Review: Oceanhorn doesn’t distill Zelda perfectly but still evokes that Zelda spirit
by on July 10, 2017

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, a new adventure game for the Nintendo Switch, is a game that desperately yearns to be called Zelda. The inspiration is clear, and most of its structure will be relatable to anyone who’s played a Zelda title before. Perhaps unfortunately though, this adventure title is a game trapped between two worlds — mobile and console — and as such it is difficult to fully grasp where my opinions are on it.

For a four-year-old mobile game, Oceanhorn is incredibly impressive. But on console, it has to compete with major titles.

On one hand, Oceanhorn is quite literally a best-in-class mobile game, providing a deeper experience than a good swath of the Apple and Google Play stores. When competing against mobile titles, it excels by providing depth, story, and meaning, easily overtaking the cavalcade of generally vapid titles on the platforms. That said, Oceanhorn isn’t priced like most mobile games; on iOS, it’s US$12.99. It brings to mind the price point of Final Fantasy III at $15, a price I remember that many mobile gamers scoffed at.

On the other hand, being on Nintendo Switch (not to mention PS4, Xbox One, and Steam, just to name a few) brings it “home” to games more worthy of that depth. And on Switch, it’s only US$14.99, a base price point that puts Oceanhorn in that crafty little indie space, a space where games that break the rules rein. And I can only imagine that it controls so much better having a dedicated joystick and buttons as well. But the indie space on console tends to be filled with games utterly polished to a shining gleam. Oceanhorn on Switch is essentially a port of its 2013 iOS version, and it really does show. While the game doesn’t have any real bugs to speak of, it just doesn’t have the finesse, that je ne sais quoi artistry that so many indie darlings like Braid, Geometry Wars, Bastion, Super Meat Boy, or Undertale exhibit.

Full disclosure
FDG Entertainment, the game’s publisher, has graciously provided us with a review copy of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas.

Cornfox & Bros.’ attempt to replicate Zelda’s essence

By no means is Oceanhorn the world’s first attempt for a third-party company to distill the essence of Zelda and reformulate it, nor will it be the last attempt either. For what it’s worth, the effort is certainly a worthy one, and while it’s just not quite Zelda, it’s pretty close. Structurally, many of the pieces are present, as if Cornfox & Bros. went down the list of standard Zelda features and ticked them off one by one. Towns? Tick. Dungeons? Tick. Enemies big and small? Tick. Heart gauge and magic meter? Double tick. Exploration? Another tick. Items and keys? Tick and tick. Glorified MacGuffin fetch quest? Tick. A bit of story? Tick. Big nasty? Tick. They really did think of everything.

Structurally, many of Zelda's elements are present, as if Cornfox & Bros. went down the list of standard features and ticked them off one by one.

Structurally, many of Zelda’s elements are present, as if Cornfox & Bros. went down the list of features and ticked them off one by one.

The story isn’t all that remarkable, but really the stories of most of the Zelda games aren’t Shakespeare. In Oceanhorn, you pose as an unnamed boy that’s effectively been orphaned with your only reminders of your parents being your dad’s journal and your mom’s necklace. You’ve been left on a mostly abandoned island in the middle of the sea with only a strange hermit to keep you company. But soon the day comes where he tells you the story of Oceanhorn, the last living fortress, and of your dad’s quest to slay it. Years after his disappearance, he sends you out on the quest to follow your father’s spirit and become the light to defeat Mesermoth and his evil power of TRILOTH.

Sure, it sounds cheesy now, but there are a few good moments in the game, usually centered around characters. I’ll be clear and say those characters are nowhere near as memorable as the like of Saria, Ruto, Tetra, or Linebeck, but moments of compassion and surprise do come in the game, and I think it’s the fact that this game — again, originally a mobile game — dares to go that deep surprised me when a few of its moments endeared me.

But above all, the game’s emphasis remains on being functionally dedicated to the Zelda mindset. There are dungeons to conquer, but you can’t just go into them without obtaining requisite items or spells first. Per what you’re used to, the dungeons provide you keys and items and bosses to continue your quest to become a master adventurer or, if you gain enough XP over the course of your journey, a legend and possibly the power of the TRILOTH Spell. Yes, there’s enough cheek to tell you that they’re directly and unapologetically referencing Zelda throughout the whole game.

Sea surfing and dungeon diving

Throughout the game, my mind kept going back to the thought that this felt so much like Phantom Hourglass. Depending upon who you are, this analogy may sound exciting or sound like a personal hell, so let me elaborate on this point. No, there’s no Temple of the Ocean King, but you will find yourself backtracking to islands with just enough frequency to gather a few collectibles that the thought didn’t escape me. Though mostly Phantom Hourglass comes to mind mainly because of the style of overland travel and dungeon experience.

