Just when you think you've really gotten the hang of Horizon Zero Dawn, creeping around and hunting robot dinosaurs in the colourful open world, along comes a Cauldron to blow your damn mind.
This week, after spending ~80 hours with Breath of the Wild and over 100 hours with Persona 5, I decided to revisit Horizon, a PS4 game that deserves every accolade it's racked up. Not only is it the most graphically impressive video game we've seen to date -- thanks, hyper-realism -- it has a unique rhythm that distinguishes it from other, shootier AAA games. Aloy, your badarse red-headed heroine, has an arsenal of arrows, traps and crafty attacks that you can use in several satisfying ways to take down increasingly powerful squadrons of robot dinosaurs.
And then there are the Cauldrons. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Cauldrons are optional dungeons that you'll find all across the map. Patricia tells me that later in the game they're explained properly -- I'm not that far yet, so no spoilers! -- but when you first encounter them, they're enigmas. Each is a mysterious cavern of twisted rock and metal, buried deep under the deserts and forests of Horizon's sweeping world. There are four of five of them, and each is full of puzzles, platforming and tough dinosaurs to sneak past.
The entrance to each Cauldron usually looks something like this:
Then, as you start spelunking, you'll discover interesting obstacles. Maybe there's a bit of platforming, or a set of moving boxes with big yellow handles, inviting you to jump on board and go for a ride. Maybe you'll find a rotating wheel that you have to climb across, using its spokes as handholds as you make your way to the other side of a chasm.
Each new room in the Cauldron brings with it a new set of challenges. Almost all of them are full of patrolling dinosaurs. Some of these dinos, like the weakling Watchers, you can take out with a quick stealth strike. But for many of the bigger dinosaurs, you'll pretty much need to sneak around without getting caught. Aloy is fragile, and being spotted by a high-powered Ravager at the wrong time is a recipe for very bad news.
Throughout many of these areas you'll find vents (highlighted as purple triangles when you use Aloy's "Focus" to scan the world) that you can smack open, creating a cloud of smoke that will hide you from enemy sight. Or, if you want to cheese it, you can sometimes just stand on a tower and snipe all the dinos while they're out of range.
At the end of each Cauldron you'll find a massive dinosaur, trapped inside a big bubble. In order to finish the dungeon, you'll have to take this giant beast out. You'll have time to prepare, though. It can't attack you while it's in the bubble. The only way to disable the bubble is for you to jump up to one of the towers surrounding it, then override the plug, so you can hang out and taunt this boss for a while, knowing that it can't do shit to stop you.
To defeat this dinosaur, you'll need to be quick on your feet, taking advantage of its weaknesses by using fire/frost/electricity in smart ways as you circle the room. You'll also have to be lucky, because one wrong hit can lead to an immediate game over.
Or you could do what I did:
Conquer this boss and you will feel TRIUMPHANT, like you just bought a house or got a promotion at work. You are on top of the world, and no robot dinosaur can stand in your way.
You'll also get a sweet reward: The ability to override and take control of new dinosaurs. Early in the game, you'll automatically learn how to override some basic robots (like those ubiquitous Watchers), but the only way to conquer the bigger and badder dinos is to beat Cauldrons, each of which will grant you the power to take control of four or five new beasts.
Really, though, it's about the journey, not the destination. Go play through the Cauldrons because they're really friggin' good, and because Horizon Zero Dawn is an excellent video game.