If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d never have guessed that Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas began life as a mobile game. It has the look and feel of a console game – which isn’t too surprising given its heavy Legend of Zelda inspiration – and with the PlayStation 4 release being my first introduction to the game, I can’t imagine playing it any other way. I’m far from averse to mobile games, but console is where Oceanhorn belongs.
If you’ve ever played The Legend of Zelda, Oceanhorn will be instantly familiar. It has the same simple hack-and-slash combat, the same approach to puzzle design, the same “heart container” health system, and even analogues to Zelda’s Master Sword and Hylian Shield. If you’re going to emulate something so closely, Zelda’s a good choice: its combination of exploration, upgrade-based progression, and dungeoneering is a robust and timeless one.
That’s not to say Oceanhorn doesn’t have an identity of its own, because it certainly does. It takes place in Arcadia, a gorgeous world made up of a series of islands that were once a thriving, technologically advanced kingdom. Unfortunately, a mysterious evil threat tore the land apart – as mysterious evil threats are wont to do – the civilization collapsed, and its descendants now live contentedly, more or less, in little island-based communities.
In true video game fashion, what starts as a simple quest to find your lost father evolves into a world-saving adventure that has you delving into Arcadia’s history. The actual plot is very straightforward and quite dull, really, but it’s a means of getting you acquainted with Oceanhorn’s delightful world and its history. Admittedly, the “reckless human society buckles under the weight of its own advances” is a backstory that’s far from original, but it serves the game well.
The journey that transpires takes you to the usual variety of fantasy game settings: lush forests, arid deserts, strange ruins, semi-submerged caves, and so on. Each destination is essentially its own Zelda-like dungeon, with environmental puzzles that span the island, grasses to cut and pots to smash in search of hearts and coins, and monsters to dispose of. The ultimate goal is usually to get some sort of upgrade that will allow you to make your way further through the game, be it a tool like obstacle-destroying bombs, a magic spell, or just some information that causes a new island to appear on the map.
The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly difficult or creative, especially compared to those of Zelda proper, but they’re interesting enough to be worth the trouble. They also have plenty of collectibles to search for, many of which won’t be available until you have a fully-stocked tool belt, so there’s plenty of reason to explore.
No dungeon would be complete without a boss, but sadly, this is where Oceanhorn is at its weakest. Like most action-adventure games, these boss fights come down to pattern recognition and finding safe openings to attack, but none of the bosses’ attack patterns are particularly complex or exciting. At the same time, quirky hit detection means you can easily fall to even these simple patterns if you’re not careful, and an awful checkpoint system: die to a boss, and you’ll respawn just outside the boss room with only three hearts regardless of the size of your life bar. This means that not only do you have skip through any pre-boss cutscenes and sit through an elaborate boss spawning animation, but you also have to dick around smashing pots to try and refill your health just so you can face the challenge at your full strength.
I imagine the bosses (and combat in general) would be much more trying in Oceanhorn’s mobile version. The control scheme isn’t overly complex by console standards, but there’s enough going on that I can’t see any elegant touchscreen solution. With a gamepad, though, the controls are straightforward and intuitive, which is vital in a game that demands at least a bit of precision. Moreover, this isn’t a game that works well in small bursts; it’s at its best when you can sit down, get comfortable, and really engross yourself in it.
The other reason Oceanhorn ought to be played on a TV is that it looks and sounds great. It’s not a technically demanding game by any means, but it has a bright, cartoony art style that looks lovely despite low-poly models and relatively simple textures. My favourite thing about the game’s look is that despite being completely three-dimensional, it has a grid-based isometric design. The cubes that the world is made of are far too detailed to be comparable to something like Minecraft, but they manage to pay a delightful tribute to the tiled JRPGs of days gone by. Mention also has to be made of the beautiful soundtrack, which has contributions from famed composers Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Kenji Ito (Seiken Densetsu).
There’s an argument to be made that Oceanhorn doesn’t do enough to build upon the Zelda framework, some people may find it a bit on the easy side, and the boss fights could certainly use work. Even so, this is a great game that anyone who enjoys a more puzzle-based action adventure game will surely want to pick up, especially now that it’s on console where it belongs.
- Beautiful world design
- Exciting dungeons and puzzles
- Boss fights are tedious and dull
- Does little to build on the Zelda formula