Horizon Zero Dawn is a very beautiful game. Whether you’re walking through a lush valley, hunting in a desert or scaling a snowy mountain peak, it never fails to impress with abundant detail. But, it’s also disorienting and forgettable. It epitomises the problems I have with more recent open-world games. Not only is there usually too much to do but there’s too much to take in.
40 hours into Horizon, I returned to areas from the beginning of the game, areas in which I’d spent more than five hours traversing. I had no idea where I was or where I was going despite the floating icons assuring me I was on the right path. I recognised it like a distant dream, and just like in such a dream, going down seemingly familiar paths led me to unfamiliar places.
It’s a Baroque game, elaborately ornate in every sense. It particularly pushes what’s expected of open-world RPGs in terms of fidelity. But the detail obscures and distracts. Even with the dynamic HUD – a necessary feature to enjoy just how beautiful the environments are – icons and superfluous flora clutter the screen.
The detailed flora often makes it difficult to see exactly what icons are hovering over
Collecting resources is reduced to bouncing between floating icons, barely discerning what’s what. Hunting is difficult when foxes are completely covered by shrubbery and fish are impossible to see beneath the surface of the water. The most practical way to hunt is by using Aloy’s Focus, a device which gives her Batman’s ubiquitous Detective Mode. But using the Focus again reduces tagged animals to a floating icon. It makes sense narratively but it spoils the fun of hunting. Would it be less immersive if the fish could be seen from above the surface of the water? It would be more engaging than floating arrows, that’s for sure.
Pulling back the camera in photo mode shows just how beautiful the game is
Considering the design of the actual world, there’s an impressive degree of verticality. But with lacklustre transportation and traversal options, towering mountains, acropolises and colossal robot dinosaurs are overwhelming for the wrong reason. Climbing is split into two possibilities: set paths akin to Uncharted or awkwardly tapping jump as you ‘Skyrim’ your way up a mountain. It’s not very intuitive and is very restrictive, particularly compared with the recent release of Zelda Breath of the Wild. Admittedly, there are usually footpaths but these are often obscured by the abundance of brush. It’s just all very inconvenient.
Some of the easiest open worlds to internalise and navigate have been stylised and minimal. GTA Vice City and Breath of the Wild are examples of this. It may seem derivative to compare these games to Horizon, but they certainly support the ‘less is more’ argument.
Limitations in technology gave Vice City two advantages: an abstract art style and, at least by today’s standards, a small map. Even on release, Vice City never looked realistic. It’s cartoonish and simple. A sharp 80s colour palette highlights buildings with neon pinks shining next to beige stretches of beach and dull grey road. The sea is never more than a two-minute drive away, orienting you at all times. Falling into water means instant death, so the sea is an encompassing threat of which you’re always aware. It’s a testament to the minimal approach that the poor draw distance means most landmarks can’t even be seen from afar.
Breath of the Wild uses a similar approach. Giant mountain peaks mark the corners of the map, while Hyrule Castle stands proudly at the centre. Colour is again used to create landmarks. Hyrule Castle is surrounded by the purple hues of Calamity Ganon. Unexplored towers and shrines are a sharp orange that turn a gentle blue glow when climbed or completed. Unlike Vice City, Breath of the Wild is huge. Really, really huge. Yet the scenery is quite barren, with long stretches of grass and desert sparsely dotted with colourful flowers or shrines in the distance. It’s panoramic and uses some kind of amorphic magic to distort the perception of distance, making everything seem within reach with clever positioning of landmarks.
In Horizon, the landscape seems endless but overwhelmingly so. Everything feels very far away and difficult to reach. Instead of inviting exploration, it just makes you want to fast travel around the map. The easiest areas to navigate are in the desert where the vegetation is scattered and the path is clear.
The abstraction of nature is easier to navigate and internalise. The less detail there is, the easier it is to comprehend. With enough simple and familiar landmarks and some stylisation, the mind can interpret areas more quickly and make almost barren lands beautiful.