There is a good setting, and indeed a good story, hiding in the back third of Horizon Zero Dawn. The first two-thirds make reaching that excellent payoff perhaps a little too frustrating, but at the same time I am not entirely sure how I would have presented it differently. The game spends hours presenting a hostile, superstitious and often annoying world which genuinely feels like the sort of tribalistic society that would emerge in a post-apocalyptic world, but at the same time it plays so heavily on how regressive the world is it becomes difficult – from perspective of the protagonist, and by extension the player – to forgive them enough to save them.
Note: This review also talks about the plot of Turn-A Gundam, as well as discussing details of the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
As G-Tekketsu proceeds into its seventh episode, it is a conflicting series; it hints at some very interesting ideas it has yet to satisfactorily develop, some other details have turned into a very interesting character study and it sits in an uneasy place between lazy formula and a genuinely interesting take on well-worn ideas. In my initial writing on the series I highlighted its subtlety and willingness to use body language and implicit bits of character development as strengths; it was setting up a contrast between a cynical and pragmatic yet ultimately ignorant hero, and an idealistic yet out-of-touch privileged woman trying to reach out to him. This continues for a while; during the series’ episodes on Mars, the protagonist, Mika, is shown to be illiterate and able to fight only by the muscle memory of his life as a tank driver – in time he admits this and tries to learn to write, but before then it is shown by his refusal to read manuals or instructions. Mika – and his superior officer Orga – remain the most interesting characters even as the series falls into a slump; their dynamic has become a strange inversion of the usual machismo of robot anime.
Aldnoah Zero shows its inspirations from across a number of science-fiction animé, but perhaps most clearly Turn-A Gundam in its invading empire from space bringing advanced technology against a more primitive Earth. While Turn-A took this to an extreme, with technology more advanced than many of the pure science-fiction Gundam series set against early 20th century weapons, Aldnoah has a “standard” military sci-fi setting, with its own war robots and advanced versions of existing weapons, set against a high-powered invading force with more fantastical equipment. Having greater technological parity in this way puts the focus more easily on conflict from the start; although very quickly in Turn-A the Earthrace finding and learning to use advanced weapons becomes the defining plot point, it makes it very clear from the start that without this, the Earthrace cannot even destroy a single Moonrace machine.
What set the various series of Aria out as an interesting story both on a personal and conceptual level was their idyllic – genuinely utopian – attitude. Nostalgia for an imagined urban society less insular of the past, as well as a future of economic security where people worked for pleasure rather than survival, provided a backdrop for a series of stories about personal identity and the importance of doing what matters personally, rather than what others might expect. It ended on a hopeful note – the characters all found their places within society and life continued despite the changes that everyone underwent. In this way the story as a whole was a comforting one about coming to terms with how – even in a society where nobody truly lacks for anything – live must change and not stagnate.