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Horizon Zero Dawn photo mode update - Aloy lying on her back in field of daffodils

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Returning to Horizon Zero Dawn after Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Replaying the other grand adventure of 2017

Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

2017 was one of the biggest years in video games. Among the stellar titles we received last year, we got a brand-new console, the Nintendo Switch, along with its mammoth launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But just a week prior, Guerrilla Games released Horizon Zero Dawn on PlayStation 4. It was also game of the year material (No. 8 on our list), but it had the unfortunate honor of debuting before the best game of 2017. I barely had a chance to enjoy Horizon Zero Dawn before most of my personal and professional life was eaten up working on the Breath of the Wild guide.

But now that we’re beyond the long shadow Breath of the Wild cast over my game library, I recently had the opportunity to restart a playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn. I was instantly taken back to everything that made me fall in love with the game last year: its interesting setting, rewarding combat and worthwhile side quests. There’s so much to treasure in Horizon Zero Dawn that is done differently in Breath of the Wild, and getting back to all those things has been a treat.

Ancient futurism

Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn share similar story foundations. Both are set in a world changed by a tragedy that has affected everything for years. Your protagonist is stuck between the past and the present, utilizing technology from bygone days and tactics forged in their primitive reality. Design motifs from two different eras clash, creating a juxtaposition that livens up the locales you visit.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - fighting a Guardian
Link fights an ancient enemy in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

But the concept’s charm fades pretty quickly in Breath of the Wild. At first, the organic curves of Sheikah tools and gunmetal interiors of their shrines creates a stark contrast with Hyrule’s more medieval aesthetic. But when you come across the same old enemies or explore yet another of the 120 shrines that the ancient civilization has left behind, they begin to feel as common as the trees and castles. It’s true that the game’s quasi-dungeons, the Divine Beasts, shake things up. But even then, there are only four, and the belly of each beast looks identical to the last. The game’s visual design is really striking at first, but it failed to surprise me once I was dozens of hours in.

Having futuristic strongholds and enemies butting up against the rather serene, mountainous surroundings of Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a similar approach — but it never got stale for me. This commitment to keeping the idea fresh is best seen in the diversity of enemies you come across.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy aims her bow at a Thunderjaw
Aloy fights one of the game’s biggest machines, a Thunderjaw.
Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The natural landscape of the game’s world is littered with robotic creatures that initially skirt the line between common animals and simple machines, but later, you see far more dangerous beasts. The slow introduction of more complex and violent machines gives Horizon Zero Dawn a sense of progression, an unraveling of something more. The design concept is fleshed out very early on in the game and continues to be explored as you dive deeper. It’s clear that these creatures come from somewhere, but the only way to find out is to fight through them.

Complex and rewarding combat

Depending on how you look at it, Breath of the Wild’s combat is either a step forward or backward for the Zelda series. Instead of having you unlock a set of weapons over time that you can grow accustomed to and master, Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is filled with a diverse array of weapons that will all eventually break on you. In some ways, this can be exciting. It mixes up the moment-to-moment gameplay because the weapons you have on hand can radically change the outcome of a fight — especially if your favorite one shatters in battle. However, because of this, I was never able to settle into a groove. I was constantly digging through chests hoping to find something more durable and consistent. That randomness could make even simple encounters more exciting, but it often made me wish I could just have my trusty Master Sword.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy aiming her bow at two Grazers Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

On the other hand, Horizon Zero Dawn is constantly testing your competency with your tools as you gain access to them. Familiarity with your weapons and how to use them to prepare for a fight is essential. It’s easy to become overwhelmed even in smaller encounters, so I learned quickly that to stay alive, I had to plan my battles instead of rushing into them. Some of my most satisfying moments came when a perfectly laid out assault went off without a hitch. In Horizon Zero Dawn, you have a fairly small kit — a bow, some snares, a few bombs, a tether — but when used in concert in a carefully considered encounter, it lets you control the entire battlefield, instead of running around it hoping to find a better weapon like in Breath of the Wild.

Side quests that are actually good

The Legend of Zelda series isn’t known for its complex storylines. Much of what you need to know about Breath of the Wild, you learn within the opening minutes. While this version of Hyrule is packed with some of the most colorful characters the series has ever had, many of them still feel like echoes of people we’ve met before. Much of my time was spent exploring to see what was over the next mountain, not to learn more about the people of this world.

However, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to heed every call to action in Horizon Zero Dawn. The game’s enigmatic setting — a world in the past, but somehow in the future — was enough to pull me through the game. But it was the folks I met in this world who really pushed me forward. Every side quest uncovers more of the curious nature of a formerly advanced world that fell, and helps you understand what was left in its wake. The nonplayable characters you meet are engaging and emotional. The above-average facial animation and voice acting make Horizon Zero Dawn feel like a lived-in world. The characters who might ask you to find a lost relative or to round up some chicken meat feel much more nuanced than their standard quests suggest. It’s something I didn’t expect going into the game, but it’s one of the reasons I can’t help but clear my entire map of side missions before returning to the main objective.

It’s a great time to play Horizon Zero Dawn

We’re currently in a slow game release period right now. It’s the perfect time to dive into games that might be sitting on your shelf or taking up space on your hard drive. Horizon Zero Dawn made a strong impression on me, but because its release date fell so close to Breath of the Wild’s, it sadly got buried beneath one of the most gargantuan games I’ve ever played.

But with a clearer calendar this summer, I’m eager to dive back into the world Guerrilla Games has crafted. I spent so much time playing Breath of the Wild last year — for both professional and personal reasons. But thankfully, when it comes to Horizon Zero Dawn, I now have the time to explore every inch of that game at own my pace.