Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Seas

To get right to it, Oceanhorn was originally a mobile game that, for all intents and purposes, paid homage to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and The Wind Waker. A cataclysmic event called the Catastrophe reshapes the world where the remnants of civilization live on a collection of islands separated by a seemingly endless ocean. The player character’s impetus for adventure comes from the disappearance of his father, who set out to defeat the titular Oceanhorn, a sea monster that displaces peoples and causes frequent terror. Armed with his father’s sword, shield, and a familiar repertoire of skills, the hero sets off to locate magical seals to track down and defeat the terrible beast.

There’s really nothing that separates this game from its source material. In fact, the amount of content Oceanhorn lifts from games like Wind Waker makes it feel less like homage and more like rip off. Hallmarks of the Zelda series have been duplicated here at a ratio of 1:1.  You’ll use a boat to move from one island to another, there are bombs and arrows to collect (fire one through flame to create fire arrows), smash ceramic pots, cut tufts of grass with the sword to reveal coins, fight patterned-based bosses found at the end of environmentally themed dungeons, and a spinning sword attack. Even more on the nose is the spinning camera movement that triggers when key items are found in treasure chests. The only thing missing is the Triforce and the franchise’s classic musical cues.  

By lifting Nintendo’s game mechanics whole hog, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oceanhorn plays quite well. It really is a competent action game. And why wouldn’t it be since it was developed off the back of the industry’s most sacred cow. The dungeons are Oceanhorn’s tasty chocolate center, filled with mazes and monsters that are well designed and executed. Dungeons are multi-level areas and designed in such a way that no backtracking is required to advance, so there’s no need to go through it all again after the boss has been defeated. One gameplay mechanic that differs from the source material is a levelling progression system that raises the ceiling for the number of bombs and arrows that can be carried at any given time and decrease the amount of mana spent on magical attacks. Other bonuses, like increasing the movement of the game’s sea faring vessel, can also be influenced by gaining experience.

Oceanhorn does have its faults which proves that copying a great game’s design doesn’t guarantee success. The fault mostly lies with its origin as an iOS product. The game’s UI has the look and feel of a mobile game, with HUD elements and menu screens occupied by large, candy-like buttons you’d normally tap with a fingertip. The camera is often an issue in tight corners, as there is no way to pan a full 360 degrees to get a better view of not easily seen pitfalls, monsters, and spike traps. On-screen pop-ups that indicate successful completion of various and mostly meaningless tasks trigger the Xbox’s achievement alert constantly to a point where the rush quickly wears thin.

Speaking of wearing thin, Oceanhorn grows repetitive over time. For the first hour or so, the game is fun and straightforward: travel to an island of your choosing via the boat, which turns the game into a light on-rails shooter. Explore island to find its dungeon and seek its treasure by defeating enemies, bosses, and completing puzzles. Travel to the main city, talk to the character’s mentor, or visit an unexplored island to pretty much do it all again. Before too long, the boat sequences turn into an unnecessary task that you’ll wish could be skipped. Mines and Octoroc-type creatures will do your boat harm while destructible cargo crates hide coins, bombs, magic refills, and arrows. The rewards are hardly substantial and given the dangers that always pop up in your direct path, there’s no way you can safely set the controller down and grab a sandwich or take a pee break. Fast travel - my entire kingdom for a fast travel!

Dungeons too suffer the fate of repetition. Traversing these dungeons can be fun enough (and some of the environments, while generic, are interesting to explore). However, the majority of the puzzles you’ll be confronted with are Sokoban-style box puzzles that require you to push them in such a way to open up paths or trigger something. A handy reset button is usually situated nearby in the event you mess up the puzzle, though you should know that they aren’t particularly difficult. Your brain won’t be seriously taxed here. In most cases, the puzzles get annoying because boxes and crates can only be pushed. That’s a bit of a nuisance because I never got the impression that the ability to pull a box would break the puzzle in any tangible way. At best, it’d save me from making frequent trips to the reset button.

Despite the tone of this review, I do want to stress that Oceanhorn is a pretty decent game. It has its flaws, but there is some good to be found here. Again, the dungeons are designed well and the aesthetic, while certainly not as charming as Wind Waker, is colorful and pretty. By far the best thing to be said for the game is its soundtrack, itself a collaboration between - brace yourself - Final Fantasy masters Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito. I was shocked to discover that these two composers, with decades of experience between them, lent their skills to a mobile game. What an awesome get for the developers and a real treat for the player’s ear!

For a large segment of the population, Oceanhorn falls just over the line of outright plagiarism. It is so blatantly similar to Nintendo’s Zelda series in every possible way, I’m surprised the game didn’t catch much flak. Those without any personal connection to Zelda adventures will enjoy a solidly built adventure that just so happens to have an amazing soundtrack from maestros of the industry. This is the sort of game that’s perfect for people who, for one reason or another, completely missed the Zelda train and are looking for a chance to see what the fuss is about. Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Seas is a fun enough action adventure despite not having an original bone in its body.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.