Horizon Zero Dawn is set in the world of the Wilds, where forest and desert take up more area than the growing population that lives in them. People form tribes, preferring to band together and help one another survive, settle down, and cuddle for warmth. Other than the struggles of tribal life, like starvation and the bitter cold of winter, there is another threat, a predator. One that is larger than life, skin as hard as steel and a FULLY AUTOMATED MOUNTED GUN ON ITS BACK!… and two on its jaws… and lasers there too… and a radar to scan you in hiding spots, proving that you can’t run, or can’t hide. These giant robot dinosaurs live everywhere and it’s clear that they’ve had control of this land before any human opened its eyes to see the beauty of the very same landscape. Without the help of a faithful tribe, life can seem bleak.
Tribes feel so safe because power comes easily in numbers, what one doesn’t know another can thrive in. Life gets harder in the later years, and knowing that the next generation can help in exchange for wisdom is comforting. Forming tribes to stand together can make these titanic mechanical beasts, some literally named Deathbringers, that much smaller. Knowing you aren’t alone can make these Deathbringers manageable. With the help of others, feats that are impossible alone become within reach. Living alone is a death sentence.
Aloy, the main character of Horizon, lives on her own. Exiled from her village as an infant she only had help from a fellow exile and father figure, Rost. From him, Aloy learned everything that it took to live on her own. Hunting, cooking, tying a sick braid in your hair, and she had to master all of it. There is an immense pressure on her that if she fails just one part of her exiled life, then it will quickly end. So it would come to reason that Aloy should be able to handle every facet of her survival. But there is one aspect that escapes her grasp, she can’t create her own weapons or defensive armor.
Aloy is completely and utterly self reliant, making everything she uses out of the world around her, everything except for arguably the most vital tools of survival. While it’s not impossible to believe that making bows and slings are out of her grasp, it feels strange. Every other component of that game can be found or created from found objects. Hours can be spent hunting animals to upgrade how much inventory Aloy could hold at one time. Running dry on ammo for a particular weapon is solved by a simple hike through the forest to find the sticks and flammable materials. But if you want to get a new and stronger way to fire these combustible arrows, you have to buck up and try to avoid eye contact as you ask someone else to make one for you.
Aloy has been taught everything, from a young age Rost would bend down and speak of a shrub called a Salvebrush and that it can be used to help wounds heal faster. At the same time, the kids of her former village would shun and bully her. Both these would make Aloy grow with the ability to survive without needing anyone else, and with a seed of hate toward the village who kicked her out of society. This doesn’t seem like the person who want to go out of her way to ask someone else for any kind of help. She has learned all she needed while she was young. She grew up with that knowledge while training to her physical peak. It’s at this point where the player truly takes control of Aloy. From the start you are a master of the Wilds needing no other but yourself and a handful of arrows. As the game progresses Aloy gets stronger, being able to do more and more on her own.
This idea of being self reliant took hold of me, and I often refused to visit any villages unless brought there by a quest. That is until near the end of the game, I had cleared the fog over the map and most of the activities scattered about it were done, all that was left was the story. But suddenly there was a difficulty spike, enemies hit harder, and my weapons weren’t as effective as they were before. Curious, I scoured my inventory for a clue on how to continue. After a long look it hit me, I’ve had the same weapons from near the start of the game and visiting a nearby vendor uncovered where the rest were… waiting to be bought.
This feels oppressive as Aloy is still seen as beneath her peers. She goes from the title Exile, to Savage as she leaves to lands outside her tribe. After witnessing Horizon’s prologue where Aloy proves she can handle herself without a tribe, if feels like a let down having to ask for a shiny new weapon from a merchant in the city where the common citizen can be heard calling her a savage. The seed of hate that was planted early on in the game seems to have withered away, replaced by a mild resentment as Aloy passively deals with the people around her. Aloy is ok with needing the help of others, rather than going out to help herself like she always has.
Getting a store bought bow feels mundane, it might as well come with a price tag. The new gear is useful, but not fulfilling. It helps take down larger challenges, but I can’t help feel that new bow did the work, not Aloy as a character.
Creating every weapon from scratch out of the remains of fallen machines would feel so much more satisfying. It would give a reason to explore and conquer greater challenges. How do you want to bring two thunderjaws to their knees? Stalkers are normally something to run from, but you need that part that only they hold. Using Trampler horns to create a new bow with your own hands gives a feeling of ownership. That bow is yours, and you know exactly what it took to obtain. Maybe it even deserves a name.
Taking the route of bought, over hand made weapons and gear doesn’t stop Horizon from being a tremendous game, it reigns high on my list of games of 2017. But it seems like a quick patch over that could have been a more elegant solution. Creating weapons would have made Alloy appear stronger and have her stand out more from the rest of the world. This solution would improve game mechanically and one that falls easily in its story.