Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world game with RPG mechanics released for the PS4 in 2017. It was developed by Guerrilla Games and published by Sony themselves. Following the apocalypse, mankind has returned to tribalistic society. Only, there are giant murderous machine animals walking around alongside normal ones. The born outcast Aloy decides to set out to figure out the mysteries behind this strange world and the circumstances of her birth.
HZD does an excellent job of introducing you to the world before the plot sets in motion. You get to follow Aloy through her childhood, learning how the setting works and how to play. Once that's done, you get introduced to the central mystery (what caused the apocalypse and how it relates to the robots) and Aloy gets a reason to untangle it.
From that point on, things slow down and you get to take in the cultures of the different tribes whilst uncovering pieces of the backstory. It's not difficult to stay a few steps ahead of the story with some guesswork, but since Aloy is such a terrific main character and the story doesn't rely on a single twist, it remains interesting to learn more about the world throughout the whole game. The high amount of detail in the worldbuilding helps, even if it's a bit of a chore to go through every voice log and document.
While Aloy gets emotional in a few key scenes, for the majority of the game she's rather level-headed, curious and kind, which you'd expect from a protagonist that has to solve the problems of just about everyone she runs into. Thankfully, she never comes across as a flat character. In fact, her arc from a wide-eyed kid to an adult who understands the world is pretty great. The fact that her arc coincides with your exploration of the world is a nice touch.
The game does something I really appreciate during dialogue trees. You sometimes get an option of how to respond to something. You can have Aloy be aggressive, rational or empathic. The game is honest about these choices never amounting to anything of note, but they do let you roleplay slightly, pushing Aloy towards the characterization that you like best. It doesn't sound like much, but it's really nice to be able to pick how she should act sometimes.
While the story is good and the game is pretty, HZD truly shines in the combat department. It takes aspects of Monster Hunter, Dark Souls and Far Cry to create some really nice combat encounters.
Aloy can use her spear for some simplistic attacks in a pinch, but the main way of dealing damage to the game's decent selection of engineered fauna is by using the various weapons at your disposal.
The bows are the simplest weapons, as one would expect. There are also what amounts to trip wires, weak machine guns, grenades, sticky bombs and some more inventive kinds of weaponry. But to fight properly, you need to adapt your strategy to the foe at hand.
Every machine is armored and has a weakness of some sort. It could be either a body part or specific element of damage. Trying to fight them head-on is usually a death sentence, so proper care must be taken.
The game has a simple stealth system which lacks depth, but is still fun to use. You can sneak in tall grass, cause diversions, scan the paths of the robots in the area, put down traps and do stealth attacks. Early on, this is enough to win, but after a while, stealth will only earn you an advantage, which is fine.
When your presence is known and things heat up, you'd best make use of the elemental system, which I quite like. The reason being that it actually does something! Each elemental damage type has an associated status effect that's really easy to trigger on something weak to said element.
Fire causes a damage-over-time effect, ice freezes enemies and drops their defence and electricity earns you a free stun and critical follow-up attack. Hell, even preparing defensive potions for said elements is engaging, since they can greatly reduce the damage you take from that element, almost nullifying certain enemies.
It's not all puppies and sunshine however. You have to fight humans from time to time and they aren't nearly as complex to take down. If anything, I can appreciate just how fun they are to explode to death, but you have to fight so many of them during certain sections and it's a bit of a drag.
Also, I can't really get my head arround the corruption mechanic. It's a special element and it is supposed to cause infighting between enemies, which it does. But it feels somewhat random at times, so I think it was nerfed during development in order to balance things out. As it is now, you can basically ignore using it.
Similarly, you can override machines by sneaking up on them. But the application of an overriden machine is rather limited outside of transportation. I was really missing a way to issue simple commands during combat instead of just leaving them in a pile of hostile machines and hoping for the best.
And one last thing. To feed into the scavenger society Aloy lives in, you have to constantly be on the lookout for medicinal plants for her medicine pouch. This works for the most part, but if you find yourself completely drained and want to go to another risky encounter, you have to spend an eternity getting your health reserves back up. Aside from one part of the map that has a decent amount of plants, there's no way to speed up the process. The game is really missing a way to buy medicine, even just a limited supply per in-game day at an exorbitant price.
A game like this lives and dies by how engaging it is to walk around and find all the gazillion collectibles left by the designers. I like them, but I'm thinking I'm more open to this kind of design due to how little of Ubisoft's open-world games I've played.
Each section of the map is governed by a Tallneck machine, which has a similar purpose to towers in Ubisoft games. Only, here it presents you with the slight challenge of analyzing the area and finding the perfect spot to jump on it as it walks around. It adds a bit of gravitas to the whole ordeal, which is welcome.