Throughout the game, my mind kept going back that Oceanhorn felt so much like Phantom Hourglass. This analogy may sound exciting or like a personal hell.

Upon the waves, you start with a mostly blank map. Once you’re told about an island’s existence (usually by a kind townsperson or a random book on a table), it will miraculously appear above the waves, and then you can travel to it. Unlike Phantom Hourglass, you don’t have control over your trajectory between islands; you simply point to the next island you want to travel to, and the game auto-routes you there. But you still have to physically traverse the distance, and this requires sitting through the whole trip. Early in the game, you’ll be awarded (and I’m not making this up) a Pumpkin Seed Gun for your boat; once you get this, enemies (though only one type), mines, and crates will start to appear to thwart your voyage, and you’ll need to destroy them for XP, coins, and not losing any hearts of course.

On land, islands are effectively “dungeon-like.” Even if there’s a town full of friendlies on the map, there’s doubtless somewhere on the map that’s going to be filled with baddies. And some of these island areas aren’t small. Islands will weave you up and around hills, pass through locked gates, and eventually lead to a host of caves and mini-dungeons as well, not to mention the three actual dungeons in the game. There’s actually quite a lot of navigation and exploration to be had, especially if you’re trying to track down every last island in the game (which of course you can only discover by reading and talking to everyone and everything). The only real gripe I had with navigation is that it was never quite clear which cliffs you could jump off of and which ones you couldn’t. The simple answer is, “If you’re not meant to go there, you obviously can’t,” but the game will allow you to fall off of some very high cliffs because it doesn’t totally break a puzzle, but other similar gaps won’t be jumpable because it would seriously break a puzzle. It meant that I was constantly testing every ledge to see if that’s legitimately how you were supposed to access an area.

In the dungeons, there aren’t maps or compasses (other than the game’s tiny mini-map which does show chests), but the dungeon areas feel more or less as large as a single dungeon floor in Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks, easily digestible without having to think too hard about the puzzles. Keys are spread around, some in chests and some held by enemies, and there’s plenty of puzzles between challenges.

The dungeon spaces feel a lot like Phantom Hourglass with a dash of Skyward Sword’s overworld dungeon flair.

Speaking of puzzles, they start off fairly easy — though not as insultingly easy as they did in Spirit Tracks — but do get moderately tricky by the end of the game. More than once, it took me several minutes to puzzle out a particularly tricky block-shifting puzzle. And some of those puzzles require quite a bit of dexterity and timing as well as they’re not afraid to throw time-sensitive sequences your way. However, most of the puzzles are limited to a basic level of elements: Bomb this wall here, shoot this target here with your bow, push this block over there, read this bit of hint here, and quickly run over there. But it’s by no means an experience that’s completely vacuous or without merit, so I’ll give them a good bit of credit for that.

As for enemy creatures, again, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s super impressive considering it’s a four-year iOS title! (History note: Oceanhorn came out around the time of the iPhone 5S.) For the most part, the enemy AI is the thing that you will notice as significantly lacking. Pretty much every enemy will come ambling toward you once you get within a reasonable radius unless you’re coming up on their backs. As for attacks, most normal enemies get maybe one, maybe two types of attacks at most. Even most bosses really don’t have more than three different ways of damaging you. I should make a special note, too, that flying enemies were incredibly difficult to hit and had very awkward hitboxes, but that’s not the end of the world as none of them are ridiculously dangerous.

Oceanhorn even borrows Zelda’ standard subtitling of every major boss.

But the boss encounters are noticeable for one major reason: They incorporate a design language that, to be quite honest, would have really expanded the game had they just been included elsewhere in the game. The game’s second boss is iconic of this sort of unique experience. Whereas most Zelda bosses don’t focus on many of the dungeon design elements during the fight, the boss experience with the Dead King Angler requires the use of timed switches to allow you to get into position to step on different timed switches, and those would cause jets of fire that, should they hit the Dead King, would stun him so you could pile on the damage. For a mobile game, this is rather clever and interesting, and it was experiences like these that kept me going.

Artistry that surpasses mobile, but not up to scratch on console

I don’t like to harp on the visual experience of games because I live squarely in the camp that “graphics shouldn’t matter” in the grand scheme of things. However, I couldn’t help but notice them. Oceanhorn’s visual experience is a lot like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon novel. Eragon was an impressive book to have been written by a 17 year old, don’t get me wrong, but it still read like it was written by a 17 year old as opposed to an experienced writer like George R. R. Martin or Robin Hobb. Oceanhorn has some amazing visuals for a 2013 iOS game… but that’s not the world in which I’m experiencing this game. It’s now on the Switch in 2017. It’s a Zelda-like game competing for my attention with Breath of the Wild’s DLC. I can’t help but be slightly disappointed and slightly wishing I were really playing Zelda.

