After an extended holiday break from Horizon: Zero Dawn (look, Skyrim is a lot of fun, and then I got a Switch and Breath of the Wild for Christmas, and some things just have to take precedence, okay?), I’m finally back to the world of post-post-apocalyptia. The break from the game was a good one, although there were a few technical challenges jumping back into a game that I haven’t played in a few months. Wherever I last left off was very near an area that was marked off for a fight with a big machine called a Rockbreaker, which is essentially a giant mole, and purely by accident I wandered into this fight totally unprepared. I had muscle memory left over from playing Zelda, and Horizon is already a game that’s designed to make you feel like a weak puny human fighting against giant carnivorous machines, so things got awkward pretty fast. I kept jumping when I meant to dash, and I realized (as I predicted I would back when I started playing Breath of the Wild) that I had become spoiled by the ability to climb any vertical surface; I desperately wanted to be able to climb up on some rocks to get away from the evil mechanized rodent that was making my life miserable.
It was all very comical if you like to watch people floundering around in games they are bad at (I don’t; seeing a person play a game badly induces a certain amount of anxiety in me that I have to very carefully monitor so I don’t start bossing around a person who’s just trying to have fun).
Long story short, my re-entry to Horizon: Zero Dawn was less than smooth.
Once I got the hang of the controls again and beat the Rockbreaker with many, many arrows to the face, I jumped back into the main story. I last left off in the middle of a subplot where Erend, a dude that Aloy meets briefly before the Proving and who acts as a point of contact when she reaches the Carja city Meridian, is trying to find out who killed his sister Ersa. Erend is a perfectly cromulent fellow, though he reads as relatively flat to me. His characteristics can be boiled down to drunk, affable dwarf (he belongs to the Oseram tribe, who are tinkerers who wear big leather aprons and billowy clothes that make their proportions look much more stout than you would expect for a human), heavy emphasis on the drunk. Like pretty much all the plot points up to now, it’s a perfectly fine story, if a little cliche. I could have done without yet another manfeels story (the first part of the quest involves you following Erend around the city as he drunkenly tries to figure out what happened while wallowing in self loathing over not being able to take care of his sister). I had a brief glimmer of hope that this was going to be something more interesting when the investigation of the ambush site revealed that it had been staged and there was a possibility that Ersa was not, in fact, dead.
Moving on quickly through the investigation, you eventually get sent up into Oseram territory where you get to see that the Oseram not only look like dwarves, they build like them too. I saw at least two primitive machines that had been built to do hard labor like sawing timber into planks and hammering out iron bars, but there was no one minding these devices. It was a nice bit of world building that fell flat when you stopped to realize that there was no one actually operating these contraptions.
Eventually the plot concludes with Aloy and Erend taking down a group of Oseram who faked Ersa’s death and kidnapped her on the orders of this dude named Dervahl who resents the peace that’s developed between the Oseram and the Carja since the new Carja king took power. We get to meet Ersa, which is super cool because she’s obviously way better than her brother, but she’s only on screen long enough to die in Erend’s arms and give him more of the manfeels.
The thing is that I don’t dislike Erend; he’s a perfectly fine character, and in the process of tracking down his sister’s kidnappers he gets a bit more development to help the player feel attached to him. Still, I don’t like him enough to sacrifice Ersa for his development. This is the second time you’ve killed off characters that were way more interesting, Horizon, and I’m done expecting better things from you story-wise. Let’s just keep this relationship professional and move on to the end.
At the same time the plot with the Oseram and the Carja are moving forward, there’s another branch of the main story that’s devoted to Aloy seeking out information about the woman who
is totally her genetic sister might be her mother. It has a much more heavily sci-fi flavor to it than the Carja stuff, which gives me the impression that the game’s writers really wanted to try to have a scenario where they could do sci-fi and gritty fantasy in the same world but weren’t sure how to make them interact in a way that wasn’t tonally dissonant. I haven’t finished either quest line yet, so there may still be a moment where the two stories intertwine, but for now it feels like exploring the history of Horizon‘s world is a totally separate thing from dealing with its present day politics.