Horizon Zero Dawn Review (2020 Edition)

Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Hundreds of years in the future, machines patrol the decaying ruins of cities. A mysterious child, raised as an outcast, searches for meaning. A determined heroine, highly skilled in futuristic weaponry, rebels against a religious upbringing.

Horizon Zero Dawn serves up all the tropes of a dystopian fantasy RPG but delivers them with a healthy smack of playability and gorgeous visuals that left me compelled to play on.

About Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role playing game, first launched as an exclusive to Playstation 4 in 2017 by Guerilla Games, their first foray into RPGs. Its initial run saw overwhelming commercial and critical success, selling over 10 million copies in 2 years and it became a mainstay in gaming awards. With an expected sequel in the works, as well as rumours of a PC release of the original, I finally jump on the bandwagon to review this seminal game.


Horizon is set in the 31st Century, hundreds of years after a cataclysmic event that reduced the human world to urban ruins, now overgrown by years of unfettered natural growth. This world is a dangerous, barren place, with primitive tribes clustered in extreme environments, praying to the earth to try and survive. The exact details that led to this catastrophe are a total mystery, but if I were a gambler I’d bet the animal-shaped machines that now stalk the wasteland had something to do with it.

We’re not treading new ground here, but luckily Horizon is self-aware enough of this that the mythology is dispatched in bitesize chunks. We start the game with central protagonist Aloy’s upbringing as an outcast from her local tribe of Amazonian priestesses. Without giving too much away, a ceremonial rite of passage goes disastrously wrong, conveniently severing the players’ ties to the tutorial setting of Aloy’s tribe. You find yourself plunged into an open world, on a sprawling quest to explore the great wasteland, and in doing so restore peace to the scattered tribes. And who knows, along the way you might just find what’s behind those giant mechanical doors Aloy emerged from as a baby.

It’s not a story of subtlety. The themes of urban decay, conservation of nature, and the greed of the technology industry are laid out with a heavy hand(it doesn’t come as a surprise to discover the godlike sentient artificial intelligence is called GAIA). There’s none of the ethical decision making of, say, The Witcher - Horizon’s moral compass points due North, and Aloy consistently falls on the ‘right’ side of right vs wrong. It’s a shame, because the overarching mythology tries its best to push against these boundaries,, but ultimately the writers opted for a formulaic approach that strips the player of feeling much control over Aloy’s destiny.

Due to the familiar ground it covers, the story revelations in Horizon are easily precipitated by the player and therefore anticlimactic. I found myself reluctant (or even unable to remember how) to evolve the story after a few hours immersed in sidequests, and while I’m sure that the moments of surprise and tension will feel fresh to anyone that is playing their first post-apocalyptic RPG, unfortunately they failed to captivate me.


Thankfully, the gameplay makes up for any elements lacking in the game’s story. Controlling Aloy is a joy, her movements and limitations are sufficiently realistic that the more far-fetched moments feel that much more satisfying. She runs, jumps, shoots and sneaks just like you’d expect a real human would, so the first time you scale one of the Tallneck machines to reveal a new area of the map and skilfully abseil down to the ground gives the player a suitable sense of accomplishment. And, thanks to the diversity of Aloy’s environment, this remains exciting the numeroustimes you need to do so; more on that gorgeous environment later.

Aloy improves her prowess by gaining XP through defeating machines, completing quests or discovering the map. Each new level rewards the player with skill points, which can be invested in one of the three skill trees: Prowler, Brave or Forager, whose abilities improve Aloy’s Stealth, Combat and Passive skills respectively. At first I found myself drawn to offensive skills, but Aloy’s physical limitations mean that she is barely able to leave a scratch on the larger machines without a serious upgrade to her arsenal, forcing me to invest heavily in stealth abilities to survive. Horizon continues its themes of realism with Aloy’s HP, which doesn’t regenerate over time, making Forager an unlikely second priority. This choice of build was out of my RPG comfort zone, but led to a much more strategic, and ultimately rewarding, play-style.

Horizon maintains its realism through its Campfire system, where Aloy must first discover campfires to both save progress, and to quick travel across the wasteland terrain. It’s admittedly an old-school approach to discovery, but thankfully the campfires are in high enough quantities that an unexpected Game Over following a failed ambush on a gargantuan enemy never sets you back too far.


On that note, you will face a lot of Game Overs in Horizon. It becomes quickly apparent in the opening tutorials that Aloy is physically outmatched by her enemies, and it takes some time to find the perfect strategy for dispatching the monstrous beasts. And, with every new environment comes new challenges; having spent hours crouched in tall grass tracking the routes of Grazers and Lancehorns, I found myself jumping out of my seat when I became the prey of camouflaged Stalkers in the southern jungle of The Jewel.

The difficulty curve is managed exceptionally well - the hours spent running and hiding from intimidating beasts meant I was exhilarated when finally armed with enough firepower to take them on. I felt compelled to return to areas I had already explored - for instance, using my newly acquired weapons to finally challenge a Snapmaw that had forced me to detour for an hour to avoid its nest in the Greatrun River after a string of Game Overs. Eventually, a mix of stealth, strategy and all-out revenge netted me the Snapmaw heart I needed to progress to become a member of the hunting lodge, unlocking even larger marks for me to cut my teeth against. That experience, and many others like it, exemplified the strategic and rewarding combat system on show in HZD, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


You can see from the below video where the majority of the €45 million development budget ended up - Horizon is breathtaking. It is beautiful, from the deep blue oceanic skies to the sandy heat emanating from the deserts, the environment its own character within the game. It evolves seamlessly - the snowy mountains of Mother’s Watch, the tropical jungle of Meridian, and the arid desert of Sunfall - fade neatly into each other. I routinely found myself putting down the controller just to let the beauty of each new atmosphere sink in momentarily.

While no expense was spared on the landscapes, the characters felt more monotonous in contrast. Tribal markings, unlikely haircuts and murky brown uniforms adorn NPCs in each of the settlements, and I felt uninspired to seek out new interactions with local tribespeople. The notable exception is Aloy herself, whose facial reactions and dynamic appearance were consistently captivating throughout.

The animalistic machines are similarly captivating. Although all built from the remains of robots, a creative approach to form keeps the Machines feeling fresh, despite all sharing the same monochrome colour palettes and bright yellow fuel cells. The designers worked in harmony with the story department here, each anthropomorphic design tying nicely to the game’s core themes of nature and technology, also serving to reinforce the mystery surrounding the central game’s central mythology.

They’re also fun - try dispatching a titanic dinosaur with just a bow and arrow without a smile.


Horizon Zero Dawn boasts hugely enjoyable gameplay and jaw dropping graphics, and it’s no surprise that it has become one of the best selling games on the PS4 platform. Fans of RPGs and Action games will find something to love here, but gamers looking for a story with real depth will probably come up short.

Verdict: 8/10


  • Landscapes that make you want to take a picture
  • Thrilling and diverse combat that keeps you entertained throughout
  • Excellent monster design leads to moments of pure satisfaction
  • Surprisingly realistic and dynamic controls


  • By-the-book story leaves a little to be desired
  • Some old-school gameplay mechanics feel a little outdated
  • Copy/paste character designs get a little dull

For fans of: Fallout, Uncharted, Skyrim

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Writer / gamer on the lookout for a triple word score.
Favorite Genre: RPG
Currently Playing: Horizon Zero Dawn
Top 3 Favorite Games:Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 3: Broken Steel, Fallout 4