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The Mary Sue

Review: Horizon: Zero Dawn Finds Fresh Hope in the Overdone Post-Apocalyptic Genre

4.5 apocalypses out of 5.

horizon zero dawn

Horizon: Zero Dawn, aside from being a legitimately fun third person action game, has to have one of the most diverse casts I’ve seen in a triple-A game in a long, long while. It’s a game that doesn’t make a big deal of its diversity, instead painting a picture of a world where leadership falls to women and people of color.

This feels like one of Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s more stronger selling points. It’s subversive in its subtle feminism, presenting diversity as simply a matter-of-fact. True, there are points where sexism finds a way to play itself out—thus is life, it seems, for any female protagonist—but the diverse cast is, well, just a diverse cast. In a few small ways, it’s a presentation of the world how it should be.

That being said, prejudice is presented as an inevitability in human nature, a mistake we’re all doomed to repeat, regardless of how many apocalypses we have to go through as a result of such prejudices and hatred. That’s kind of disappointing (for humanity, that is, not for the game), but the game flourishes in spite of such disappointment, suggesting that perhaps there is another way.

Generally speaking, the story goes like this: A “post-post-apocalyptic event” (as described by more than a few critics) takes place, with machines modeled after animals taking over the world, essentially sending humanity back into the stone age. Despite that, the surviving humans found a way to re-establish civilization, dividing itself into tribes, each pulling from real world cultures. Aloy (a play on “alloy,” a mixture of a metal and some other element), our protagonist, hails from the Nora tribe, a group that pulls heavily from Native American culture—so much so, in fact, that the game has been accused of appropriating Native American culture, specifically with its use of the title “brave,” referring to warriors within the Nora tribe.

We’re trained and taught about the basic mechanics of the game through the guise of Aloy’s mentor, Rost, teaching a very young Aloy how to hunt and evade the metal machines. It’s a wonderful touch, as rather than putting the player in a position where they’re made to feel powerful, the game sets the tone that we are working around the machines, rather than through or over them.

Among the many tools available at Aloy’s disposal are a series of different bows, each designed to lob a few special classes of arrows at the machines. Combat here feels fun, as running into new, novel machine designs results in a period of examination and exploration. It’s all but required that time be spent understanding how each machine moves and attacks, where each of their weak points are, and the like. It lends a sense of satisfaction as a previously daunting enemy becomes just another notch on your bow. But before too long, those notches become somewhat repetitive. Once you find and develop strategies for defeating each of the unique machines, it feels more rinse-and-repeat at that point.

In addition, the side missions show signs of being repetitive as they break down into a lot of tracking previously invisible tracks through your high-tech tool, the Focus. A neat touch of this, though, is that Aloy gains a small reputation for having a “second sight,” which is basically thanks to the technology she stumbles upon as a child. As they say: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Crafting plays a large part in the game, as well as resource management. Resources are in abundance, but they take time to gather. Sometimes this felt like a chore, as it was up to you to spend the time running around the world to manually gather bits and pieces to craft just about everything. But I’m a bit of a resource hog, and it felt pretty good to be riding into a battle knowing that I spent a solid amount of time manually preparing for what’s to come. This works the other way as well, as sometimes you’d accidentally run into a fight completely unprepared and you had to make do with whatever you had on hand. This led to me having to develop some improvisational techniques to deal with a machine. That being said, I also spent a lot of time just straight up running away.

The game teaches you to respect the power of the machines, and through Rost’s training, through our gameplay, through our experiences in combat and otherwise, we’re taught to understand and learn from them as a means of survival. It’s a refreshing take on the power of the protagonist, and really hammers home just how the power dynamics are supposed to play out in this world.

But here’s the thing: for all its dangers and all its complicated tribal politics and its lessons about humanity’s relationship with technology, the beating heart of this game lies in Aloy’s relationship to her mentor, Rost, and her search for her mother. It was perhaps incorrect to say that Aloy and Rost are members of the Nora tribe; they’re technically outcasts, left to try to survive in the harsh world all on their own. They’re outcasts partly because of the circumstances regarding Aloy’s birth and Rost’s subsequent guardianship over her.

The game deals with some pretty complex themes, including exclusion, parenthood, belonging, inter-personal relationships, humanity’s relationship to technology, and our seeming collective inevitable repetition of self-destructive habits like prejudice and war. But even with these, and in the face of a world poised to descend once again into yet another apocalypse, what truly carries Aloy through her journey is her quest to find her mother, and thus, find where she truly belongs. While some may feel that this makes her a bit of a selfish character, I think it makes her absolutely human and normal. Aloy obviously has an investment in the survival of the human race (I mean, who doesn’t), but it’s her focus on completing her own story that seems to motivate her and keep her fighting. It’s her search for her link to, well, anything that drives her forward.

Over the course of the game, Aloy’s journey takes her from outcast to hero, but what matters to her the most is discovering who and where she came from.

There’s one particular aspect of the game that I found myself returning to, time and again, every time some major development took place. In the lead up to the opening of the world, . Not long after that, a grave is set up in his memory outside of his and Aloy’s old home. While Aloy feels like she doesn’t have a connection to the comforts of that home, she still carries a strong bond with him, and upon returning, the player is offered the option to speak to the grave.

What’s especially interesting about this interaction is that the camera doesn’t focus on Aloy or her emotions as she’s relaying the stories of her adventure to the grave. Rather, it shoots her from behind, focusing instead on the cold, stony, unchanging face of the grave. It’s an excellent stylistic choice, one that really pushes Aloy’s voice actress (Ashly Burch) to deliver on emotion without the advantage of having a face to help inform the player’s feelings. Granted, as a voice actress, she doesn’t exactly have that luxury in her role anyway, but it’s no secret that the facial expressions of the voice talent often make their way into the game.

I didn’t think I’d be so touched by what is essentially a re-telling of an adventure I had just played through, but there’s something … beautiful in Aloy’s hopeful yet tired voice. It’s in speaking to the grave that she reveals her vulnerability. It’s here where we’re reminded just how young Aloy really is, and how she’s tasked with saving the world (or what remains of it), and just what kind of toll that’s taken on her. Despite feeling tired, she still speaks hopefully, as though victory and a solution to all of the problems is all but a certainty. The way she speaks here stands in stark contrast to her normally confident, measured emotional delivery to just about everyone else in the world. It’s in the presence of the dead that our heroine truly comes alive.

In that way, Horizon: Zero Dawn (as a game) finds new life in the oft-tired and seemingly dead genre of post-apocalyptic video games. It is by no means a “perfect” game, but it is one that manages to establish itself as a game that feels almost impossible to forget. As Aloy returns to the grave to tell her story, I know I’ll be finding my way back to the game for many months to come.

Sony provided sample copies for the purposes of this review.

(images courtesy of Sony)

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