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I’ve spent a lot of time with open-world games over the years, from my tentative first steps onto the streets of Dubuita in Shenmue to then solidifying my love for the thrill of adventure with The Legend of Zelda series.
While Zelda most certainly drove my passion for this sort of gameplay, we’ve seen a large number of new hopeful contenders hit the scene over the past 20 years — some of them rather bland, some budding gems ready to blossom into the next big thing.
For me, one such series in the latter category is Horizon. With only two games, this relatively new franchise from Guerrilla Games has captivated millions of players worldwide, myself included. The latest game, Forbidden West, had amassed an impressive 8.4 million units in April this year, cementing itself as one of the fastest-growing open-world titles of the last decade.
But the question is, can it dethrone the juggernaut that is The Legend of Zelda? Breath of the Wild and now Tears of the Kingdom have become two of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and with good reason.
Having spent countless hours with both series, I’m here today to scrutinize every aspect of both series and give you my take on which one comes out on top!
Main Differences Between Zelda vs Horizon
The main differences between Zelda vs Horizon are:
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s always a good idea to hone in on the core differences of each franchise. Here are the main reasons that make each series differ most strongly from one another, even if they do also have many similarities.
- The Legend of Zelda series is set in the fantasy land of Hyrule, a kingdom steeped in a mythological history created by literal gods, and the games almost always feature a mute protagonist named Link. In contrast, Horizon takes place in what has been termed the post-post apocalypse: nature has slowly taken back the land, and humans live in tribes as they struggle against robotic animals.
- Typically, the stories in The Legend of Zelda are relatively simple plots of good and evil, but with an emphasis on deeper, connected lore involving multiple timelines. With Horizon’s story, we have a tale revolving around uncovering the mysteries of the game’s world and its past, as well as a focus on the self-discovery of the protagonist, Aloy.
- The Zelda games rely heavily on the use of dungeons to progress with a boss fight at the end, and each title uses a mixture of combat, puzzles, and overworld exploration. Horizon’s main focus is on crafting and upgrading weapons and items, and although there are puzzles here too, this is a much more combat-oriented game.
- Apart from the most recent two releases, Zelda games aren’t typically sequential: you’re not necessarily playing as the same incarnation of Link each time. In Horizon, though, we have always played as Aloy, and Forbidden West directly follows Zero Dawn.
- Zelda games focus primarily on simple, in-engine cutscenes and make use of environmental cues to convey context. Comparatively, Horizon is a very cinematic game: filmic camera angles and big action setpieces are used frequently, and character dialog is shot like a feature film with lengthy, dynamic dialogue.
- The Legend of Zelda series comes in many different shapes and sizes: You can play top-down, 2D titles on the Gameboy or DS to open worlds bigger than those seen in Bethesda’s latest games. Horizon currently has two games: Zero Dawn and Forbidden West. Both of these are 3D third-person open-world titles.
- Zelda games have honed a myriad of different styles over the years, from pixel art to cel-shading, to dark, gritty color pallets. Comparatively, Horizon focuses on hyper-realism and juxtaposing technology with nature.
The Legend of Zelda
The Zelda series has always been known for its timeless approach to storytelling. Each entry offers a distinct story encompassing a hero’s brave battle against a seemingly insurmountable evil.
Themes of heroism, destiny, and the power of courage are woven deep within the fabric of the series, and while the games do often deal with adult themes, the whole thing is presented within the framework of instantly recognizable fantasy tropes which are interlaced with and made interesting by East Asian influence.
As such, the characters we meet in the game follow classic tropes: old sages with bountiful wisdom, fearless warriors, and stoic regal figures.
While each game plays into a much larger story as a whole, this typically isn’t directly explored in-game: the title presents its own self-contained story, and if you want to see how one particular game fits into the overall plot, you’ll need to delve into extraneous sources like the official lore guide, the Hyrule Historia [to learn more about this, see our guide on the Zelda history and universe].
