Horizon Zero Dawn Story Explained: Recapping What Happened Before Forbidden West (2024)

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Horizon Forbidden West picks up right where Zero Dawn left off. If you never played the original or just need a refresher, we've got you covered.

By Adam Mason and Steve Watts on

PlayStation's Horizon series features a huge number of characters, dense lore, and loads of twists and turns--and that's just in the first game. With lots of plot details to remember across Zero Dawn and its DLC, you may need a story refresher before playing the new Forbidden West. So, what better time to revisit the story of the franchise so far, from the mysterious Project Zero Dawn all the way through to Aloy's adventures in the Frozen Wilds? This is Horizon's story so far.

The setup

The Horizon franchise plays out its grand narrative of tribal politics and robot dino-animal-things in the 31st century, in the wake of a cataclysmic robot-apocalypse that has wiped out the majority of humanity. Those who survived have formed tribes and are living their lives largely devoid of the technological advancements of their predecessors. They have some awareness of a more advanced time, and refer to these ancestors as the Old Ones.

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Now Playing: Horizon Zero Dawn Full Story Explained

In Zero Dawn, there are four tribes that populate the world. The Nora are a group of deeply religious warrior-hunters from the south, who worship at the altar of 'All-Mother.' The Carja, who reside in the bustling cities of the central deserts and revere the Sun God. The Oseram are a tribe of practically minded forgemen and women. And the Banuk are a mountain-dwelling tribe of hunters and shaman. The tribes aren't exactly all on friendly terms either: The Carja, in particular, are notorious for raiding their rivals under the leadership of the Mad Sun King, Jiran.

Scattered across the stunning post-apocalyptic landscapes are animal and dinosaur-like robots known as 'machines,' who, for the most part, peacefully coexist with the tribes. However, as the years pass by, the machines have become increasingly more violent towards humanity as part of a phenomenon known as the 'Derangement.'

Small beginnings

Horizon Zero Dawn starts with the franchise's central protagonist, the flame-haired huntress Aloy, as a cute little baby. Found alone in the heart of a sacred Nora mountain--the aforementioned All-Mother--poor little Aloy is shunned from the Nora tribe for not having a mother and is subsequently raised by her surrogate father, Rost, who is also a Nora outcast. Fast forward about five or six years, and little Aloy stumbles into a cave system that was once a base of operations for the Old Ones. It's here where she discovers a magic trinket known as a Focus, a tiny earpiece that shows her visions of the Old Ones and vital information about the machines and the surrounding world. She puts it to the test by saving an unlucky Nora lad from some Striders, horse-like machines.

Stumbling upon the Focus piques Aloy's interest in her own past, where she came from, and more importantly, who her mother is. She bombards Rost with questions about who she is, and he eventually tells her that the only way she can learn about her roots is by winning the Proving--a Nora tradition, which sees young men and women compete in trials. If she wins, she'll be granted any wish, including being reintegrated into the Nora, where she can start to find out more about herself. Of course, Rost tells her that it will take years of training to be ready for the Proving, so we next see a montage of her growing up and training for the event.

Proving yourself

As Aloy comes of age, she makes her way to the Proving with Rost, who tells her that she'll never be able to see him again once she wins at the trials. After their sad farewell, Aloy makes her way into the town of Mother's Heart, where a pre-Proving celebration is taking place. A host of delegates from the Carja tribe are also in town, bringing with them good news: the Mad Sun King is dead, killed at the hands of his own son, Avad, who wants to apologize for all the murdering and pillaging his people have been doing over the years.

Before she hunkers down for the night, Aloy strikes up a conversation with Olin, a Carja tribesman, who's also sporting a Focus. Olin shiftily excuses himself before a big, brash Oseram lad named Erend introduces himself and invites Aloy to come and hang out with him in Meridian--the bustling Carjan metropolis. He's a little forward, our Erend, but don't worry, he's a good lad, you'll see.

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Aloy wakes up in the heart of a mountain sanctuary where she unearths some unsettling truths about her past using the Eclipse Focus--namely that she has a near-identical DNA match with an unknown woman that could be her mother. When she speaks to Teersa, a Nora High Matriarch, she's told that the woman can't be her mother, because she has no mother. Teersa elaborates on this maddeningly cryptic message by telling Aloy that she was found in the mountain next to their goddess, the All-Mother, which turns out to be a great big metallic door.

The door immediately starts talking to Aloy like they're old friends, but due to some form of corruption, she can't gain access to the secrets behind it. To rid the door of corruption, Aloy plots to follow Olin's trail back to Meridian, which means that she'll need to venture outside the borders of the Nora tribe. To allow her to leave, Teersa and the other Matriarchs bestow Aloy with the honor of Seeker. As a Seeker, Aloy is allowed to come and go as she pleases, to explore the world beyond the sacred land of the Nora, and even the ruins of the Old Ones, a feat that would normally get you exiled.

