Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game played from a third-person perspective. Players take control of Aloy, a hunter and archer, as she ventures through a post-apocalyptic land ruled by robotic creatures known simply as “machines”. Aloy can kill enemies in a variety of ways, such as setting traps like tripwires using the Tripcaster, shooting them with arrows, using explosives, and a spear. Machine components, including electricity and the metal they are composed of, are vital to Aloy’s survival, and she can loot their corpses to find useful resources for crafting. Ammo; resource satchels, pouches, and quivers; resistance, antidote, and health potions; and traps are all amenable to crafting. Weapons have modification slots for dealing more damage.
A small head piece that Aloy wears called a Focus allows her to scan machines to determine their susceptibilities, identify their location, the particular level they possess, and the nature of loot they will drop. One machine, the Stalker, can enable cloaking technology as a means of averting the gaze of Aloy’s Focus scan. Machines attack by way of defensive and offensive measures, and will in either case react to a perceived threat by charging at it with brute force or projectiles. As they exhibit the behaviour of wild animals, some machines are inclined to move in herds and others, possessing the ability of flight, do so in flocks. Unless hacked with the Override Tool, machines will not exert aggressive force against each other. Aloy also engages in battle with members of the cult known as the Eclipse, who are occasionally flanked by corrupted machines.
Aloy may dodge, sprint, slide, or roll to evade her enemies’ advances. Aloy can also hide in foliage and ambush nearby enemies to ensure immediate takedowns. Swimming can be used to reach enemies stealthily or places otherwise unreachable on foot. Furthermore, she is able to hack a selection of machines with the Override Tool, turning them into makeshift mounts or travelling companions. Explorable ruins called Cauldrons exist to unlock additional machines to override. There are three categories in the skill tree-“Prowler” concerns stealth; “Brave” improves combat; and “Forager” increases healing and gathering capabilities. To level up, Aloy attains experience points from individual kills and completing quests. Upgrades in each category result in more adept use of the skills learned, with “Prowler” leading to silent takedowns, “Brave” to aiming a bow in slow motion, and “Forager” to enlarging the medicine pouch.
The game features an open world environment with a day-night cycle and dynamic weather system which can be seamlessly explored. The map is composed of forest, jungle, desert, and snowy mountain regions. Mountainous terrain is traversed with the employment of parkour, which is aided by the use of zip-lines installed throughout the world. Corruption Zones constitute areas that heighten difficulty and are populated by corrupted machines that behave with more aggression. To uncover more of the map, one must scale large giraffe-like machines known as Tallnecks. Twenty-five robotic creature designs are present in the game. Save points and fast travel can be accessed by interacting with campfires, once discovered. The quest structure unfolds to accommodate the exploration of tribes, while the main story covers the entire world.
Side quests involve Aloy completing tasks, like gathering materials, coming to the aid of individuals in danger of being killed, solving mysteries, assuming control of bandit camps, eliminating criminals and more difficult machines, accomplishing various challenges at any of the five Hunting Grounds, and obtaining an ancient armour that makes Aloy almost impervious to damage. A dialogue wheel is used to communicate with non-playable characters. Collectibles include vantages that offer visual information of the Old World; metal flowers, which when acquired contain poetry; and old relics, such as ancient mugs and tribal artefacts.