I fell in love with Horizon: Zero Dawn the moment it was revealed. The visuals looked beautiful, those colourful vistas, Alloy’s character design, it was all amazing. And of course, there were giant robotic dinosaurs. That really didn’t hurt. Like many young boys, I loved dinosaurs as a child. I still have a fondness for them. It’s really a wonder that so few games make us of them – there’s an undeniable sense of cool that comes with dinosaurs, a raw ‘wow’ moment. While Horizon doesn’t use the actual creatures, the robots’ design inspiration is crystal clear. You try and tell me that a thunderjaw is not just a T-Rex.
When Horizon launched in 2017, I was studying abroad in Japan and unable to play, but I impatiently watched everyone’s reactions online. 2017 was a big year for console games however – it also saw the release of the Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which stole a little bit of Horizon’s thunder. They were inevitably going to be compared – both were open-world, both first party releases from the console makers, both arriving within a few days of each other. I remember that the initial reaction to Horizon was tempered a little bit with the release of Zelda – the latter taking a more open ended, free-roaming approach to its world that made it stand out from other open-world games at the time. Horizon, by contrast, was a little more traditional, a little less boundary-breaking. Over time however, it’s regained that initial praise that was heaped upon it, and has earned itself a place in the pantheon of the best Playstation first-party franchises.
My own experience with Horizon started a little weakly. I was enjoying the game, but I didn’t feel completely hooked by it. I was enjoying roaming around this post apocalyptic world, fighting with the robo-dinos, but I didn’t quite have that drive to constantly play the game. That changed however, when I first started picking at Horizon’s mysteries. Exploring a cauldron for the first time filled my head with questions – where did these robo-dinos come from? What happened to the world before? Finding snippets of data dotted around the world was tantalising – a glimpse into a long-gone past where something so momentous had happened that it had destroyed the civilisation we take for granted. Playing through the story felt more akin to playing through a game like Danganronpa, a heavy sense of unease hanging over the experience as you constantly tried to understand what had come to pass. It was exhilarating. While I see many people online praising Horizon’s game mechanics, for me, it was the story that really sunk its teeth in. Every new discovery wowed me, every new twist in the tale shocked me. I was really gutted when I reached the end of the mystery of what had happened to this world, not because the ending was bad, but because there was no more to discover.
For me, Horizon’s strengths were in its exploration of the past, much more so than in its post-apocalyptic world building. I felt a little uneasy about the inevitable sequel – now that the mystery of what had happened had been solved, would I still feel the same love for future stories in the series? Last year, I finally got around to playing the expansion pack, The Frozen Wilds. It reassured me that even if the central mystery had been solved, there were still a multitude of smaller stories, smaller riddles out there to be uncovered, to be picked apart. Even more, it reminded me just how good the game’s combat is – taking down these giant beasts with your range of weapons felt like an accomplishment – the disparity between your bow and arrow and their laser guns really made you feel like you’d overcome an insurmountable challenge every time, even as you grew accustomed to each enemy type’s habits and tactics.
Horizon: Zero Dawn ended up being a magical experience, one that I felt reticent to let go of, and its sequel is now my most anticipated game of 2021 and the PS5. Here’s hoping it lives up to the impressively high bar set by the first one.