Horizon Zero Dawn Review: It’s Not the Worst

Gear Diary is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn More.

The Lowdown

You should buy Horizon Zero Dawn if you’re looking to kill time in a scenic world while engaging in a clever story with a likable protagonist.

Overall
3

Pros

  • Great visuals and enemy sound effects
  • Aloy is a strong protagonist with an engaging main story
  • Reasonably fun combat and world traversal

Cons

  • In-game economy curve is way off
  • Lack of meaningful rewards
  • There is not much reason to engage with the “higher-hanging fruit” content (ie. advanced tactics)
Horizon Zero Dawn Review: It's Not the Worst Listen to this article

Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment) is a post-apocalyptic merger of “Zelda:Breath of the Wild” and Transformers. You play as Aloy, a former outcast tasked with solving the problems of the community that ostracised her. The twist that differentiates this product from the pile of open-world, map clearing, objective hunting games is that in this one, the large majority of your obstacles will be in the form of giant machines shaped like animals. These machines are big, these machines are aggressive, and these machines want to kick the tar out of you.

I beat Horizon Zero Dawn in about 46 hours (including the DLC, but this review will focus on the main game); here are my thoughts.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Picture taken moments before disaster | Photos courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment and Guerilla Games

The Narrative

In Horizon Zero Dawn, the main character, Aloy, starts off completely shunned by her people, the Nora. The entirety of the first 30-45 minutes revolves around stressing the point that she is a hated outcast, unfit even to be looked at sideways. It is a relentless Pavlovian mechanism of a mechanic tutorial revolving around a particular skill you’ll have to use, followed by a reaffirmation that nobody accepts you.

Nonetheless, following an attack by unknown invaders and feral machines that can “take control” of other robots, Aloy finds herself alone for the first time, as her mentor (and father figure) dies in the attack. The elders of the tribe appoint her a “seeker,” giving her the authority to travel outside of the Nora homelands to search for the attackers, avenge her adopted dad’s death, and discover the truth behind the machine corruption.

Your travels will take you through various biomes to interact with several key factions who are all, in some form or fashion, carving out their path in a brutal world.

Should you choose to engage in all the threads that are generously indicated on your map, you’ll find yourself undertaking tasks ranging from finding a collection of gift shop mugs to saving a monarch’s life. Lance Reddick (The Wire, John Wick) also voices/portrays a character in this game, so you’ll interact with him quite a lot as you delve into the secrets of the “old world.”

Reddick’s scathing and dismissive dialogue simultaneously makes you want to hear more and give him the bird with both hands. It’s great.

Without spoiling anything, Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative felt well-paced, and I actually enjoyed interacting with the characters and learning more about them. For the most part, one key plot point would lead to the next pretty seamlessly, and while there are codices scattered all over the place for you to read, I pretty much never did but still got the core premise of what was going on.

Engaging with the characters, exhausting the dialogue trees, and learning about the world these tribes reside in (and how it came to be) definitely added to my experience. My one sticking point is that the characters’ facial animations look uncanny half the time, leading to a break in the immersion.

Also, as a side note, Aloy is a great protagonist. I’m not sure if it was the writing or my imagination, but I felt a connection to her and the responsibilities she was entrusted with.

Horizon Zero Dawn character, Aloy, holding a bow and arrow

I literally do not remember this scene happening.

General Mechanics

As Aloy, you have several tools at your disposal to navigate the world. Your weaponry is an amusing mix of old and new tech, featuring gear like a bow that can shoot shock arrows. As mentioned, a big part of this world is fighting machines shaped like animals, and each machine has several weaknesses that you can exploit. An example would be canisters of combustible napalm strapped to a particular robot’s back, meaning a well-placed fire arrow can easily set off a chain reaction.

For those wanting to avoid getting dunked on by a robot (or a human bandit, for that matter), stealth is also an option. You can instantly kill most smaller foes with a sneak attack, but keep in mind that dead bodies attract attention, and you’ll never be able to take out the bigger baddies in one swing, even if you upgrade the skill.

Another tool in your arsenal is your “brainwash stick,” whereupon, investigating some of the ruins scattered across the map, Aloy acquires the knowledge on how to turn a hostile machine into an ally. While I found the AI of the new ally to be very hit or miss, I’d be lying if I said that watching two saber-toothed tigers made of metal locked in a death match wasn’t enjoyable.

The brainwash stick is actually a pretty useful tool because if you explore these ruins thoroughly (AKA engaging with the content), you will be able to take control of some truly monstrous enemies. What’s more, your allies get a damage bonus, meaning they’ll be able to punch above their weight.

Scene from Horizon Zero Dawn gameplay

If the eye is blue, they can’t see you; if the eye is red, you’re effing dead.

The Horizon Zero Dawn healing system is pretty balanced in that you can heal yourself by picking up red-colored herbs that grow all over the map. They are abundant enough that you can always top-off if needed with some quick exploring but scarce enough that it didn’t feel like you had an unlimited health pool. This is a really tricky balance that Horizon Zero Dawn absolutely nails. You’ll have access to health potions too, but those frankly seemed less fun to use.

Aloy can swim, climb, jump, dodge, swing on zip lines, and sprint; by and large, these controls seemed very responsive. I very rarely felt that a misstep or a mistake was caused by something out of my control. It is kind of ludicrous and amusing to me that this Amazonian super hunter can only climb up rock faces or structures tagged in yellow, but that’s par for the course with these types of games.

