Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of my favorite games this year. Its setting is different, its lore, intriguing, and most importantly, the mechanics it adds to the game are genuinely fun to play around with. But despite a large majority of the game being so engrossing, its finale came off as being… underwhelming. The problem? Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s story and gameplay set up a series of story threads and enemy progressions that lead to a climax that the game never produces.
***Spoilers Ahead for the entirety of Horizon: Zero Dawn***
To begin, let’s first just go over the main storyline and the game’s ending, because there are a number of story threads that do lead to satisfying conclusions.
The main one is of Elisabet Sobeck, the brilliant scientist who created the GAIA system that destroyed the machine threat and saved humanity. Her story ends up letting Aloy know where she came from, while at the same time, giving her life meaning and the means to destroy the primary antagonist of the game: GAIA’s out-of-control subsystem, HADES.
The game explores Elisabet’s history and slowly unravels what she created, how she created it, what happened to GAIA, and how she inevitably met her end. In the game’s closing moments, Aloy even finds Elisabet’s home, where her remains still lay. And, of course, in the end, Aloy eventually does come face to face with HADES, where she, after a perilous final battle, defeats him.
Unfortunately, it’s the content of that final battle that failed to deliver.
Faro Automated Solution’s “Chariot” Line
At the beginning of the game– before Aloy leaves the village, before the trial, and even before the mission to kill a Sawtooth– Horizon provides an image that immediately captures the player’s imagination. Looking up from the valley below, a giant tentacled monster protrudes from the side of the mountain. This creature, which the elders of the village call “The Metal Devil,” is constantly referenced and put in front of the player through the early parts of the game. In the Nora’s mythology, it is the greatest evil in the world that their god, the “All Mother,” vanquished.
It’s basically drilled into the player’s head that this is a dangerous, powerful, and evil machine. Its appearance and relevance to Aloy’s heritage almost seems to be the game devs telling the player, “Hey, look at what you might eventually have to fight in our game! Cool, right?”
The first actual enemy of similar design is the Corrupter, whose scorpion-like appendage and black-metal coating are very reminiscent of the Metal Devil’s tentacles. The Corrupter’s appearance in the initial attacks on the Nora homeland are what set Aloy’s story into motion, and as the player progresses through the story, they also see the progression of these machines in strength.
At first, you fight a weakened Corrupter with some help. Later, you have to fight two weakened Corrupters alone, and then later, a fully powered one. Eventually, at Maker’s End, you run into an even larger machine, the Deathbringer, which in your first encounter is immobile and weakened. Later, you’ll fight a mobile one, and then an army of them.
During the events of the story, you’ll eventually find out that both the Corrupter and the Deathbringer were part of Faro Automated Solution’s “Chariot” line of robots– part of the swarm that eliminated all life on the planet thousands of years prior to the events of the game. But the biggest takeaway from this revelation is that there was a third Chariot robot, known as the “Horus,” or as Aloy points out, the Metal Devil.
Progression of the Metal Devil
In addition to the game progressing through each model of the Chariot line, the Metal Devil itself appears multiple times throughout Horizon. About halfway through the game, the player finds a second one nestled into a mountain to the northeast during the mission, “The Grave Hoard.” While it is no longer functioning, the Eclipse that have excavated the site manage to pull out a working Deathbringer from its maw.
The third appearance of the Metal Devil comes in the mission following that encounter, “To Curse the Darkness.” Not only is this appearance the biggest leap in this line of progression, but it’s also the biggest reason the final battle fell flat, because not only does Aloy encounter a third Horus unit, but she also finds the primary antagonist, HADES, trapped within it.
This encounter intrinsically ties the progression of the Chariot line in the game to the end goal of stopping HADES, further implanting the idea that a Horus unit might appear when the final battle inevitably arrives.
This one’s less intrinsically tied in than the rest, but the opportunities it could have added are so interesting that I felt it must be addressed as well.
In the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn, there are four Cauldrons for the player to explore. Each involves finding a way inside, making your way to the core, and defeating the enemy there to gain the ability to override more machines. The developer toys with the concept in each– in one instance, making the entire challenge about finding a way inside, and another, having the cauldron overrun with Eclipse soldiers and the chaos that ensues. The cauldrons don’t necessarily have a conclusion of their own, but the progression between all four and the reward they give are more than enough to satisfy the player.
So what ties these to the Metal Devil, you might ask? Well, the most interesting factoid about the Metal Devil that Aloy discovers is that the Horus units were designed to create more Chariot units– Corruptors, Deathbringers, and even more Metal Devils. Upon learning this, Aloy’s first reaction is to suggest that they’re “mobile cauldrons”. So in a way, fighting a Horus unit could even be considered a continuation of the Cauldron progression.
The Ending that Wasn’t There
It’s honestly commendable how well Horizon manages the progression of so many story and gameplay threads. This isn’t even to mention the additional main story quests the game lets the player explore, let alone all the side quests, corrupted zones, and vantage points. They all tie together in a seamless way that drives the world and its story to an inevitable head. But it’s that final step where the game lost me.
Considering even just the progression of larger and stronger Chariot units for Aloy to take down, it’s not a stretch to think that players may assume the final battle might involve taking down a Horus unit. Add in the repeated appearances of the Metal Devils throughout the game, including the primary antagonist appearing trapped within one, it follows that anything less could come off as disappointing.
And that’s basically what happened.
When you finally see HADES again, he’s trapped in a big metal ball, being dragged unceremoniously on the ground by a Deathbringer towards the tower. When you catch up with him there, instead of a new, more imposing enemy, what the game presents you with is another Deathbringer– this time with a more spongey health bar and a handful of enemies supporting it.
When you’ve finally destroyed it, you simply step up to the ball HADES is in and stab him, winning the day.
But what could have been if the final battle were the Horus unit?
It could have more satisfyingly concluded the Chariot enemy progression, for one. It could have given the foreshadowing throughout the game actual payoff. It could have further tied in Aloy’s heritage by not only taking down HADES, as she was created to do, but also by taking down the physical embodiment of the Nora’s mythological Metal Devil, as she was sent out to do. The player could have even still fought the enemies and Deathbringer that comprise the actual final battle– but instead of that being the entirety of the fight, also having them battle the Metal Devil and finding a way inside to destroy it at its core– much like the player has to do in each of the Cauldrons.
Searching for Answers
So why wasn’t that the ending?
Perhaps Guerilla ran out of time and needed to ship the game. Maybe they just couldn’t implement what they wanted with a Metal Devil fight, technically. Maybe they decided late in development to pull it out for a future sequel.
The last of those seems to be what happened– perhaps not the reasoning, but certainly the result. The after-credits sequence shows that HADES survived and was collected by Sylens, who has found a Horus unit that HADES may be able to use in exchange for knowledge of the old world. (Also: How? Aloy destroyed him. Why is he still alive? How did he get to Sylens’s lanturn thing? I have so many questions.)
The implication in that scene is obvious: HADES may now gain possession of a fourth Metal Devil. And if he does, you’d assume Aloy would have to fight it. Perhaps in DLC, or perhaps a sequel.
But why not as the final boss of Horizon: Zero Dawn?
It’s a question that only the devs themselves can answer.