Horizon Zero Dawn (HZO) is an incredibly ambitious game. The world that Guerrilla Games built is lush and full of curiosity, which drives both the player and the main protagonist, Aloy to want to learn more about it. Besides the lore and main character, the game also boasts mostly intuitive mechanics and an easy to use dialogue system that further helps to immerse the player. The dialogue system, much like the system often seen in BioWare games, also has an emotional choice wheel at certain points, which leaves a few key emotional choice options open to players to help shape both Aloy and the story throughout the game. It is this dialogue system, or lack thereof however which makes the final battle and cutscene of the game feel so barren.
Warning: Spoilers for the main ending of Horizon Zero Dawn beyond this point.
There are a few key points within the narrative of the game where Aloy is forced to make a decision which will change her. It might be something small like choosing whether or not to throw a rock at her childhood bully or something much bigger, such as choosing whether or not to play the judge, jury, and executioner of Olin. For the most part, these choices don’t have too much of an effect on the game. They do however effect player and their perception of Aloy.
For the most part, HZO followed a fairly standard formula for action RPGs. The majority of the game is about fighting machines and questing…which generally leads to fighting more machines. There are a few rare occasions where this isn’t the case and instead, an emotional choice is required at the end of the mission. Most notable of these quests is “The Forgotten”. In this quest, Aloy helps a woman named Olara search for her brother Brom, who is now free to return to the tribe after being temporarily banished for attacking another person. Olara seeks out Aloy’s help after her brother fails to show up and upon searching Brom’s camp, Aloy discovers blood, suggesting that Brom was attacked. However, further investigation reveals that Brom was attempting to hide his tracks in order to protect Olara from himself. Brom explains that he hears voices, some of which tell him to hurt people and he worries that he might harm Olara if he returns to society.
Ultimately, Aloy finds Brom and talks him down from a ledge, where he is threatening to jump. After doing so, she also has a say in whether or not he is a danger to Olara and the village. These choices do not have any massive consequences, but they do change how Aloy is perceived by the player and they give the player a degree of control over the situation. The developers could have simply let the quest end with a cutscene without dialogue options, but instead, they added a degree of choice.
Cutscenes in HZD are often broken up with dialogue options, giving the game a much more intimate and personal feel, unlike some other RPGs.
So why wasn’t that at the end of the game? The ending consists of a standard big boss fight. As soon as the player collects the dropped loot and heads over to the orb containing Hades, all control over the situation is lost. A cutscene begins. Aloy stabs the orb, there is a celebration showing all of the characters triumphantly cheering, and then it cuts away to a sequence showing Aloy finding Elisabet Sobeck’s body. This final sequence and voice over is incredibly powerful and well done, but at the end of the game, there is still a hollow sense of something missing.
There was no sense of choice. After defeating the final boss, the player loses control and the game takes over, destroying the True boss for the player. There was a missed opportunity here by the developers. They could have done something simple during the cutscene such as the standard, “press Δ to attack” or something similar. It would have been very interesting if the choice system had come into play once again when facing Hades. What if when Aloy walked up to the orb, the wheel popped up with the standard three options again: the Fist to directly destroy Hades with little ceremony, or perhaps with a biting remark; the Heart to destroy him, but perhaps say a word or two of sorrow for how unfortunate it was that the Hades program was corrupted, or to say something like, “For GAIA” while destroying it; or the Brain to try to interrogate Hades briefly to find out why it was sending out a signal (or something along those lines) before ultimately destroying it, whether Hades gave an answer or not. The outcome would remain the same, but the player would have felt more invested in the finale of the game instead of feeling like they’re trapped watching a movie. For a game that is so hands-on with both the combat and dialogue, the lack of options at the end made the game feel stiff.
All of that said, the game is still well done. It is a journey from start to finish that hosts numerous interesting characters and world-building through compelling sidequests and hidden records of the Old World. The protagonist and emotional buildup within the game are reasons enough to play it through at least once, if not multiple times.