The first three months of 2017 have been one of greatest first quarters of video game releases in recent memory. What began with “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard”, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”, and “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands” (all sequels, by the way) also included the first entry in a new series called “Horizon Zero Dawn”. Developer Guerrilla Games, known mostly for the Killzone series, took a chance on a brand new intellectual property exclusively for the PS4 console, and we are all the better for it. “Horizon Zero Dawn” exceeded my expectations for more than one reason, and it’s become my game of 2017 that I wish I could experience for the first time all over again.
It’s difficult to talk about the story of this game without giving away any of the surprise, especially since it’s one of the strongest elements of this adventure. Most of the intrigue centers around Aloy, the main character. She’s a young, red-haired girl raised by a man named Rost. For unknown reasons, Aloy and Rost are both outcasts, forced to live away from those in a nearby community. Aloy is determined to learn why and do whatever she can to be accepted. That’s what really makes this story so inviting and fresh. It doesn’t start out with some impending doom in the world. Instead, it gives us a genuine mystery that lasts for the entirety of the game, adding even larger plot points as the story goes on. And oh, how glorious the story gets during the final acts. Just when you think you’ve reached the final climax, new characters are introduced, secrets are unraveled, and questions are answered. And it just keeps going and going, all the way through to the end of the closing credits.
Another great aspect of the game is its setting and the mystery surrounding it. Although you have no idea where Aloy is at the beginning of the game, it gives you a great sense of awe exploring the world and slowly piecing together exactly what happened to this world and answer the questions that arise. For instance, if the world is technologically advanced enough to have highly intelligent robots modeled after animals on Earth, then why do its inhabitants live a lifestyle similar to those of slightly evolved cavemen? Those answers are revealed, not only through story beats, but through the environment itself. Multiple landmarks on the map give insight as to where you are and what happened, all while presenting new questions that encourage you to keep moving forward to uncover more layers of the mystery. And let’s not forget how stunning this world looks. The jungles are vibrant with lush colors and tiny details (including visible ants on tree trunks!), the snow-capped mountains feel cold and starkly contrasted, and the marsh areas truly feel like Aloy is sloshing through a wet environment and leaving soaked. The varied settings work great in the open world; where most games simply give each “level” one of these specific areas of ambience, Guerrilla Games succeeds in making you feel as if you actually traveled to a new location. The world is thoroughly enjoyable to explore and made me want to use the fast travel function less often than I do in most open world games.
As if the story and visuals weren’t enough to blow you away, “Horizon Zero Dawn” also delivers in gameplay mechanics. At first glance, this may seem like another open world game where the protagonist primarily uses a bow as a weapon. While that’s true, you’re getting a whole lot more than that. In addition to her bow, Aloy also has at her disposal a tripcaster, which allows to to leave elemental trip wires for enemies to run into, a sling to hurl the equivalent of elemental grenades, and even a weapon that will tie enemies down to the ground to make dealing damage that much easier. On top of that, Aloy has a special arrow type that strips enemies of different components, which not only makes them weaker, but also gives her extra materials or even weapons to then use against the same enemy. The bottom line here is that you have a plethora of options to tackle the various missions and bosses throughout this game. On more than one occasion, I face what felt like insurmountable odds, but after failing, I regrouped, tried a different approach, and felt super satisfied when I finally accomplished whatever task I completed. And this feeling only gets stronger as you get deeper and deeper into the game.
The only real negative that I can come up with for this game is the inventory management. I really had no way to know which items were safe to sell and which I should hang onto. It made me yearn for some kind of storage crate or something at each settlement that I could come back to retrieve items I was too nervous to sell. This is nowhere near a deal breaker, as I was able to make it work just fine. It just would have made things a tad easier. Besides, the ease of switching weapons and crafting ammo more than made up for it.
Minor setback aside, “Horizon Zero Dawn” delivers on almost every facet of what makes a quality video game for me. I haven’t been so enthralled with a story since “Bioshock: Infinite”, a game that nearly brought me to tears. I mean it when I say this: it’s that good, and it’s beautifully told. That along with a fresh take on open world games mechanics and a truly original setting make for a game that I consider as close to a masterpiece as I’ve seen in recent years.