Length: 60ish hours
Our adventure in Horizon Zero Dawn begins with our protagonist, Aloy, as a young child coming to explore the world around her. A seemingly primitive society if not for the animal-like robots roaming the land. Aloy herself is an exile, leaving outside of the society called the Nora. Her journey begins when she begins training for an event called ‘the Proving’ which will allow her a place back in society.
From that opening paragraph you may have noticed a difference from a lot of open world games. That’s right, this is not a create a character adventure. This is a story specifically about Aloy, about the world around her and her history. And it works. I think that having a set protagonist with a set story works well and highlights the differences of this game compared to a lot of open-world games I have played.
Not to say I don’t enjoy a good create-a-character and the openness that comes with it, but I personally find that I often get burned out on these types of open-world games. The narrative can be a bit looser when you have a generic backstory in order to accommodate a number of different characters. Couple this with an overwhelming number of sidequests, eventually I lose touch with the main story and eventually lose interest for a while until I get in the mood to wander around again.
Unlike those particular kinds of open-world games, Horizon kept me grounded in the story. There are sidequests, but I never felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Instead, I would find myself with a few to do in between story events. A story which kept me engaged. It didn’t simply exist as an excuse for me to explore this gorgeous open-world map, it actually kept me wondering about the world, the environment, and Aloy.
Speaking of gorgeous open-worlds, this game is beautiful. It manages to feel cohesive while also providing a variety of areas. Desert like rocky terrain, lush jungles, and cold, snowy mountains are all present. There are several towns scattered about, merchants, and, of course, collectables. While some of these collectables mostly serve to give you some text dump info about the world, there are a lot of nifty ones as well, such as getting a glimpse in to the past to add to the lore in a more engaging manner. There are also “Cauldrons” scattered about, which are tech filled areas that feel alien to the rest of the world.
The gameplay is kind of third person shooter, except Aloy uses a bow and arrow rather than a gun. Usually. You can pick up some heavy gun-like weapons, and the different types of bows can also mimic different types of gun. Being a bow and arrow fan myself, I was extremely happy with the main weapon choice. There are also several types of bows and arrows available. Some shoot fire arrows, some shoot confusion arrows, some are good for removing parts from your enemy, etc. In addition to these main bows, you can also use some other tools such as trip wires and hand bombs. Ammo for all of these weapons can be bought, but mostly you will find yourself crafting the things that you need. Resources are usually ample if you pay attention, but you can also set the game to quest you with finding resources you want. Another aspect of the game is sneaking, which you do not need to do but which certainly helps. I’ve never been good at stealth but this game made it pretty useful and approachable. The good thing with this game, however, is you can approach combat how you want. Throw some bombs in there, sneak and set up traps, snipe from far away… find what works for you! I didn’t use many traps and was more of a long distance person myself. Up close you also have access to a spear with which to slash up enemies. It’s pretty effective and if properly upgraded through your skills it can even disorient your enemies, which is extremely useful for you to rush in for a powerful blow. Additionally, each enemy has a weak point you can target. By using your focus, a plot and gameplay device you gain early on, you can see an enemy’s vulnerable areas highlighted in yellow.
While I enjoyed most of the game, Horizon is certainly not without its faults. The climbing could be weird and awkward, and there were some immersion breaking invisible walls. The voice acting is hit or miss and the facial expressions can be out of sync and border on uncanny valley creepiness. The story focus is largely on Aloy so there are only a handful of other characters that stand out. Especially after leaving the Nora, the world definitely feels like its filled with NPCs and not actual people. With that being said, I absolutely enjoyed the game and it is one of my favourite open world games of all time.
Length: 20ish hours
Donkey Kong Country Returns is… well, a return to the Donkey Kong Country series. This time, DK Island has been taken over by evil tiki villains and its up to Donkey and Diddy to stop them!
In typical DK fashion, there are different “worlds” or sections, each of which has a number of levels and finishes with a boss fight. Each world gets progressively more challenging as it tests your skills from previous areas. The boss fights are usually recognizing the boss’ pattern and reacting accordingly as it cycles through three or so phases before finally being defeated. The Wii version (which I played) includes some controller shaking for ground pounding, blowing, and rolling. Each stage has a series of collectables including puzzle pieces and the KONG letters for additional challenge if you want it. There are some secret areas that have you collecting bananas and coins, and these reward exploration of the stages as well. While Diddy makes an appearance, and can be summoned from the mystical monkey holding barrels, he serves more as a power up, adding two hearts of health and allowing you to hover for a short period of time.
DKCR is a gorgeous game, with stages being vividly colourful and pleasant to look at. They all fit the theme of their world while also giving variety to the stages and challenges. Each world also tends to have a recurring gimmick, such as falling platforms or minecart stages. Additionally, each first level of the new world has a small transitional area to show the change from the previous area to the current one, which adds some nice flow.
I will say that DKCR is not a platformer for beginners. I am not a skilled platformer but have played some that I find to be much more beginner friendly. This one is for the more hardcore, skilled players. While the game starts off easily enough, sooner or later I found myself having to rely on Super Kong to beat the levels for me. By the 7th world (of 8) I would waste 15-20 lives per stage and was running out of coins to buy more. This isn’t to say Returns doesn’t try and give you some tools to make things easier; you can buy lives, an extra heart container, a key to skip cages, as well as a few other options (such as allowing Super Kong to clear the level), but even then you’ll need a certain amount of skill or you might find yourself in the same position I did: frustrated and running out of resources. This isn’t to say the game isn’t fun or even that it’s unfair, just be prepared for a challenge. And if you haven’t played any platformers before, maybe start with a different one.
Genre: Adventure/Walking Sim
Length: 3ish hours
What Remains of Edith Finch features the titular protagonist as she returns to her oddly shaped family home to learn more about the strange curse surrounding her family. As you explore the Finch house, you’ll fill out Edith’s family tree, learning more about the untimely deaths of its members.
With that said, the memory segments are the most fun and creative aspects of the game. Rather than keeping the gameplay exactly the same, each person’s story offers a unique take on storytelling. In one story you experience the tale through a comic book. In another, you take photos to help tell the narrative. Even the segments that have relatively “normal” gameplay to them add a unique spin to help put you in the shoes of that particular family member.
I was overall pretty satisfied with the story. It left some mysteries that allowed me to use my imagination, and it concluded in a way I was happy with. It was bittersweet and engaging but, as I mentioned, the gameplay is really where it shined. It certainly left a lasting impression with its creativity and memorable characters, and it stands out among the genre.
If you enjoy the walking sim genre and want to see it try something new, definitely give this one a try. If you want bittersweet family about lives lived, its also worth checking out.