Games. Culture.

Why Horizon: Zero Dawn Will Always Exist Underneath Zelda’s Shadow

But they're mostly different games

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Thanks to holiday sales (bless you, Wario64) I finally got my hands on a game I’ve wanted for a long time now.

It also helps that Game of the Year conversations are beginning like yesterday, so the pressure has been on me to correct my wrongdoings. Unfortunately, I also picked another game back up last week.

zelda review

Just like when they first released, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Zelda: Breath of the Wild have been pitted against each other in a battle for my free time. I was looking forward to not having to deal with this situation because I didn’t want to join the chorus. Here I am though, reaffirming what so many others have already chanted: Breath of the Wild plays so much better.

Welcome to this week’s installment of Late to the Game, where we tackle the biggest feud of 2017. No, not Taylor vs. Kanye; nor The Rock vs. Tyrese Gibson. Not even OK Beast vs. The World. No, this week we’re doing Horizon vs. Zelda.

I have some issues with Horizon. It’s camera isn’t always centered on Aloy, the protagonist of the game, which ultimately yields a forced cinematic feeling – which isn’t what makes interactive play so strong. On the flip side, Link, after 100 years of sleep, wakes up and almost immediately climbs a wall that’s blocking his path. Sticking to its stringent format, Aloy launches into a whole training montage in the opening of the game, and can’t seem to climb anything that isn’t clearly distinguished as a climbable surface. Players are presented with an agile, trained hunter who seems to struggle up the slightest rock formation, despite the fact that it’s only about a four foot vertical. I wish Horizon’s design felt more fluid.

Ultimately, I think what I’m going to have to deal with is this: Sony games, especially since Uncharted, have become decidedly more cinematic and directed and bad as that might sound, it’s actually very good that there’s that distinguishing factor. It’s the one thing that saves Horizon from being crushed under Zelda. The world would like you to believe that these two games are incredibly similar, or that Horizon seems to ape Breath of the Wild, despite being in development alongside it. The truth is, the very core of these experiences are incredibly different, which has helped discard the bad feeling I had about the former. In the same breath, it’s only reaffirmed my love for the latter.

Breath of the Wild’s whole opening area is a tutorial. You learn to look at mountain and think, “I can climb that,” and then subsequently attempt to fulfill that desire. You learn that cooking is integral to survival, and that weather patterns will definitely hinder or kill you. This open world tutorial teaches players the basics of combat and – most importantly – guides its users from shrine to shrine in order to collect the rune-based tool set that will be used for the rest of the game. No puzzle is unsolvable, and if it seems to be, it’s because you haven’t thought of the right way to solve it. So, before you ever venture out into the “real” world, you’re properly equipped to navigate and survive its toughest challenges; and therefore you’ll never feel like a novice in Hyrule. You are Link, the Hero of Time. 

Horizon: Zero Dawn attempts to fulfill an entirely different vision. To get a feel of that, just look at the game’s starting weaponry: a single bow. At all times, both in narrative and gameplay, it’s stressed to the player that they should keep their distance from opponents. While tactical strategy is encouraged through this setup, I didn’t really feel like I possessed the tools to capitalize on my creativity. Coupled with the pack-like nature that possesses most creatures in Horizon, I always felt like I needed to hide and creep in the shadows, carefully picking my shots – just like a hunter would. The tension this play style yielded made me feel like an outsider in a mysterious and dangerous world; and while it doesn’t necessarily elevate the game, it does help it to stand apart from Breath of the Wild.

The differences boil down to this: in Zelda, the world is yours for the taking. In Horizon, the world is yours to take back. By giving you entirely different tool-sets, both games establish two very different ways to venture through their respective worlds. The only thing they really have in common is a natural setting and the employment of a bow and arrow. However, with the close proximity of their releases, I feel like Horizon is forever doomed to live in the shadows of Breath of the Wild’s exploration and freedom. It’s not that Horizon isn’t a great game, or that the game didn’t sell and score extraordinarily well. The fact of the matter is, it’s just not Zelda.

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