And what about our main man? On account of his perpetual selective mutism, it’s very difficult to describe Link as a character.
Critics of the series have long chastised what they describe as a protagonist with a personality no deeper than a plank of wood, and at face value, it can be difficult to argue with that. But clearly, Nintendo has chosen to keep him unvoiced for a reason, and in many ways, I think he’s better for it.
Link becomes a blank canvas for the player to impart their own sensibilities onto. I actually enjoy pondering how he truly feels about Princess Zelda or what anxieties he might have regarding the difficult journey ahead; similarly to how players have wondered whether fellow mute Gordon Freeman actually reveled in his killing spree in Half-Life.
Link is a protagonist in the most basic sense, but depending on your perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Horizon’s approach to narrative is very different from Zelda. Set in the post-apocalypse, it inevitably tells a rawer, more unrefined story: characters are abrasive in their personality, ranging from apathetic cynics to power-hungry lunatics; characters in Horizon are considerably more complex than they are in Zelda, and while many display morally reprehensible actions, you can’t refer to many of them as definitively evil or wholly good.
In this sense, the stories feel more human — these are intricate characters that better resemble the human condition, albeit extrapolated to a much more dire situation compared to our own world.
And it’s this turbulent, ever-dangerous lifestyle that underpins our main character, Aloy. Aloy’s perspective on the world around her is unique on account of being born an outcast. Raised by her surrogate father, Rost, her reaction to other characters and their ideologies is uninfluenced by others, making for captivating conversations with all she meets.
She fits the archetypal hero trope but differs in her fierce independence from the world around her. She’s an outsider, which makes her quest to uncover the mysteries of her own identity all the more interesting and exciting.
The portrayal is greatly accentuated by the stellar voice work performed by Ashly Burch, who convincingly actualizes even the character’s most subtle emotional reactions. There are plenty of cutscenes in both Zero Dawn and Forbidden West, and naturally, Aloy is very much the star of the show: she’s everything you want from an adventure game protagonist.
On the surface, the story is about surviving a deadly post-human world full of gigantic robot dinosaurs, but this is really only the backdrop. Horizon presents a deep exploration of human nature, the consequences of advanced technology, and the implications of societal collapse.
The Legend of Zelda
One of the things I love most about Zelda’s gameplay is that it’s very varied. In Breath of the Wild, one minute you’re satisfyingly dispatching a group of Bokoblins on horseback, and in the next moment, you’re paragliding into a beautiful vista having made the journey to the top of a Shieka tower.
Or maybe you’re playing Ocarina of Time, puzzling your way through one of its many complex and engaging dungeons.
To say Zelda is a jack-of-all-trades would be simplifying what is an expertly balanced mix of different gameplay mechanics coming together to present a seamless experience. Combat, puzzles, exploration, mini-games, collect-a-thons, and more, each conjoin to keep the player engaged throughout.
Mechanics will differ from game to game, but typically, modern mainline Zelda games are played from a third-person perspective.
There’s still a focus on the simple but effective innovations developed in Ocarina of Time with the Z-targeting system for combat [enabling the player to lock the camera to any given enemy to focus on it effectively], though weapons are kept fairly basic for the most part.
You have your sword, shield, some sort of projectile-based weapon such as a slingshot or bow, and a few throwable items like bombs or Deku Nuts. In the most modern games, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, the gameplay retains all of the above but has been vastly expanded.
The player has several interesting and unique abilities to manipulate the environment with physics or stasis, and in the latest games, the fantastic new crafting systems have enabled players to create their own vehicles.
As such, modern-day Zelda is one of the most expressive open-world sandbox games the industry has seen. The developers have managed to evolve the aforementioned formula to encompass true player ingenuity.
Where Zelda focuses on many different elements equally, Horizon’s primary gameplay concentrates on combat. The series utilizes many of the same types of weapons as in the Zelda series, such as bladed weapons and bows, but these are much more numerous — as are how Aloy can use them.