With questions to answer and mysteries to unravel, Aloy sets off for the Carja capital. Just as she's about to leave, she's attacked by a Corruptor, a scorpion-like machine, that is turning other machines rabid. Aloy makes short work of the abomination, and rifling through the remains, finds a little doo-dad that she bolts onto her spear, which allows her to override machines.

Go West!

Aloy journeys west and catches back up with her old pal, Erend, who takes her to Olin's house to pick up his trail and get some answers. That leads Aloy to a dig-site in the desert where Olin is helping the Eclipse unearth more Corruptors to wage war and reclaim Meridian from the new Sun King. It turns out that the Eclipse are a splinter group of the Carja, led by a pasty-looking lad called Helis, and they worship a metal demon known as Hades (more on him/it later). They've also been blackmailing poor Olin to help them with their nefarious plans to regain power. The Eclipse want Aloy dead because she looks like the woman that she DNA-matched with, a trivial fact that came about because Olin found a picture of the woman at a place called Maker's End. Aloy detours slightly to investigate and then stop an assassination plot against Avad plot before she continues her journey to Maker's End.

Meet your maker(s)

En route to Maker's End, Aloy starts to hear a mysterious voice in her head, which continuously guides her and helps her towards her goal of infiltrating the facility that she finds. Aloy discovers that Maker's End is actually Faro Automated Solutions, a manufacturing plant from the old times designed to build huge military machines that can help nations keep the peace. The scientists behind this endeavour are Dr. Ted Faro and Dr. Elisbet Sobeck--Aloy's mysterious doppelgänger--and they've built these machines with AI so smart that they can replicate themselves. The catch is that they need living matter to be able to replicate, which really should have been a red flag.

To absolutely no one's surprise, there was a malfunction with the AI, which sends the terrible sentient robots on the path towards an all-you-can-eat buffet of Planet Earth, which Aloy learns is what happened 1,000 years prior. After learning about all this doom and gloom, Aloy finally meets the man behind the mysterious voice, who turns out to be a guy called Sylens, played by Lance Reddick. And while she's initially hesitant to team up with him, Aloy eventually agrees to work with Sylens, as he seems to have a lot of the answers that she's searching for.

Project Zero Dawn

Sylens, who's keen to uncover more info surrounding the Old Ones, sends Aloy on a mission to sneak her way into another Old World Ruin. She enters the ruin, which turns out to be the base of operations for something known as Project Zero Dawn. You may be able to guess that this is significant, given that it's two-thirds of the game's title. But what exactly is Project Zero Dawn?

As it turns out, the Old Ones knew they were doomed and never planned to save themselves from the impending robo-apocalypse. Project Zero Dawn was pitched to the world's leading thinkers as a high-level operation to save humanity, but upon arriving at the facility, the brain trust learned that there was really no stopping the robots, at least not on any realistic time frame. Instead, their work would aim to rebuild the Earth from the ashes many years in the future. To this end, a team of scientists, led by Dr. Sobeck, created an AI known as Gaia, who would be engineered with the required knowledge and power to deactivate Faro's all-consuming murderbots and revive the decimated husk of Earth.

Gaia was built to create an ecosystem of machines in order to revive the planet, before growing a new race of humans to populate her rebuilt world. The team broke Gaia down into nine sub-systems that were all designed to do different things, named largely after the Greek pantheon. Those included subroutines like Demeter and Artemis to replenish the flora and fauna, respectively, and Minerva, which would spend the next several hundred years brute-forcing a decryption code to deactivate the robot swarm.

Among them was Apollo, a huge directory of all human history and culture, which was designed to restart human society just as it had been left, with all of its knowledge and technology intact. But there was also a program known as Hades--the metal demon the Eclipse are in league with--which it turns out is a failsafe software designed to wipe the slate clean if Gaia failed to create conditions that could support life. In that instance, Hades would essentially delete the failed effort, allowing Gaia to restart from scratch.

Deep within the Zero Dawn ruins, Aloy makes her way into the long-vacant office of Dr. Sobeck, where she finds the key that will allow her to bypass the corruption she encountered at the All-Mother door. But just as she's about to leave, she's ambushed by Helis and his Eclipse goons and knocked unconscious.

The shadow of Eclipse

Aloy awakes in a cage in the colosseum-like arena at Sunfall, where she is pitted against a horde of machines and Corruptors as a blood sacrifice. She's rescued by Sylens and the pair escape.

After her near-death experience, Aloy ventures back to the Nora tribal lands, where she encounters Eclipse soldiers, who have already started to invade. Aloy makes it through the invading troops, helping the Nora tribe to fight back in the process, before she gains access to the All-Mother. After making it through that big metallic door goddess, Aloy discovers that the ruin is another base of GAIA. All-Mother, it turns out, is in fact a facility designed to rebuild and repopulate humanity. There, Aloy learns that an unknown signal triggered Hades to kickstart his Doomsday protocol and take complete control of GAIA.