One of Oceanhorn’s biggest letdowns is character and enemy animation. It’s very clunky.

The real lack of finesse shows in the very primitive animations. I feel slightly bad saying this, but some of the animations almost have a quality level as you might expect from Nintendo’s Mii characters. Some enemies have a very simple sword swipe or hammer swing, and it just looks extremely clunky. When opening the more richly awarding treasure chests, the camera will spin about the chest quite dramatically, but that serves to expose naked skybox above, indicating that the camera really is supposed to retain its three-quarters perspective at all times. (Incidentally, there are camera controls, but it only very slightly nudges the camera off of its standard direction, so I’m not sure why they’re there.)

Otherwise, the graphics are okay, possibly decent. Are they going to compete with any triple-A experience? No, they won’t. In many ways, a lot of indie games — especially those that adopt 2D or 2.5D visual styles — will surpass Oceanhorn. Again, on iOS or Android, this game still would be an amazing experience even today. The difficulty here is that so many games now provide amazing experiences while Oceanhorn simply provides a good experience. Because of this, it’s very difficult to weigh 15 bucks of an alright experience versus 60 for a real cracker of a deal.

The one bit of artistry that Oceanhorn has going for it is that the music is definitely above average. This is very much helped by the fact that two of the three of the game’s composers have some serious street cred. When the opening credits rolled, I was absolutely stunned to see Nabuo Uematsu’s name scroll by. Uematsu, you might recall, has composed music for 13 Final Fantasy games as well the beloved Chrono Trigger. Also appearing in the credits is Kenji Ito, famous for his work on portable Final Fantasy games, Romancing SaGa, and the Mana series.

I was absolutely stunned to see Nabuo Uematsu’s name in the credits. Most of the game’s tracks are ones I could easily rock out to.

While the music can get a little repetitive at times, most of the tracks are ones that I could easily rock out to. Each island has its own theme, and many of the caves and dungeons have their own medleys as well, really allowing for a diverse musical palette. The ambient noise is a little more jarring, but otherwise it isn’t that distracting. But that’s just to say that I was more than surprised how immersive this game could be. It isn’t Breath of the Wild, but it still made my daily train commute to work pass by rather quickly.

A little bit of Zelda, but just a little bit

On paper, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is enough of a Zelda-like to pass some arbitrary threshold. It certainly ticks all the boxes. But ultimately, being Zelda requires more than the sum of its parts. It requires this remarkable cohesion, this incredibly complex yet simple moment-to-moment gameplay that alternates between exploration, enemies, danger, and puzzles in rapid succession. Perhaps the only real flaw with Oceanhorn is either a question of its original hardware limitations or a question of finesse. It gets ever so close to hitting the mark, but it just doesn’t have that extra oomph to blur the lines into the console space.

But certainly this game very solidly evokes that Zelda air. It’s identifiable everywhere, and it certainly isn’t unwelcome. It’s cute and charming in its own way, and it certainly made a daring entry into the mobile market four years ago. Perhaps that’s why it’s trying its hand at being a console title. It certainly would explain why Cornfox & Bros.’ second game, the in-progress Oceanhorn 2, is going much more realistic and stylistic, creating a much-needed greater sense of personality. I keep telling myself that someone made this game on a mobile platform four years ago, and I’m still kind of in awe of that fact.

Ultimately, whether Oceanhorn is for you or not is dependent upon this weird juxtaposition of the mobile and console platforms and just how into the indie scene you are… and quite broadly what The Legend of Zelda means to you. For some, I have no doubt that Oceanhorn will deliver that delightfully quirky and punchy attitude that Zelda games have; if Phantom Hourglass ranks up there in your list, this game will be well worth your purchase. But if you’re a gamer that dabbles less in portable Zelda titles and keeps towards places like Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, the game might not be what you’re looking for.

For me, the first three hours were below my expectations, only to have them rise above expectations during the next three and remain there for the rest of the game. It’s a noteworthy title to be sure, but I’m happy to free up my time now tackling Breath of the Wild’s DLC.

Score Similarity to other Zeldas
7.5/10 Phantom Hourglass – ▲▲▲▲▲
The Wind Waker – ▲▲▲▲△
A Link Between Worlds – ▲▲▲△△
Breath of the Wild – ▲△△△△
David Johnson
David Johnson, a.k.a. "The Missing Link," was once the webmaster of both Zelda: The Grand Adventures and ZeldaBlog. He works as a software engineer in the games industry. David also pontificates about Zelda, writes features and guides for ZU, and obsesses about CD-i.