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Number 5: Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon_Zero_Dawn

Copyright Guerrilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment

This kind of got spoiled yesterday when I talked about why this game got in the top 5 and Neir: Automata didn’t.  Part of the reason Horizon Zero Dawn got up in the Top 5 is because it’s a new IP, and that’s a big deal.  While this year has been great,  most of the major releases have been sequels or major parts of existing franchises.  Even Neir is the sequel to a game that Square Enix released in 2010, even if no one played it, and it’s sort of a part of the Drakengard series.  Horizon, though, is the biggest new IP in years.  Not only is it a great game with a somewhat unique premise, it also manages to be a complete game and doesn’t try to sell me a sequel just because I beat the game, so that helps.

Horizon Zero Dawn takes place way into the future in the ruins of the United States after a robotic apocalypse.  The player plays Aloy, a girl exiled from her tribe at birth for an unknown reason, who goes on an adventure to solve the mystery of what caused civilization to collapse and to save her tribe, as well as others, from another potential apocalypse.  Even though it’s a pretty standard hero’s journey, it’s well told and does a good job of utilizing the medium.  Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that really tries to solve the major issues with storytelling in open world RPGs by trying to tie all of the side quests, and the main story quests, either into the overall narrative or into the themes of the game, which is a really good thing games like this have problems with.

I liked Witcher 3 and Skyrim and a bunch of other open world RPGs, but none of them had the writing that Horizon Zero Dawn has.  There’s a certain focus on character and theme that most games in this genre don’t have.  Aloy is a fully realized character, as are her allies and many of her enemies.  Sure, the bad guys are a bit one note, but they do feel like real people grasping desperately for power.  The game takes place in a near Renaissance-level society (with some Roman trappings for flavor), so the bad guys, even those that aren’t very well developed do feel like they fit within the setting.  That’s good, but the game does much better with the heroes, which feel like real people.  They have flaws and foibles, make bad decisions and sometimes even piss each other off in ways that real friends can wind up doing.  It’s not a thing we see in most RPGs.  The interaction between the characters isn’t quite on the level of the boys from Final Fantasy XV, but the friendships and relationships in this are written as if they were real.

Writing isn’t the only thing it does well, of course.  It’s a great game to play.  One of the biggest issues I’ve had with open world games is that they tend to be too big.  Tons and tons of things to do, sure, but very little of it is interesting.  That’s not the case here.  Outside of the requisite Assassin’s Creed style pointless colectibles and one series of sidequests (which were good, I just didn’t like them) I did literally everything I could in the game.  There were some things I did just because they were challenging and sort of felt like I was making the world a better place.

The gameplay takes a little bit to get used to, which is probably the biggest flaw of the game.  It’s hard to aim, at first, and Aloy feels somewhat underpowered despite what the cutscenes after the tutorial seem to indicate.  It’s because there is a lot of depth to how combat works, with different weapons doing different things, and contributing to encounters in different ways, but the game doesn’t have the best conveyence in explaining that a sharpshot bow is different from a war bow which is different from a hunting bow and why all three of them are kind of needed to be equipped at the same time.  Once I got that, though, the game felt great.  There was so much to do, each type of machine was unique and had a different approach to combat, and the story and sidequests were compelling enough to keep me playing, once I got over the hump.  Once I did get over that hump, I found there was a lot to see and a lot of ways to approach each type of machine.  The game is sold as a sort of Monster Hunter with Robots, where I can shoot weapons off of the robots and use those weapons to kill robots, and once I got that, everything clicked.  I felt like an unstoppable goddess of war when I played, taking down machines several stories tall with nothing but a bow and some weird arrows.

Ultimately, it sort of pales in a world where Breath of the Wild came out a month later.  It has its advantages over the new Zelda title, but the fact I can’t climb everywhere or explore as much as I can in the new Zelda does knock it down a few pegs, as well.  On the other hand, it has much better writing and characterization than anything else in the genre, giving it a serious leg up.  There need to be more new IPs like this,  more RPGs that focus on character over plot and more games that are willing to experiment and go in depth with combat.

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