I fear that the attention to this gorgeous game will continue to be overshadowed by the more established IP's that have dropped since its release.
I'll be the first to admit that this review is a tad delayed, but consider it "delayed with purpose". I'm a little selfish, but I don't want the hype train for this game to end. If there is one game that deserves to be riding the hype in first class, it's "Horizon Zero Dawn". I tend to get hyper critical of RPG games because it's the genre that I tend to favor above all others. Call me an "elitist" but if an RPG misses the mark in either its storytelling capabilities or how immersive it makes the gamer feel, then it's not worth my time. The truly great RPG games are the ones that manage to capture both elements at once. "Horizon Zero Dawn" is one of these games, and I urge you to check it out if you haven't already.
This game is about Aloy, a young girl who is cast out the Nora tribe for seemingly just existing. She has no understanding of who her mother is or why the "Matriarchs", essentially the leaders of this tribe, seem to dislike her so much. Eventually, she goes through a trial called "The Proving" where she not only comes out on top, but she also becomes a survivor after a cult massacres the other trial participants. For her reward, Aloy discovers her origin but this ultimately leaves her with more questions than answers. With a burning desire for both vengeance and knowledge, and being granted the status of "The Seeker" by the Matriarch's, she embarks on her journey outside of the Sacred Lands. This is how the game starts, and it sets the tone that this is more than just another "Post-Apocalyptic" game.
One thing I commend the Guerrilla developers in doing, is creating a world that feels very natural despite having massive animalistic robots roaming around the world and vastly differing human civilizations strewn across a relatively small geographic area. Human's have rejected the technology that created the robots, and are living in various types of early governments. The Nora are a tribal based society, the Carja are heavily influenced by Aztec/Mayan cultures, and the Oseram appear to have reverted to almost a medieval Europe society. There are other tribes alluded to throughout the game, and you even find a few of these along the way, but these are essentially the big three. Although the map in the game is quite large, it's not massive. Geographically, this game takes place in Western Colorado and sprawling into Eastern Utah, and it's clear the design team did their homework when researching what this area actually looks like. It's no secret that this game is gorgeous, but it takes it to a whole different level when you realize that this whole game is based on real world locations and that it actually looks like the locations it's trying to represent. This attention to detail in the setting is honestly what makes this game believable. My one critique with the visuals from this game are the facial features on various characters. The character models, as a whole, are beautifully designed. But when you start interacting with them, they feel very robotic and plastic. It's a very petty thing to complain about, but it's something that bothered me even up to my final hours of playing this game. It was clear that the developers spent more time smoothing over the setting but didn't spend as much time polishing up the characters found within the world, and that's a miss.
Setting plays a big part in the immersion process that is vital to the success of an RPG. Along with setting, you also need to have a sense of character progression or evolution. From the mainline story to the little errand side quests you never have a moment of wondering, "Why the heck am I doing this?". Whether it's avenging your tribe for the cult massacre, or it's ultimately stopping a crazed warlord from killing an entire civilization, you feel the story unfold in front of you and you feel like what you do is impacting the world around you. As a gamer, we need this sense of impact because it makes us actually care to keep discovering and saving this virtual world the developers created. That isn't to say that there aren't some quests that one could deem as "grind quests", but "Horizon Zero Dawn" has a really unique way of quest organization and classification. There are, of course, the "main" quests. But after this, you will find there is a separate section for "side" quests, "errand" quests, and then the subsequent grind quests. My one critique with this section is that the distinction between what is a "side" quest and what is an "errand" quest is not very clear. I consider "side" quests as quests that are created to specifically allow the player to delve deeper into a subsection of lore that wouldn't normally get covered in the main questline. On the other hand, when I think of "errand" quests I think of the typical, "Go to X location to get me Y thing(s)". This is not always the case with Horizon, and a lot of the classified "errand" quests actually fit more of what we are used to thinking as "Side" quests, which leaves me feeling confused on why the developers even felt the need to establish this differentiation.
The second aspect of creating a successful RPG, is the story. You can make your gamer feel as much like the main character of the game as you want, but if your story sucks then that desire to complete the game and see the end gets tossed out the window. One thing I appreciate is that the developers established Aloy as a baby, as a determined child, and then finally as a strong young woman. You understand her backstory, and you understand the impact of what this means to her. Let's be clear, this is not a story about "finding oneself" because she does this at the beginning. This is a story about discovery and salvation. As you progress through the game, your goal shifts from answering deep questions to saving your world from ultimate destruction. It keeps you on your toes and is paced in such a way that you never get the feeling that you aren't ready to tackle your problems head on.
Although there is a leveling system in this game, at no point did I ever feel like I needed to pause the action to go complete a handful of the other quests in order to complete my objective. Now don't get me wrong, this game is not easy and can get very punishing if you don't execute the objective properly. Usually, this is heavily stealth based. I tended to snipe heavily throughout the game, but there are also sneak attacks and traps that are at the player's disposal to complete the game. Since the main quests are paced perfectly, you never have the chance to lose sight of what the game's story actually is. This is fantastic because that's what an RPG should be about. It should be about creating an immersive environment to allow for you players to experience and appreciate the story that you are trying to present. My one critique about the quest design and execution is that it leaves very little wiggle room to allow for various types of gameplay. If you are a person who tends to run face first into your foes with guns blazing, you will die. This game forces you to analyze the situation you are about to get yourself into and actually plan ahead what tactic you will use at your disposal.
This game is a solid 9 out of 10, based on my RPG criteria. It creates a vastly immersive gameplay experience while also maintaining a consistent and interesting story. It's different from other games in the apocalyptic world genre in that you never feel a sense of loss for society, but rather hope. You aren't trying to restore society to what it once was, instead, you are trying to protect the world you have. The small critiques that there are for "Horizon Zero Dawn" pale in comparison to everything that this game has done right. Let's keep this hype train going for a game that deserves it! If you haven't checked it out yet, I strongly suggest you give it a go