Something noticeably absent from Zelda is leveling, skill trees, and general upgrades, but Horizon has these elements in spades: the six available skill trees allow a level of character flexibility rarely seen in this sort of game.
Gameplay comprises mostly of continually evolving Aloy’s abilities, offering a great deal of scope in how you can approach any given situation. Combat is centered on the use of a variety of ranged and melee weapons to take down enemies, and players will usually need to target specific weak points that deal particularly high damage. On the surface, this seems like pretty basic stuff, but the devil is in the details.
Whereas combat in Zelda is more like a chess match, Horizon’s encounters are designed to be more fluid and dynamic. Given the choice between head-on and stealth encounters, by disabling different body parts of an enemy, you can develop your own special strategy for taking them down.
Delving deeper into the mechanics, players will get used to many different ammo types, which each have satisfying and devastating effects, and when combined with the use of traps to set up a chain of attacks, every battle in Horizon plays out like a stylish action move sequence. These fights are always gratifyingly brutal, and it makes Zelda’s battles seem much tamer in comparison.
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of an open-world game if the whole thing was focused on combat. Forbidden West builds on the solid foundation of Zero Dawn by providing higher-quality side quests and an overall denser world.
There are now plenty of cool settlements to explore where you’ll discover interesting new characters offering special sidequests and novel locals, and the Relic Ruins scattered across the map provide a welcome change of pace with Tomb Raider-style puzzles, all of which are superbly designed and will truly put your cognition to the test.
The Legend of Zelda
Whether it’s the brilliantly bright and vast waters of the Great Sea in Windwaker, or the most recent multidimensional depiction of Hyrule in Tears of the Kingdom, the world of Zelda is always a richly woven piece of art begging to be explored.
Nintendo pours life and soul into every location, and through intriguing caves and dungeons, bustling towns, and towering mountains, these games present worlds with a million-and-one things to do, countless challenges to best, and numerous charming NPCs to meet.
The worlds range from small to gigantic — but they never feel empty.
I haven’t yet experienced a Zelda title that feels hollow or spiritless like many other open-world titles; so much of this franchise’s charm can be attributed to its stunning worlds. These are lands steeped in culture and magic — a combination of classic medieval fantasy mixed with traditional Japanese folk law.
The world and the activities on offer seem to be unveiled much more organically compared to other open-world titles, too. Instead of presenting a checklist of items to complete — and consequently, becoming a grind — the game rewards the player for their own curiosity. Macro and micro-tasks are revealed at a slower pace and are instructed less invasively, even in the more linear titles.
On that topic, it must be said that there’s much more variety in how Zelda’s worlds are approached these days: depending on what title you play, you could experience a vastly different world and setting — even if the above ascription is a constant.
The more open-ended versions of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom present environments much more similar to those found in the Horizon series, though the presentation of Hyrule in those games is somewhat less linear than what you’ll find in Horizon’s Post-post apocalypse.
However, if you play something like A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS, you’ll experience a much smaller A-to-B affair than Zero Dawn or Forbidden West. Therefore, for better or worse, there’s also a broader scope for the type of world you’ll traverse with Zelda.
In my opinion, Horizon’s world is much more of a spectacle. In traditional Western AAA fashion, the Sacred Lands or the dilapidated Pacific North West are designed to wow, and therefore feel like more of a performance piece than a living, breathing world like the places found in The Legend of Zelda games. That’s not to say this is a bad thing, of course — it just depends on what you’re looking for.
The setting is undoubtedly more realistic in Horizon, and whereas in Zelda you never get that eerie but impressive photorealistic double take, those moments are a frequent occurrence here. It’s all much more grandiose than anything we’ve seen from Zelda, and in reality, that’s mostly due to the current hardware limitations of the Switch.
Nintendo still manages to render gorgeous magical worlds on that hardware, but the degree of detail in Horizon’s natural environment, and therefore, the feeling of awe it evokes, cannot yet be replicated in a Zelda game.