To stop this, GAIA ultimately makes the call to self-destruct her core AI--and in the process, blows up half a mountain, and more importantly, terminates all the ongoing terraforming processes on planet Earth. But even more of a bombshell--unless you saw it coming from a mile off--is that Aloy is actually a clone of the good doctor Sobeck. GAIA's plan was for Aloy to restore her AI programs and destroy Hades, only the Nora tribe got in the way of that plan.

The beginning of the end

With the weight of all that new information on her shoulders, Aloy heads north to visit the decimated remains of Gaia, and lo and behold, there are yet more bombshells waiting for her to discover. First is the tragic ending of her new sort-of-mom, Dr. Sobeck, who Aloy learns sacrificed herself to protect Gaia's location from the plague of Faro's murderbots. Secondly, Ted Faro sabotaged the Apollo program, thus eradicating all of the key information designed to teach the next generation of humans. And consequently, this is the chief reason why the current crop of humanity has regressed to tribal societies.

And thirdly, once Aloy has attained a master override from Gaia's remains, which will delete Hades forever, she comes face to face with Sylens for the last time. Turns out that he's the founder of the Eclipse, as he's the one who discovered the wreck of Hades in the first place (and thus a big reason why everyone's in this mess).

Sylens isn't entirely a bad egg though. He's figured out what Hades' ultimate plan is, which he shares with Aloy, telling her that the rogue AI is prepping a signal to revive all of Faro's old murderbots, which are lying dormant under the earth. On top of that, Helis and Eclipse are preparing to launch an attack on Meridian, where they seek to gain access to the giant Spire tower that is located there--a tower that's perfect for broadcasting Hades' signal.

The final fight

Aloy hightails it back to Meridian to warn anyone and everyone that matters, and with the help of Erend and the Sun-King Avad, she's able to muster up the support needed to set up defenses against the incoming army of Eclipse soldiers and corrupted bots. Depending on how many side quests you completed along the way, Aloy is joined by any allies that she has made, and with their help, she overcomes and kills Helis before defending Meridian from the horde of deadly machines. Despite their best efforts, Hades is still able to break through, and after nearly being crushed to death, Aloy pursues the rotten AI to the bottom of the Spire, where she drives a lance straight into the egotistical robot, ending his nonsense for good.

Right?

One last bombshell

Horizon Zero Dawn comes to a close with Aloy making a pilgrimage to the final resting place of Dr. Sobeck, where she honors the memory of the woman who pretty much single-handedly saved humanity. But wait, there's one of those sneaky little post-credit stings that shows that Hades isn't actually dead, as we see a glowing orb of red light rising from his metallic corpse and flying off into the horizon to be snared by none other than our old mate, Sylens, who traps the AI in some kind of lantern-like device.

The Frozen Wilds

Technically, the post-release DLC expansion The Frozen Wilds takes place before the final fight that goes down at Meridian at the end of Zero Dawn. It takes Aloy to the far mountains in the North, to a post-apocalyptic Montana and the remains of the Yellowstone National Park--a place now known as The Cut. Aloy encounters the Banuk tribe who are battling a Daemon that hails from a mountain known as 'Thunder's Drum' and is causing the machines to go mad. After an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Daemon, the tribes' shaman, Ourea has disappeared, and with Aloy unable to investigate the disturbance without the blessing of the shaman, she heads off in pursuit of Ourea. She eventually finds Ourea in a mountaintop satellite facility, which has been transformed into a Banuk shrine, and the pair agree to work together after Aloy is able to make contact with an AI Spirit that the Banuk revere.

Due to Banuk tribal laws, before they can travel to Thunder's Drum, Aloy must challenge the chieftain, Ourea's brother Aratak, and replace him as the head of the tribe.

Long story short, Aloy beats Aratak at the challenge by gaining his trust when they are ambushed by Frostclaws--giant bear-like machines that belch ice--and she is proclaimed Chieftain. Aloy and Ourea head to Thunder's Drum and infiltrate another Old World ruin where they learn the Banuk spirit is actually an AI called Cyan whose' sole responsibility is to make sure Yellowstone National Park doesn't explode from all the tectonic activity going on.

It's also revealed that the Daemon is in fact another subsystem of Gaia, known as Hephaestus--one designed solely to build more machines. Aloy and Ourea battle through Hephaestus' corruption, before Ourea sacrifices herself to destroy the facility. Aloy makes it out with Aratak and Cyan reveals to them that Hephaestus is still alive, but in hiding. Aloy relinquishes control of the Banuk tribe back to Aratak and ventures back to Meridian to crack on with saving the world, but as you know, we've already covered that.

Forbidden West

There's still plenty of mysteries to explore, including Hephaestus on the loose, Hades still alive in some form, and the lingering questions of who or what produced the signal that made Hades go berserk, and what Sylens is up to. . For more, check out our wrap-up of everything we know about Horizon Forbidden West. And be sure to read our Horizon Forbidden West review.

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