Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game played from a third-person perspective. Players take control of Aloy, a hunter and archer, as she ventures through a post-apocalyptic land ruled by robotic creatures known simply as "machines". Aloy can kill enemies in a variety of ways, such as by setting traps like tripwires using the Tripcaster, shooting them with arrows, using explosives, and using a spear. Machine components, including electricity and the metal they are composed of, are vital to Aloy's survival, and she can loot their corpses to find useful resources for crafting. Ammo, resource satchels, pouches, quivers; resistance, antidotes, health potions, and traps are all amenable to crafting. Weapons have modification slots for dealing more damage. A small head piece that Aloy wears called a Focus allows her to scan machines to determine their susceptibilities, identify their location, the particular level they possess, and the nature of loot they will drop. One machine, the Stalker, can enable cloaking technology as a means of averting the gaze of Aloy's Focus scan. Machines attack by way of defensive and offensive measures, and will in either case react to a perceived threat by charging at it with brute force or projectiles. As they exhibit the behaviour of wild animals, some machines are inclined to move in herds and others, possessing the ability of flight, do so in flocks. Unless hacked with the Override Tool, machines will not exert aggressive force against each other. Aloy also engages in battle with members of the cult known as the Eclipse, who are occasionally flanked by corrupted machines. Aloy may dodge, sprint, slide, or roll to evade her enemies' advances.
While the first seven games were loosely based on Greek mythology, this new installment will be based on Norse mythology. Barlog explained the transition: "it's kind of this BC–AD change over kind of thing. We're moving and starting from zero and kind of moving forward on that. Before settling on Norse mythology, Egyptian mythology was also considered. Barlog said that half of the team was for it, but since "there's a lot more about civilization - it's less isolated, less barren", they decided on the Norse setting because they wanted the focus to stay on Kratos: "Having too much around distracts from that central theme of a stranger in a strange land." In explaining why Kratos is now in the Norse world, Barlog said that different cultures' belief systems coexisted, but they were "separated by geography", suggesting that Kratos traveled from Greece to Norway (Scandinavia) after the conclusion of God of War III. Barlog also confirmed that this game predates the Vikings; it is the time in which their gods walked the Earth. Throughout the game, players will be able to visit some of the nine realms of Norse mythology.