Once that's done, all the icons pop up and you can get busy. There are some collectibles to be found, which offer small rewards once you complete a set. They do provide some story fluff, but I think they should provide better rewards for all the trekking you have to do.
Running around isn't a bad time though, since the world is full of machine nests to keep you busy. Walking in on a machine you have no business fighting yet and getting away without dying is pretty exhilarating. Managing to kill one feels even better.
In order to get most collectibles, you have to use the climbing system, which is extremely limited. It's close to identical to the climbing in Uncharted and features even more issues. First of all, due to the open structure of the game, HZD doesn't even try to make climbing sections interesting with setpieces aside from very rare instances. And no, the odd slow-motion jump doesn't help, it just falls flat. And since many climbs are long, they become boring very fast. There's just no challenge present, save for finding where the starting point is. Which is tougher than you'd hope for at certain ruins. I distinctly recall bunny-hopping up a mountain, only to find out that I had to do the climbing section on the other side to get the shinie. Got me right upset, I tell you.
The side quests provide good content, usually exploring some side part of the setting and providing interesting stories and some fun fights. But I think they rely too much on the tracking mechanic, which is there to guide you when Aloy wouldn't know where to go and the game can't justify a magical quest marker. It's a nice effort for immersion, but tracking is not challenging in the slightest. They could at the very least provide some unrelated tracks and make the challenge to pick which one to follow.
Last things of note are the ”activites”, namely bandit camps, hunting lodges and Cauldrons.
The bandit camps are just an excuse to murder a bunch of people not related to any tribes. You can imagine how fun that is after the fourth time. The Cauldrons are combat dungeons that reward you with more overrides should you beat them. They're fine, but you can really feel the lack of puzzles in them. Puzzling is not what the game sets out to accomplish, but beating the Cauldrons aren't much different from walking in a straight line across 3 machine nests and would be the place to offer some more distinct gameplay.
The hunting lodges are pretty awesome though, save for all the resources they can make you burn through. They're essentially extra challenges meant to hone your skills and provide a bit of a tutorial on combat strategies. It's good stuff and really push you to master the mechanics.
The crafting system is quite simple. You scavange enemies and the enviroment for parts and then make ammo, potions or inventory bags and trade for new weapons or armor. As far as consumables go, it's balanced fairly well, keeping you from using the same sort of ammo unabated. Though if you play in an optimal fashion, there will come a point where you just can't use ammo fast enough to run dry. Perhaps starting on a higher difficulty would balance that out.
Where I take issue is with some of the rare drops, which are problematic and annoying, as expected. Rare machine parts that you need for equipment can be bad, but most parts are easy enough to find. The real annoyance are the animal parts, since they seems extra rare and animals aren't marked on the map. Good luck pinpointing where the squirrels roam and kill enough for them to drop some bone.
Weapons are thankfully not as terrible as they could be. You'd expect them to get much stronger as the material gets rarer, but that's not really the case. Instead, getting an upgraded weapon (which doesn't happen often) just means that it holds more diverse ammo. They get a bit stronger, but the extra elemental coverage is what really matters, which is awesome.
So as you go along the weapon progression, you're getting access to more potential strategies without getting to pancake weaker machines by breathing at them. Of course, if you keep up with weapon modding, you can get pretty close to that level of power.
You'd be fool to start playing with mods without doing some leveling first, however. The game uses a simple system that provides a health boost and a skill point with every level. And in order to swap around mods freely without losing the previous one, you need that specific skill. The skills are divided into mostly linear sub-trees and feature some decent choices over the course of the game. I think certain skills, like the mod reuse one and the ones that boost drop rates should't need to be sealed within the upgrade tree, since they make the game so much more convenient. I also found myself satisfied with around 75% of the skills and only got the rest because I could.
And just to end this section on a sour note, the tutorial challenges tied to the weapons suck. The only reason I say so is because the challenges are only completable if that quest is active, meaning they can ”lose focus” if you start doing just about anything else even though they should just pop up whenever you complete an associated challenge.
The DLC for HZD was a bit of a surprise, since it's designed in a similar fashion to a Dark Souls DLC.
By that, I mean that you can sneak in underleveled and break the progression curve by fighting through it and that it changes some basic things for the sake of variety. It's just a lovely piece of game. You have weapons that are just the same as the old ones, but provide extra damage if you charge them, further rewarding stealth and distant play. They were nice enough to include some fun new weapons as well, that seem built to burn through excess crafting material and provide bright explosions.
There are new enemies, some crazy hunter lodge challenges, a new form of machine corruption that really incentivizes stealth, a collectible that's actually worthwhile, mods for Aloy's spear, a new branch of the skill tree and good little story to tie it together.
Should they make another game, I sure hope they continue in this direction. And let me mount flying machines. I want to dive bomb robot dinosaurs, dammit!