Horizon Zero Dawn
Developed by: Guerilla Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4
Has a culture other than ours ever produced such a wealth of apocalyptic narratives? Will we ever grow bored with these stories? Questions like this buzzed in my head during my seventy-hour playthrough of “Horizon Zero Dawn”–the open-world RPG that fuses the allure of primitivism with that of futuristic technology. It is wish fulfillment of a high order: Eden 2.0 with gadgets.
Developed over five years by Guerilla Games, Sony’s Amsterdam-based internal studio best known for their “Killzone” first-person-shooter series, “Horizon” is a polished piece of entertainment that I found easy to lose myself in. The game — a sort-of hybrid of “Far Cry”and “Mass Effect”– follows the adventures of Aloy, a young woman who comes of age in the distant future. Aloy is born into a primitive society that developed long after a cataclysmic event reduced mankind’s habitats to ruins. In the new world, flora and fauna flourish and the rivers run clean. Meanwhile robots, which have been created in the likenesses of hawks, tigers, crabs, bulls, and dinosaurs, roam the Earth sharing the land with wild animals. In the years before Aloy was born, the machines didn’t pose a threat to humans, but such is not the case when the game starts.
Aloy’s story traces the classic arc from outsider to supreme insider. The matriarch-led community of which she is nominally a part, the Nora, deem her an “outcast.” From the age of a young child, she is made to feel the sting of being actively shunned by those around her — parents teach their children not to speak with her. So when she learns from Rost, her designated guardian and fellow outcast, about a tribal initiation contest for warriors that, were she to win, would nullify her outcast status, she commits to training for it. After years of preparation, she enters the Proving but her triumph is cut short by an ambush from a warmongering tribe that targets her specifically. She is injured in the assault but nursed back to health. Desperate to identify her attackers she is anointed a “seeker” by the tribe’s matriarchs. The honor allows her, for the first time, to wander beyond the perimeter of the Nora’s sacred homeland.
Aloy’s journey from the lands of the Nora is also one away from its religion. The Nora faithful hold technology in contempt. For them, the complex inventions of the past as well as the industrially-made cities of men were outward manifestations of human arrogance that irked the goddess they worship. As Aloy makes her way through foreign lands she comes to see the Nora’s condemnation of technological artifacts as evidence of gross ignorance. The storyline is certainly not enamored with religion, but it displays a respect for acts of celebration and ritual. Repeatedly throughout the story, knowledge isolates people from those around them by placing them on lonely paths burdened by unshareable responsibilities.
“Horizon” generally makes good use of its actors. Ashley Burch (who voiced Chloe in “Life is Strange”) lends Aloy an endearing warmth and skepticism, while Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels in “The Wire”) delivers a typically fine performance as Sylens, Aloy’s Machiavellian, intellectual companion. Though some dialogue beats are stronger than others, I felt compelled to see Aloy’s journey through to the credits. This was in part due to how well the designers balance the story, combat, and exploration sections of the game. I found the game’s environments to be noticeably well-designed, varied yet harmonious. Learning how best to adjust my tactics to take on the different robot classes was a routine I readily got used to. One of my favorites fights involved luring enemies to a river stream where I took on as many as I could, for as long as I could. And then jumping over a waterfall like Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans” to escape and heal up.
“Horizon Zero Dawn” reminded me very much of a deftly engineered Hollywood movie. I wasn’t especially surprised by its plot twists, but that didn’t mean I didn’t generally enjoy it. Let’s see if it develops into a franchise with worthwhile staying power.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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