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Horizon Zero Dawn Audio Review

Review by Alyx Jones

Developer: Guerilla Games

Composers: Joris De Man, Joe Henson and Alexis Smith (aka. The Flight) & Niels Van Der Leest

Audio Lead: Bastian Seelbach, Pinar Temiz, Lucas Van Tol, Anton Woldhek

Reviewed on: PS4

The long awaited PS4 exclusive, action role-playing game from Guerilla Games, has hit 2017 running with some of the highest ratings we’ve seen for a while! Horizon Zero Dawn follows the journey of Aloy, outcast as a child, growing up fighting and surviving, in a primitive land. With the strange mystery of tribes living amongst robots and technological ruins, this game is an interesting and beautiful blend of tribal and sci-fi genres.

Music

It’s very interesting that this project was a large collaborative effort, when it comes to the soundtrack. Joris De Man, Joe Henson, Alexis Smith and Niels Van Der Leest were all brought on board to write music. It tends to be more common to have one, maybe two named composers on a game project, but it’s great that the spirit of creative collaboration is strong and that their combined efforts gel together with no trouble.

Not all games opt for a thematic approach but Horizon Zero Dawn has a strong leitmotif/main game theme that plays often in many variations throughout the game, it’s an effective technique and an obvious solution to the problem of ensuring four composers can all produce a cohesive soundtrack together.

Motif from Aloy’s Theme that appears throughout the game

Sometimes the theme can be slightly overused, drawing attention to itself, however I often find if I put the game down and come back after a few days, I’m instantly back in love with the theme and music because of its familiarity. Even the first piece of music entices us, we hear Julie Elven‘s solo voice slowly moving through the theme, when we have the main menu screen open. The use of the female voice is very powerful in this context and is an apt choice considering the relation to the female protagonist Aloy.

Once exploring the open world of intensely gorgeous environments, music isn’t always overbearing, drawing our attention instead, to the sounds of “nature” around us, but always serving to warn us of any threatening machines that may be aware of our presence. “Battle” music is never overstated but instead reflective of the electronic/digital origins of our enemies. Percussion is the natural contrast to the “digital” sounding world of the machines, instead reflecting the tribal themes of living in the wild, with fear of futuristic ruins.

There are often places in the game where music becomes diegetic, for example, where drummers are performing when Aloy enters the Nora Village: Mother’s Heart, and singers take stage around villagers, singing and praising. It’s always nice to see it move from the “soundtrack” to the environment around us, especially as music to tribes is an integral way of communicating.

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Drummers in Mother’s Heart

Sound Design

Many creature-like machines inhabit the massive world of Horizon Zero Dawn, from small lizard Cyclops’ known as watchers, to huge robots that require analyzing for weak spots and elemental disadvantages, we can use to defeat them. Early on in the game we are able to acquire a piece of technology, well beyond that of the tribe we were outcast from, that allows us to scan the world around us for information. The sound design for this earpiece comes through our gamepad so it inhabits a world closer to us than the screen. I love the use of the gamepad speaker, even though it’s not amazing quality sound, it just crosses that invisible boundary into a players living room and helps to immerse them in the game, playing as Aloy with her gadget at hand.

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Watchers in Horizon Zero Dawn

A lot of the machines resemble real-world creatures, at least loosely, for example the “Strider” sounds and acts a lot like a horse, but is much shorter and actually reminds me of a friendly robotic Warg (Lord of the Rings), in terms of its stance and shape. They actually sound a lot like they are galloping on hoovers rather than large metal legs, and it’s a really interesting bridge between the fantastical nature of the game, and the hyper real elements, apparent in the art style and graphics, that is also reflected in the sound design. Of course a robot wouldn’t sound like a horse galloping, but it doesn’t lift us out of the game at all, it creates the notion that we are actually riding a robotic horse. It still has many mechanical elements and a digitized robotic whinny/cry. It’s interesting to see how creatively real world sound effects can be used in futuristic audio, since we don’t know what the future will sound like. As long as the player believes the future might sound like robots with lifelike/creature sounds, that’s all that matters. It works very effectively, of course, and sometimes I really don’t want to destroy the machines because they genuinely sound in distress when pulled apart.

Voice Acting

Ashly Burch (Chloe – Life is Strange) lends her voice to the main protagonist Aloy, and this can’t have been a small task! She really portrays how Aloy grows as a character from the rebellion yet innocence in earlier gameplay, to the fierceness and determination she develops as a young woman facing a strange and dangerous world. The voice acting overall in Horizon Zero Dawn is very good and adds life and believability to a vast array of characters of different tribes and backgrounds across the game. There’s a reasonable variety in accents too, something not always achieved in other fantastical games, and this is really great to hear. In places the dialogue doesn’t always flow properly, partly due to the huge variety of dialogue options we often have, and the ability of the player to skip through dialogue passages when the characters are halfway through sentences, but sometimes this can be preferable to sitting through a conversation that you’ve accidentally re-triggered, so it’s not a major flaw, just an aspect that could do with polishing, but that might take years in such a dialogue heavy game!

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Aloy (Ashly Burch)

We’ve all seen the incredible video of a bunch of voice actors squashed into a recording booth running around to recreate the sounds of a panicked or angry crowd. It just shows the extra mile that the audio team will go to, in order to achieve the detail they wanted for the game!

All in all, the reviews are no exaggeration, this game really is incredible whatever angle you look at it from. Stop reading this and go play it!

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Alyx Jones
A Composer for Video Games and Head Writer for The Sound Architect, I particularly love indie games and the emotional experiences games can bring, that stay with you for a lifetime. For me the soundtrack is the biggest part of this, and that's why I do what I do!
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk

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