Over the Horizon

Contrary to the tone of the post title, I’m actually only over Horizon: Zero Dawn because it’s finished. It was more than strong and compelling enough to drag me away from Torment and ultimately kept me there throughout, being the only game I’ve really worked on for the past two weeks.

I finally completed the game a few hours ago, with just under 70 hours of playtime logged. All major sidequests and plots are completed, all collectibles save world datapoints found, and the only two things I can think of that need doing are retrieving one last Power Cell to get the ultimate armour (I missed it first time through the plot area) and tightening up some of the Hunting Ground times for all the rewards. There’s also knocking over a few target dummies for an achievement. I might go back and do all that in an afternoon, but for now it’s done.

It’s a really good game and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been well received by most establishments and is quite deserving of those, I feel… even if it’s being a little overshadowed by the insanely high praise that the new Zelda is receiving. From what little I’ve experienced of Zelda, I can say that it’s a great game, but I can’t say yet if it’s deserving of quite all that.

I’ll get to it soon, but having just thrown myself into a huge open world action adventure game regardless of tone and style differences, I need something to break it up so I don’t burn out. As such, I’ll probably divvy up my time between resuming Torment and playing NieR: Automata now that that’s out. There’ll still be a chunk of time dedicated to FF14, I’m sure, though I did finally reach 60 so that grind is slowing somewhat.

Anyway, Horizon. I liked the combat with the machines, having to learn all their parts and weak points to better plan my attack (or else at least strip their armour in order to hit them hard). I liked that the vast majority of options were available to me from the outset, and the skill tree didn’t unlock whole new playstyles so much as slightly improved or gave me alternative approaches in styles of play that I enjoyed. Towards the end, this might have made combat feel a touch same-y, but generally that’s hard to avoid in as long a playtime as I gave it.

The world is absolutely gorgeous, with some great designs and features as well as standout landmarks to keep me interested in exploring and being a part of it. Coupled with the machine designs, and it was a very easy game to get engaged with… and then the plot and characters kept me engaged. It was a very interesting mystery to unravel, digging into the ruins and memories of what is effectively near future for me, but a thousand years in the past for the main characters. They don’t understand the technology and terms that are being presented fully, but I do, so it’s an interesting layer of subtext there for the first half of it. In the second half, the characters have grown to learn enough to be on board with it, but it’s still no less compelling to find out the truth of what happened.

The characters were also very well acted, with the most serious but well-delivered voice work I’ve heard Ashly Burch give. She’s done a bunch of roles, with some quite hit or miss, but this is probably the most subdued and serious character performance she’s given with Aloy, and I think it suited quite well.

Aloy was a very interesting character – curious, quick-witted and intelligent in a world that absolutely doesn’t recognise those traits anymore, yet still possessed of the strength and willpower to stand up in it. There’ll be plenty of character discussions regarding Aloy as a Strong Female Lead Character by a host of publications eventually, I’m sure, so I’ll let them handle it. I’ll just say that I liked her and most of the supporting cast.

What really struck me about the plot and characters was the memories of the past, however – the titular Zero Dawn project that is crucial to the story. I won’t spoil things, but the post-apocalyptic nature of the current world is delved into quite heavily, bringing up the records and memories of the time right before and leading up to the apocalypse. And what an apocalypse – we’re talking complete biosphere destruction and mass extinction of all life on Earth, in remarkable detail and with lots of feeling behind it. It was those little details that made it that much more compelling and drove me to finish and find out what I could of it.

Any complaints I have with the game are mostly minor nitpicks regarding things like animation glitches or poor lip syncing.There’s occasionally repetitive combat towards the late game once you’ve figured out your style of dealing with everything, mostly because you have the means to eschew things like traps and careful setup in favour of rapid firing elemental arrows and exploiting weak points while tearing off all visible components. Still, you have to work to get to that point, and it’s still satisfying to pick apart machines.

Plot wise, the ending was kind of lackluster and not entirely clear on all details. The lead up to the end was still quite enjoyable, however, and prepping for the final battle actually saw you meeting up with just about every character you’d met even in side quests to have them assist you, which was nice. There was also a sequel hook, however, which I’m actively curious to see realised. If this world is to be revisited, I will quite likely be there.

Give Horizon a shot if you have the means, I highly recommend it. Yes, even if you’ve been playing Zelda. It’s good enough and different enough to be worth it.

Now it’s time for me to go hunt entirely different robots… and this time I’m playing the robot! What a twist! NieR: Automata feedback once I get around to it.

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Dawn of Another Day – A Second Opinion

While I have many games to talk about in the coming days, I’ve been neglecting to post one important thing. Following up on my write-up regarding Majora’s Mask and how I felt about it, the friend that I played the game with chose to write his own thoughts on the matter as well. This turned into a rather lengthy but interesting discourse about the key differences between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, including what each does best.