In Horizon, foliage now dominates the once human-controlled landscape, and seeing the juxtaposition of nature and manmade infrastructure is some of the most breathtaking and humbling pieces of post-apocalyptic art I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge take on a new, organic evolution that exceeds anything I’ve witnessed in the Wastelands of Fallout; and Forbidden West successfully evolved this sort of art style to be grander, emphasizing the contrast between greenery and concrete.
Forbidden West also adds a great deal more variety, presenting some of the most visually beautiful and distinct biomes I’ve come across — be they shrouded in intense, snowy blizzards or drenched in the all-consuming orange glow of a deep sunset.
Though exquisitely detailed, it should be noted the world of Horizon does feel a lot less lived in, especially in Zero Dawn. This makes sense given the setting, but Horizon can feel a little lonely [think Death Stranding’s lonesome treks].
There’s much less of a cohesive culture here than there is in Zelda; in those games, no matter their race, everyone is struggling against one evil together.
In Horizon, the lands are populated by many different tribes scattered sparsely across the playable area, each with their own distinct ideologies and varying levels of hostility.
The Legend of Zelda
The series has always had a distinctive art style as a whole, and each game is a microcosm of that visual aesthetic.
Typically, Zelda features a more cartoony, animated style that most recently makes heavy use of cel-shading. Zelda’s always had a whimsical design that represented a classical fantasy adventure aesthetic, and it’s also infused with an emphatic layer of Japanese art and culture.
On one hand, you’ve got games like The Wind Waker that use bright, pastel colors with bold but expressive character designs, while others, like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, utilize a more detailed, dark, yet still stirringly magical style. No matter the game and its individual preference, each game is always unmistakably Zelda.
Horizon goes for full realistic simulation. Its style is very cinematic and gritty but also colorful, and it bears a strong resemblance to something like the Avatar series of feature films. It’s a more deliberately sensible style that goes along with the post-apocalyptic vibe while still allowing for more vibrant natural scenes; the games are known for their stunning landscapes, detailed character models, and intricate animations.
The series also makes exemplary use of advanced graphical techniques that combine to create one of the most visually stunning depictions of the planet ever imagined in a video game. Particularly the case with Forbidden West, this is a game that pushes the PS5 to its as-of-yet conceivable limit.
The game is a true testament to the beauty of modern gaming, and there were several occasions I found myself in total awe over visual presentation. That said, I do feel Horizon lacks uniqueness. The backdrops are incredibly impressive, but the tribal aesthetic of towns and settlements is something I feel we’ve all seen before.
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda series has always presented a diverse world, and in the most recent entries, there are more unique activities, quests, and people to meet and help than ever before.
The series is known for its unique blend of exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, and side activities, and this has been honed to perfection over the many years the series has been on the scene. Zelda games are structured so that you never really get bored.
Take Breath of the Wild, for example. The game is known for taking roughly 150 to 200 hours to fully complete, a far cry from the 20-30-hour main story, which in and of itself is much longer than the usual AAA experience of 12 hours.
Even older titles such as Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess give modern games a run for their money in terms of replayability, each clocking in at roughly 30 to 50 hours. If you take a look at the Breath of the Wild subreddit, you’ll see countless posts of people finding new and exciting ways to keep the game fresh even after several years of continuous play.
Similarly, Horizon’s world is brimming with extra detail beyond the main quests. There aren’t quite as many quests as there are in something like Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom, but the quests that are there are on average more detailed, featuring scripted sequences and distinct character arcs.
Another big draw for me was collecting weapons. So far as combat options go, Horizon has a great deal more in terms of weaponry than Zelda, as combat requires such a high skill level. This offers scope for a second or third run with a different build, making old combat encounters fresh with added insight and new weaponry and tactics.
Then there’s the lore: the blend of on- and off-world-looking locals begs for exploration, and uncovering what happened during humanity’s ill-fated past many years ago kept me hooked after I finished the main games. You can expect to complete 100% of Zero Dawn in roughly 50 to 70 hours, while Forbidden West will take players a similar amount of time.
