Music has always been a crucial part of my gaming experience. I’ve played great games whose awesomeness is enhanced by their soundtracks, and I’ve also played mediocre games that managed to find a place in my heart because I enjoyed their scores. Horizon Zero Dawn is, for the most part, the former: a truly singular RPG whose music is part of why I ended up loving the game so much. The soundtrack stumbles in a few places and its heavily ambient nature may not suit everyone, but it’s still worth checking out — especially if you enjoyed the game as much as I did.
The soundtrack is split into four discs, each with its own title and each representing a different category (cutscene, battle music, etc.). Music is generally grouped to fall into these categories, but there are exceptions on every disc. This is part of the overall oddity, for me anyway, that is the soundtrack’s organization. Disc one (Motherland) is almost entirely cutscene music, and though large chunks of it are presented in chronological order, there are tracks that inexplicably appear out of sequence. Discs two (Out Of The Embrace) and three (Onwards To Meridian) feature the music that accompanies your exploration of the world, the former representing the land of the Nora and the latter representing the Carja empire. And disc four (Secrets Of The Earth) is mostly reserved for battle themes, though it also oddly contains a fair amount of cutscene music, some of which is again presented out of order for seemingly no reason. As someone who generally prefers that tracks be presented in the order they appear in the game (or as close to that as possible), I find this structure fairly strange, though it has little bearing on the quality of the music itself.
In a word, the music of Horizon Zero Dawn is…atmospheric. Most tracks focus far more on creating a soundscape than a strong central melody, weaving live instruments and synths together to craft music that complements the lush and expansive world in-game without overpowering it. The results are often quite beautiful and pleasing to listen to outside of the game. “Her Breath, Her Land,” for instance, is pretty much the musical embodiment of awe and wonder, and “A Resplendent Soil” is subtle but manages to grab your attention with its delicate, pulsing chimes and an interesting tonal shift toward the end of the piece.
Of course, the downside of being so atmospheric is that not everything is immediately recognizable or easily associated with an in-game locale or event. For example, there are a handful of short interludes on discs two and three that I honestly can’t place within the game, and some of the cutscene music on discs one and four similarly eludes my recollection. None of these short pieces are bad by any means, but they clearly didn’t stick in my memory well enough for me to recall how they were used in-game; most of the cutscene music on disc four also falls into “works in a cutscene, but not on a soundtrack” territory, which means you may listen to them once and then never again.
While the soundtrack primarily creates an atmosphere, and that sometimes works to its detriment, there are still plenty of standout tracks over the four discs. Aside from the two tracks I’ve already mentioned by name, one of the most recognizable pieces is “Aloy’s Theme,” which features a melancholy melody played first on cello and then echoed by the haunting vocals of Julie Elven. This melody is repeated in several subsequent tracks, making it an effective central theme for the game. “Hologram Myth” and “The Good News” are two of the most sci-fi-sounding tracks on the album, but they weave in almost classical-like strings, which creates an interesting juxtaposition between two oft-opposed styles of music. “A Wanderer’s Work” has a similar feel to it, though it lacks the churning strings; in their place are synthesized vocals that cut in and out for each note in a manner reminiscent of ethnic electronica. And “City On the Mesa” is a fantastic piece (my favorite out of the entire soundtrack) that combines strumming guitar and a jazzy cello with an exceedingly hummable melody.
There are also some interesting instrumentation choices in this soundtrack that I feel are worth mentioning. Several pieces feature a contrabass flute called a fujara, which produces low and breathy tones that can have a delightfully harsh edge to them. The unique sound made by this flute adds a special element that enhances the beauty of tracks like “On Our Mother’s Shoulders” and “A Truth Whispered at Night.” Piano is seldom heard on the album, but where it is used, it has great emotional effect, such as in cutscene music like “Homecoming” and “The World and All Its Lessons.” The second half of disc three features what you might call “local live” music; these tracks represent traditional hymns and entertainment pieces heard in-game at bars, gatherings, and even the occasional prayer mass. Some of these pieces, like the three “Song to the Sun” tracks, are clearly designed to reflect the history and faith of the various cultures in Horizon, and I’m impressed that the composers went to the trouble to not only make them in the first place but also include them on the soundtrack. Finally, there are a handful of tracks where the percussion is clearly the main star, including a few where there is almost nothing but percussion. Horizon isn’t the first game to do something like this, of course, but I always find it interesting when a piece of music completely eschews using traditional forms of melody. Tracks like “To The Hunt!” and “Drums in the Sun-Ring” are reminders that percussion can be music in and of itself.
The weak link of Horizon’s soundtrack is, sadly, the battle music on disc four. While none of it is bad, there’s little that stands out about it, and most themes are fairly forgettable. Battle themes generally feature a fairly static bass line, very little (if any) melody, and lots of percussion mixed in with flavor synths, some of which serve mainly to make noise or add to the adrenaline of the experience. This certainly works well in-game, where the constant beat and sinister shifts in tone play well against the heavy action of fighting giant killer robots. But as with most of the cutscene music on the disc, it doesn’t hold up as well when listened to on its own. Having said that, the best of the lot would definitely have to be “Forced Multiplication,” “Hold the Ridge,” and “Colossal.”
Despite some issues, the soundtrack for Horizon Zero Dawn is still very much worth a listen. Its structure may have you scratching your head at times, and not every track will leave an impression, but those that do may just blow you away. If atmospheric music isn’t really your thing, I’d recommend a more cautious approach, but I still think you can find things to enjoy about this album. I’m not a huge fan of ambient music myself, and I came to really appreciate the soundtrack during my playthrough of the game. Peruse our samples, and if you like what you hear, know that there is more waiting for you…beyond the horizon.