Since it’s such an interesting read and in keeping with the general spirit of this blog, he’s requested that it be posted here and I am only too happy to do so. He’s chosen to remain anonymous, but nonetheless, the rest of the post beneath the cut is all his writing.

Continue reading “Dawn of Another Day – A Second Opinion”

Dawn of A New Day

It took three separate purchases, multiple years, and countless attempts before I finally stuck with it and completed it, but it’s done at last: I have beaten Majora’s Mask. Strike one off the backlog, and particularly off the Bucket List.

It’s hard to say much about this game that hasn’t been said in the decade and a half since the game first debuted. There are two particularly vocal stances on how the game was received: either that it was good, but Ocarina of Time was better; or that it’s the pinnacle of the Zelda series because it eschews much of the formula in order to tell a very different and darker kind of narrative. I can see where both schools of thought would rise from, but my opinion is much more moderate than them.

I’ll cover some logistics about my playthrough first, because it’s relevant to how I approached it. Rather than play this solo, the entirety of the game was played in tandem with a good friend of mine, and while he’d finished the game many years ago he didn’t remember all the details so it was still fresh enough for us to experience unhindered. We were both present for the whole game, watched the entire thing, and just swapped controllers every so often. It was helpful to get extra opinions and suggestions for some of the trickier puzzles, and it meant we had somebody attempting new things while the other was looking up answers so we didn’t get completely complacent and reliant on guides.

This was a pretty good setup for playing the game. My friend holds Ocarina of Time in extremely high regard, so he was interested in replaying Majora’s Mask to see how it held up by contrast, and I had never experienced the game, so we both had different viewpoints that we could discuss as we progressed. It also meant that if we got stuck or frustrated, or else were doing tedious filler tasks and grinding, we could pass the controller back and forth in order to keep focused. Quite frankly, had we not been doing so, I imagine it would have taken much, much longer to finish alone – hence why I haven’t finished it before despite multiple attempts.

Nonetheless, with this setup in play, we finished the game in about four extended play sessions. We didn’t 100% the game, but we did get to the point that we considered effectively “complete” – we got all the masks, including the Fierce Deity mask, we completed most of the major sidequests in the Bomber’s Notebook (especially the legendary Anju and Kafei quest), and we made sure to beat the final boss before getting that final mask so it was still actually a challenge. Clearing it afterwards with the mask was absolutely laughable – that thing is utterly disgusting in how overpowered it is but I guess that’s the point.

So, my experience with Zelda games is actually different from many, as I usually find a lot more enjoyment in the 2D games. If I had to pick three personal favourites, they’d be Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages, and Wind Waker, which is different from what many consider the best entries in the series. I did enjoy Ocarina of Time and I cannot deny that it earns much of the praise it gets, but it took me almost as many attempts to finish as Majora’s Mask did, so I can hardly say that it gripped me right to the end. In fact, that’s the case with most of the non-2D Zelda games – it takes me a tremendous amount of time to stick with them long enough to see them through to the end. I don’t know if that’s anything to do with the series or just my personal approach to playing.

Regardless, Majora’s Mask is an interesting experience, but not enough to actually break that habit of not being able to stick with it. I don’t really know what that means for how the game performs as a whole. It definitely stands out in contrast to the other major Zelda games though, in the sense that the overall game experience is much more focused. Rather than the biggest, most sprawling world it can manage at the time, Majora’s Mask covers a smaller (but still sizable) area and has you focus on it and its intricacies in a more… let’s say intimate fashion.

Clock Town felt more personable to me than any part in Ocarina of Time, for example, because I spent so much time interacting with it in different ways and learning its secrets. Most importantly though, I learnt about the secrets, habits, interests and lives of the occupants. With most of the models and features lifted completely from the sister game, any developments in graphics went instead to making these characters more interesting.

Each of them had a story to tell, and the Anju and Kafei sidequest showcases that best: gradually uncovering the relationship of these two characters with their own troubles and problems, helping them out with them, and then finally being there to witness their joyous reunion literally moments before the world is ending. Their insistence on being together and waiting for each other to uphold their promise was quite touching. While it’s the major sidequest of the game, there are a number of other small examples of it throughout the game, and it really made the world of Termina feel much more personal than the average Hyrule visit.

It’s this element of delivering the narrative that allows Majora’s to really keep my attention slightly more than other Zelda games, I feel. Generally, the standard Zelda game will have you know roughly how the game is going to play out, since you’re eventually going to get all the pieces of X in order to solve Y and fight Ganon, whether that’s assembling the Triforce or finding some other means to solve the plot. Even if there’s sometimes padding between this, or the actual item gathering is split in half (like Ocarina seeing the first third of the game opening the Temple of Time, and then the second half unifying the Sages), this is generally how it pans out.