Visual and Audio Design

ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4

When I play games like Horizon Zero Dawn, I admit that I’m a bit of a wanderer. I like to take my time and explore every nook and cranny. The world is stunning; no two ways about it. The colors of the water, the dense foliage, and the desolate snow-capped mountains all paint an astoundingly appealing aesthetic. The charm of this spectacle diminishes greatly during the night cycles, where everything becomes a little too opaque, but that’s a small gripe.

Aloy standing on a mountaintop or other vantage point surveying the land can be quite breathtaking. The game does suffer from the prevalent open-world game issue of “big world, nothing in it” at times, but thankfully they place enough checkpoints around so that you can fast-travel close to where you need to be. Just don’t use the mount options unless you have to; they are ridiculously clunky and a waste of a skill point, in my opinion.

From a sound perspective, I also enjoyed the mixing and elements they chose to emphasize. Sneaking up on a pack of unsuspecting Lancehorns was wonderful, as all you could hear was the brush rustling, Aloy’s footsteps, and the gentle humming of the machines as they did their work.

Conversely, when a Thunderjaw (see the image at the top of this review to see what I’m talking about) is bearing down on you, all you can hear are the crackling power of the robot’s chassis, the blasts of its guns, and Aloy screaming as I inevitably got her thwacked by a tail larger than her entire body.

The machine design is likewise very well done. The game does a great job of slowly introducing you to increasingly lethal enemies and simultaneously the concept of neutralizing their most dangerous elements.

A Shellwalker is a nightmare when firing homing shock blasts at you, but if you shoot the cannon off, they become much less of an issue. One thing to take note of is that after killing a certain amount of each subtype, that specific subtype will “evolve” with additional armor plating, meaning those delectable glowing weak points are harder to hit.

Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn

The chosen one in all her glory

However…

In most games like Horizon Zero Dawn, you engage with the core world elements and points of interest for story progression, skill progression, and loot.

728x90

Fighting that giant machine should pay off with a fantastic reward; otherwise, why bother? I am a bit of a completionist, but towards the 30-hour mark, I was fully aware the only reason I even bothered to grab all the collectibles, beat the challenges, and even explore some of the areas was simply because of my compulsive need to clear the map of objectives.

Money and loot quickly became a nonfactor, as you are given access to the top-tier weapons around 10-15 hours into the story. The in-game economy stagnates after that, with most of your consumables being easily craftable or always topped up anyway. Sure, you can buy another armor set if you really want, but it would be mostly for cosmetic purposes, as the one you have equipped functions just fine.

What was most disappointing were the collectible set rewards. You would think that combing the map for a set of gift shop coffee mugs would net you something interesting, but you’d be sorely mistaken.

Instead of a unique item, most of these collectibles provide you with some sort of weapon or armor modification. By the time you get to this point, you will have a full inventory of high-tier modifications anyway, really putting out your candle. With such a minuscule carrot, I would surmise most gamers who don’t share my neurotic need to complete things will quickly choose to give these challenges a pass while playing.

With combat, you see a similar phenomenon. The designers clearly put a decent amount of effort into making each subclass of machine-enemy distinct enough so that their weak points were not all in the same place. However, at some point, it just became more efficient to use a “one size fits all” approach to combat.

As opposed to constantly swapping between weapon types based on weaknesses, besides my regular hardpoint arrows (basically arrows that do more damage to sensitive spots), I pretty much stuck to explosive tripwires, a really strong sniper shot bow, and occasionally, a gravity projectile that stripped armor and components of enemies.

Horizon Zero Dawn offers a wealth of combat tools and options to use, but I didn’t really feel I needed to use them.

Aloy using bow and arrow to shoot a foe in Horizon Zero Dawn

When in doubt, aim for the glowing bit.

What’s more, with the way the robots move and how fast they are at times, I had no time to engage with the tactical options in any meaningful way without pausing the game and reading the bestiary to see what was useful in what situation. You can enable your “analysis vision” to refresh what you should aim at and with what facet of your arsenal, but by the time you glean anything useful, Aloy might be a corpse.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn is fun, and I do not regret the time I put into it. However, it has made me hesitant to buy the sequel, as I don’t know if I can justify putting in another 50 hours for a similar experience. I think the game tries to cram too many things into it without putting in depth; surely, the game would have benefited from some more thought regarding how to keep the play loop engaging from the mid-game and on.

You should buy this game if you’re looking to kill time in a scenic world while engaging in a clever story with a likable protagonist.

Horizon Zero Dawn sells for $49.99 on PC (Steam, Epic) and $19.99 on Playstation.

Source: Personal purchase

What I Like: Great visuals and enemy sound effects; Aloy is a strong protagonist with an engaging main story; Reasonably fun combat and world traversal

What Needs Improvement: In-game economy curve is way off; Lack of meaningful rewards; There is not much reason to engage with the “higher-hanging fruit” content (i.e., advanced tactics)

728x90

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for your support!


About the Author

Flint Pickleback
Just some guy who plays video games to disconnect from the world. Wine is often involved, which thoroughly enhances the experience. I'm playing these games on an MSI GS75 Stealth, with 16GB DDR4, 9th Gen Intel Core i7-9750H, and a Nvidia 2070-Max Q Graphics Card. Please send pitches to "[email protected]" with "[email protected]" cced.