Which Is Better?
Determining which game is better is, of course, a subjective matter. But here’s my subjective opinion:
I think The Legend of Zelda is the better series, mostly because of what I consider subtle, timeless, and carefully crafted elements. It’s a franchise that came together and blossomed thanks to a combination of the genius creative spark of Shigeru Miyamoto, the consistent innovation of series creative director Eiji Aonuma, the collective skills of Nintendo’s famed EAD and EPD divisions, and Monolith Soft’s unique perspective.
The mainline games are a symphony of elements that come together in almost perfect harmony—one of the reasons most predict with almost certainty that the next title is going to be released once again. It has time on its side with decades worth of advancements — something I don’t believe Horizon can yet compete with (but perhaps it will in the future).
There’s a distinct beauty to the way each game plays, sounds, and looks—a comforting familiarity that also manages to push the industry forward to a new frontier at the same time. It’s a formula that, in my opinion, has not yet been matched, despite there being many strong contenders.
Having said this, I cannot discount Horizon’s stamp on the open-world genre as a welcome change to an area of the industry that I consider saturated with mediocre efforts.
The series is a great example of what a modern open-world game should play like with all the trimmings we’ve come to expect, and at the same time, it manages to distinguish itself from other similarly impressive open worlds by providing an intrinsically captivating mystery and multi-layered characters.
Of course, its big selling point is the combat, an area where it distinctly beats the Zelda series thanks to its detailed symbiotic systems. Players are also more likely to resonate with Aloy’s bold and empowering personality, as with Link, we still know very little about how he feels even after all these years.
These games are different in more ways than they’re similar, but if you love visually beautiful open worlds that are begging to be explored, you can’t go wrong with either series!
Similar Titles to Zelda and Horizon
The Legend of Zelda
- Super Mario Odyssey
- Dark Siders
- Beyond Good and Evil
- Shadow of the Colossus
- Hyper Light Drifter
- The Last of Us: Parts 1 and 2
- Fallout 4
- The Witcher 3
- Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
- The Ghost of Tsushima
- Mass Effect: Andromeda
- Farcry 5
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Question: I noticed that with the Horizon series, there are currently two games available: Zero Dawn and Forbidden West. Is it essential to play Zero Dawn first?
Answer: While not essential, it is highly recommended. You’ll still have a lot of fun from a gameplay perspective if you play Forbidden West First, but because that game is a direct sequel to Zero Dawn, the story won’t have anywhere near the same impact.
Question: I can now play many of the Zelda games, new and old, on my Nintendo Switch. Will the Horizon series make its way to this platform too?
Answer: Unfortunately, there are currently no official releases for either game on Nintendo Switch, nor have the developers spoken about porting the games to the platform. There was a case from a couple of years ago whereby someone was able to successfully stream the PS4 version of the game onto their Switch, though this required a modded console to do so — it isn’t recommended.
You never know; the games may eventually come to Switch via cloud streaming, the same service that successfully brought the Hitman series to the platform. We’ll just have to wait and see, but fingers crossed!
Question: There are a lot of different games within the Legend of Zelda series. Which game should I start with?
Answer: If you’re coming into the series brand new, I highly recommend starting with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game represents the most up-to-date framework for the series and sets you up for the latest game, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, as the stories are critically linked. Both games are available for the Nintendo Switch, though if you have a Wii U, Breath of the Wild is also available on that console.
Horizon vs Zelda Franchise Compared: Conclusion
I hope you enjoyed this comparison of The Legend of Zelda and Horizon. I’ve had a great time with both games, and they’re definitely each worth your time. Regardless of which titles you prefer, both offer unforgettable experiences that any fan of open-world adventures will assuredly enjoy.
For more information on both series, I’d recommend checking out both the Horizon: Zero Dawn and Forbidden West and The Legend of Zelda boards on Reddit: These pages will allow you to engage with the wider community and find out anything else you need to know about each series by posting a thread or searching the sub. Have fun!