With the release of Horizon Zero Dawn’s The Frozen Wilds DLC, I was recently able to dive back into one of the most incredible game experiences of my life...
Horizon Zero Dawn was a game that struck a remarkable chord with me, but does The Frozen Wilds stack up?
Yes. The answer is yes. I’m sorry, I can’t build up that cliffhanger - I just want to talk about how great it was.
Can we start with the women? There are so many amazing women in this game. It doesn’t rely on the ‘strong female protagonist’ who has seen some crap, gone through some physical/emotional trauma, and has become some sort of stoic adventurer - which is what we often see in games that are trying to build ‘strong’ women characters. Horizon Zero Dawn was all about women who are capable, but emotional, and otherwise just human, and The Frozen Wilds just adds even more awesome characters to the mix.
Ourea, one of the protagonists in this DLC’s main narrative, is absolutely kickass. She strikes a fascinating balance between knowing her role in her werak, and knowing what is right more broadly. She holds her beliefs fiercely, while remaining open to new knowledge and the assistance of others.
But even the women in the sidequests of The Frozen Wilds are fascinating for their diverse strengths. In ‘The Survivor’, you meet Ikrie, a woman who seeks something beyond the traditions of the Banuk. She aids Mailen, a woman who is equally sure that she wants to fight to become a member of the White Teeth, but who has hurt her leg and is struggling to survive the trial required to join. This quest sees two remarkable women - and Aloy, who is incredible in her own right - being tough in different ways as they fight for different causes, and shows how varied the ‘strong woman’ character can be when developers really try.
The setting is also filled with variety. For a DLC set almost entirely in the snow, each new location is surprisingly different. There are remarkable coloured lakes with beautifully tiered embankments, there are forests filled with yellow and purple flowers, and the villages are bustling with energy, including rock paintings in wonderful colours.
Features like the rock paintings do cause some niggling concerns for me though. There were issues with the original Horizon Zero Dawn game borrowing from various cultures, and questions about the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. The Frozen Wilds continues to borrow, using language associated with indigenous populations and making subtle comments about these groups simply through the ways tribes are depicted within the game. As a very white human being, I don’t have the authority to properly judge The Frozen Wilds and its treatment of these aspects of culture, but I’m interested to hear how that discussion unfolds and hope developers listen. It’s important to remember that even games we love are flawed, and to listen to and learn from those who have been hurt by those flaws.
Despite these uncertainties, The Frozen Wilds has lots to teach us. Each quest felt like a lesson, like a story told with a moral.
And yes, it made me cry again.
But as gripping as the quests were, I think I spent more time taking photos than I did following these narratives (I follow Alayna on Twitter - she took a BUTTLOAD; -Ed). Constantly seeking the next perfect shot helps me pause and think between high-intensity combat moments or emotional story beats.
And now that I’ve finished The Frozen Wilds, and have all my new equipment, I’ve restarted the game in New Game + (which was released back in July). I’m revisiting old quests with new weapons, and I’m taking more time to pause and photograph the landscape, the characters, and the various events that unfold. It’s breathing new life into a world that breathed new life into me, and I’m looking forward to helping Aloy go on these incredible adventures all over again.