This happens in Majora’s Mask as well – restore the four spirits of the land in order to stop the moon from falling. You know that’s the objective from the end of the first three days, where Skull Kid makes it perfectly clear that the confrontation with him will be the end and everything you do works towards that. But the extra stories of the various characters across the world and how they interact or interplay with one another made it feel just that little bit more personal and appreciable to me, and I think that aids Majora’s narrative as well.

It’s also quite a dark and mature game by Zelda standards. Sure, Ocarina of Time sees the world fall to darkness under seven years of Ganondorf’s tyrannical rule, but even then the people in Kakariko Village and elsewhere are living their lives and functioning to a point. By contrast, Clock Town can see their inevitable end and knows that it will arrive in just a matter of days, with each day seeing them more and more panicked and divided on whether to flee, or whether to embrace their end.

The areas themselves are also dark, dreary and somewhat uninviting compared to their counterparts. The frozen mountain of the Gorons is cold, desolate, and lacking their leader. The Zora are depressed because their singer has lost her voice. Ikana Canyon is a desolate wasteland inhabited only by the undead and living in the shadow of their fallen kingdom – coincidentally, this was probably my favourite area in the game, since it really portrayed that sense of darkness and despair best. It was also quite sad that each transformation mask came from the death of a hero or strong representative of the race, and they all acknowledge you as that fallen person despite them actually being gone – Link gets little direct credit for much of what he accomplishes, and at the end who they believe to be their hero will be dead and gone regardless of what you accomplish.

Despite all this dreariness, it still pushed me to want to learn and explore more, and helping the residents with their issues in order to access more of the world felt much more relatable than other Zelda games. It was that extra touch that made the narrative more enjoyable to me, and so I can definitely see why it’s Majora’s Mask that is praised for being the deepest and most interesting Zelda game, if not the best in terms of gameplay.

So in gameplay, did it hold up? I think so. The core elements and items that are basically on the Zelda checklist all make their appearance, what with the bow and various magical arrows, the hookshot, the mirror shield, an instrument… but I liked that the transformation masks were all both familiar yet added new layers of complexity to the game. Goron rolling quickly became our default mode of transportation, the Zora form was useful for its interesting boomerang mechanics and awesome swimming, and fast moving, area damaging and high flying Deku Scrub can’t be understated. Swapping between masks and utilising Ocarina songs in quick succession could be awkward and irritating in places, but nothing I wasn’t able to get over quickly.

In addition, the dungeons were well designed, interesting to explore, offered a number of little exploration challenges in finding the stray fairies, and so on. I also liked that most of the key items actually came from not the primary four Temples, and the treasure of each was either the bow or a new type of arrow that behaved differently. It made it feel that you could go and explore the world more without necessarily having to go clear each dungeon sequentially, even if that’s what you did. It also allowed for a lot of time in between dungeons to be spent finding the new areas or seeing what it allowed us to do in order to better aid an NPC’s requests.

I think I’ve waxed on about the game for a bit now, so I’ll take a moment to bring up a few quick cons. Again, there were times where rapidly swapping between masks and trying to play songs frequently could get somewhat tedious, notably in the Stone Tower and subsequent Temple where you had to play the Elegy of Emptiness multiple times to hit several switches at once. The Zora behaved very awkwardly in combat, even underwater.

There was one or two puzzles that were really obtuse and needed a guide, such as allowing yourself to get grappled by an enemy in order to be thrown up to a key, even though you’d instinctively defeat the enemy each time. And a few of the sidequests relating to people were on such tight schedules and performances that it required multiple resets back to the First Day in order to complete it… though that said, with the Song of Inverted Time, I rarely felt that the time limit was otherwise too imposing or worrisome and cleared the dungeons in time.

One big thing was that many of the boss fights were extremely hit or miss. The first boss in the Woodfall Temple (don’t remember his name) was complicated and interesting. The Goron rolling chase that was Goht was a lot of fun. Fighting the skeleton bosses in the throne room of Ikana Castle was awesome, and the final boss was quite enjoyable and suitably challenging until I properly learned the pattern – I got a suitable thrill and cheer out of beating him with only a heart to spare.

But otherwise, many of the bosses were extremely weak and plain. The worms in the Stone Tower were awe-inspiring to fight even after you became Giant to combat them, but they were otherwise super simple and dull, though I understand that this fight was made more complicated and fun in the 3DS version. The fish boss in the Termina Bay Temple was dull and uninteresting, and did way too much damage for what it was. Quite a few of them just felt like a letdown.

Still, many of these are ultimately little annoyances. At the end of the day, I quite enjoyed my time in Majora’s Mask. It was an interesting narrative experience, had some well designed puzzles and dungeons, had a few good fights, and overall was an enjoyable game to play.

That said… I’m fairly certain everyone has known that since 2000. Oh well!

It’s the end of January and we’re hitting the first influx of newly released high priority games this year, so I’ll be picking up and going through as many of these as I can. Look out for my thoughts on those in the coming days.