Playstation 4 was the first time I didn't buy a Sony console right away. Instead, I opted for an Xbox One. In hindsight, it was such a weird choice for me. For one, I've always been a huge fan of Japanese publishers, and Microsoft didn't exactly have a high showing of them. But what had convinced me to buy an Xbox One wasn't the games. I liked the backwards compatibility that Xbox was showing. I liked the Remote Play feature that they were rolling out. I liked the HDMI-input on the console. I had friends who were playing on Xbox.
The problem was that I watched an entire console generation of Playstation exclusives roll out that I wanted to play, but didn't have access to. I was fine with my decision at the time. I played a ton of Overwatch and Madden and XCOM 2 and other games that were platform agnostic. But I also played very few Xbox exclusives. Sure, I tried a Halo and Forza and Gears and none of them really blew me away. Meanwhile, PS4 was releasing things like Until Dawn and JRPG's and shmups and the PSVR and a bevy of Arcade Archives, none of which I had access to.
When both the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters and Final Fantasy XVI were announced as Sony exclusives, I finally picked up a PS4. This was at the time when the PS5 was out, but not really available anywhere. I fell so in love with the console that I upgraded to a PS5 as soon as I possibly could. But this is all a long-winded way of saying that I'm finally catching up on PS4 games I missed out, like Horizon Zero Dawn.
Horizon is a single player open world action RPG. Its setting is full of lush nature, but enemies are all robotic. Also, the game had the unfortunate situation of being released at the same time as Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, a game which pretty much fits the same bill. Only it had "Zelda" in the title so got a lot more attention. Don't get me wrong, Horizon was a hit. My understanding is that it ended up like the fourth best selling PS4 game of all time. But it was a hit overshadowed by Zelda. I do strongly feel that had Horizon beaten Zelda to the punch, it would have been even more applauded and appreciated.
One thing it has that Zelda does not is storytelling. Don't get me wrong, BOTW has lore. But Horizon has an actual story. It's a true old fashioned single player RPG in that regard. That it starts with our hero Aloy as a child is truly effective. It makes you feel like you know Aloy. You root for Aloy and all of the victories that she gets through. The story is also emotional. When she and Rost part ways, I truly felt sad for her. When a gang shows up and attacks Aloy and her tribe's young folk during their initiation tournament, I felt tense.
The world of Horizon really grabs me as well. Now, I'm a sci-fi dude, no doubt. And I lean towards cyberpunk. I tend to like anything that reminds me of Blade Runner. This isn't that. On the surface it looks like, well, Zelda. But it takes place far in the future after an apocalypse of some sort and all of the wild life is robotic. So it's both futuristic and not. There's cybernetics, but they're often shunned by humans. And that sets up a very interesting nature versus technology theme for the whole game. I kind of love it. It's an incredible world, that I'm having a blast exploring.
But what I love the most is the combat. My god, the combat is satisfying. Truth be told, I tend to not really like action RPGs. I'm old school, and I like my combat turn based. But this game's combat is so great that I really get into it. I especially love using a bow and attacking from afar. I love that you can craft new elemental arrows.
I also think the skill tree is top notch. I'm not good at stealth, for instance. But I can work on maxing out my stealth skills to augment my lacking performance. Meanwhile, the Trinket perk allows you swap mods in and out of gear, which turns the game into a sort of Final Fantasy VII reminiscent exercise in attempting to break the game through creating incredible builds in the moment. Most of my strategy involves setting everything on fire from afar, though pulling off stealth skills when you're horrible at stealth feels really good.
Even crafting works in this game - something I can't say about BOTW. There's no pots to find to craft, you can just do it on the fly. It's so streamlined and trivial that it never slows me down. Oh, and weapons don't have durability, so you don't have to worry about breaking your favorites.
I should also take a moment to shout out Ashly Burch. Her performance as Aloy is incredible. Likewise the actress who mocapped the perfect facial expressions. I know Ashly was lauded for her performance, but I have to really say that I was impressed with her work here. She just sells the character of Aloy so well.
Horizon Zero Dawn is clearly an expensive game. And yet, I can't pretend it's glitch free. I had multiple cutscenes where audio just dropped out completely on dialogue. But whatever. There were other more interesting bugs, though. There was one raid that involved a bunch of NPCs on my side. Somehow, I was thrown into the scenery and got caught in an invisible wall. I was able to sit there and wait and watch the NPCs take out all of the enemies and actually finish the quest for me, while I waited in safety. It was weird and amusing all at once, and even saved me some effort to finish a quest.
I always assumed I'd like Horizon, but I didn't really think I'd love it. I definitely love it. It doesn't do anything new exactly, but it does mash up a bunch of wonderful things with truly amazing results. There's the obvious open world Zelda comparisons, sure. But the huge robots land somewhere between Metal Gear and 13 Sentinels. Although you could also say that dealing with titanic bosses is reminiscent of Monster Hunter or Shadows Of The Colossus. There's so many cool influences here and yet the result feels like such an original work. You've seen every one of these systems before and yet, it feels undoubtedly Horizon.
But I love the flexibility of the gameplay. I love slowly acquiring skill points and making a build that plays to the strengths of how I want to approach the game world. I love the gradual feeling of becoming an unstoppable killing machine. The more I plugged away, the more I decided to focus on fire attacks, so that's how I leaned into my build. Any mods that augmented fire were priorities and anything that wasn't was scrapped for shards to buy better stuff. Likewise, putting skill points into stealth helped me approach situations I'd normally be nervous about. Instead of worrying about being discovered, I put points into stealth kills and hit robots before they knew what was coming to them.
Admittedly, very few games of this breadth hold my attention to the end. And yet, I couldn't stop myself from playing Horizon Zero Dawn. I'd often stay up too late to squeeze in just one more quest. Developer Guerilla Games had an incredible level of confidence here. They created something so magnificent that I'm just in awe. I mean, prior to this they spent nearly two decades churning out Killzone games, which aren't like Horizon at all. It's impressive that a first attempt at a new genre could result in something so pristine.
And I loved every second of my playthrough. I loved exploring the map. I loved the combat. I loved looting and crafting. I loved the story. I loved upgrading my fire mods and pumping flaming arrows into robots and stepping back and watching them slowly burn to a crisp. I genuinely struggle to think of any open world RPG like this that grabbed me so hard.
I end by saying this: every console generation has its defining games. I truly think that Horizon Zero Dawn is just that for the PS4. It is a masterpiece that was certainly appreciated upon release, but should be celebrated even further. I can only hope that the series will continue on and have a long and prolific life. Its sequel, Horizon Forbidden West is already a thing as I type this, and I'm looking forward to seeing Aloy's next adventure.