Had it opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled; as it chooses, however, to be a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts
Originally born back in 2013 as a game for mobile platforms, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was pretty clear in its intentions. Coming one decade after the release of the masterful Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and an equally fair number of years following the launch of that title’s seafaring sequel, Phantom Hourglass, Oceanhorn wished to sail on the winds of nostalgia straight into the hearts of gamers who missed cruising mysterious seas, uncovering the secrets of various islands, and navigating through the fog in order to get to the core of some unspeakable evil that threatens to destroy the peaceful life inhabiting a delightfully colorful world.
Greatly aided by the fact there are plenty of people out there who are just dying to anchor themselves to an adventure that has the potential of triggering feelings of discovery and grandness similar to those touched upon by The Wind Waker, Oceanhorn did succeed in being rather appealing and somewhat close to Link’s quest out in The Great Sea. After all, it features a protagonist who – armed with a sword and shield – must use a boat to hop between islands, enter dungeons, find treasure, help people, and ultimately vanquish an enemy that has been tormenting the land for quite a while. And that is why it is quite suiting and pleasant to see it arrive on the Nintendo Switch, a platform naturally owned by a great number of Zelda fans, even if four years have passed since the Oceanhorn’s original release.
There is quite a lot of undeniable charm to be found in Oceanhorn. Its visuals have the bright colors and inherent cuteness Nintendo proudly infuses into its works; the isometric perspective in which it is played sensibly places the game somewhere between the classic vein of A Link to the Past and Zelda’s DS outings, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, the only two efforts in the franchise’s history to make use of that camera angle; its dungeons feature the enjoyable blend of puzzle solving and combat that has marked The Legend of Zelda series since its inception; and the whole quest is punctuated by light storytelling and dialogues that, while in no way even remotely close to the astonishing heights reached by The Wind Waker, put together a mythology and an atmosphere that keep the ball rolling through the eight-to-ten hours Oceanhorn’s core adventure should last.
Beginning with an imposing narration that nicely hearkens to Bastion, even if sans the wit and omnipresence of that game’s voice-over, the father of our hero gravely tells of the day Oceanhorn – a living fortress of a creature that has been active for thousands of years and is the only remaining representative of three machines once created to defend humans against an evil threat – attacked their home and took his wife (the hero’s mother) away. Setting out to track down the monster and unearth the reason for its behavior, the boy’s father leaves behind a message to let his child know that one day he would also have to go after Oceanhorn.
The path towards the ancient creature goes through the recovery of three magical artifacts, each held by a different tribe living on distinct islands, and as anyone who has ever played a The Legend of Zelda game would expect, these items are located deep within heavily guarded dungeons and are watched over by mean bosses. Consequently, Oceanhorn is a constant process of figuring out which island to go to; getting there; finding and opening the dungeon; clearing its puzzles; killing the boss; and moving onto the next one. Taking advantage of the charm of its world and visuals, that fixed road is invariably not that simple, for reaching the island where the dungeon is located often entails traveling to other secondary pieces of land to acquire either intel about the place or a valuable piece of equipment that will allow players to get there.
As one would expect, and borrowing a good page from The Wind Waker, not all of Oceanhorn’s islands need to be cleared in order to reach the end of the game. And that means the title holds plenty of extra content to those who will feel compelled to further sink their teeth into the game’s meat, including a couple of full-fledged mazes, a long list of achievements, a lot of treasure chests, a dozen heart pieces, and numerous bloodstones that – when collected – will grant the hero an optional, yet quite powerful, spell.
Oceanhorn’s overall feeling of exploration takes three considerable hits, though. Firstly, and similarly to a handful of The Legend of Zelda installments that have trouble giving players incentive to go the extra mile and explore some more, the game fills most of its treasure chests with money, which is not that valuable given the game does not feature many worthy items that can be purchased. Secondly, and most aggravating, is how – differently from what happens in The Wind Waker – Oceanhorn’s islands are not fully available from the start, but appear either as the game goes along or as the hero comes across information about them. And while there is a touch of mystery and joy about finding a bottle with an odd message concerning an island and watching it appear on the map, there is also the nagging feeling it would have been much better to have it there since the adventure began so that players could head to the place whenever they felt like it.
As far as freedom goes, though, the biggest problem is definitely the sailing. Distances in the game are short, much to the relief of those who found The Wind Waker’s water-based sections to be awfully dull. However, those trips are incredibly boring, because players cannot do anything but shoot at obstacles; even moving the boat around is not an option, because the route to be taken is defined by the island that is selected on the map as the destination. Not only is such an implementation annoyingly restrictive, as it goes against the refreshing freedom that made The Wind Waker the classic it is, it also makes the ocean devoid of any interesting detours and surprises.
And that issue right there may reveal what truly is Oceanhorn’s biggest problem: the fact it will be inevitably compared to one of the greatest games of all time even though it is a humble mobile title with a great heart and excellent intentions. It chooses to navigate so close to The Wind Waker, and it does so little to stand out on its own as a completely different product, that putting them side-by-side is as inevitable as it is unfair, and nowhere are such inevitability and unfairness more obvious than in the level-design.
As a mobile game, even if it is one that has boldly decided to take a leap to the brand new Nintendo Switch (a home console) a whopping four years after it first came out, Oceanhorn is rock-solid: its dungeons are engaging, the exploration of its islands is a lot of fun, its bosses are decent, its combat is respectable and simple (as it is the case of all 2-D and handheld Zelda games released up to this point), its world is very likable, and the only serious complaint one could make against it is how the map system could have been better implemented, as it only shows the area close to the hero and does not allow gamers to have an overall view of the entire location. Equipped with a bow, a pair of boots for jumping, bombs, and spells that can freeze, burn, heal, and make rocks fall out of the sky, the hero will take on interesting challenges that will keep most gamers happily going all the way through the end while he slowly learns the truth about Oceanhorn, his family, and his world.
However, as a title that clearly intends to be a The Legend of Zelda clone, it suffers the same fate as Star Fox Adventures: namely, it fails to compare in all aspects, especially in the cleverness of design and in the storytelling, only living up to that grand standard in its spectacular soundtrack. When standing beside The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and A Link Between Worlds – to mention a few – Oceanhorn’s puzzles feel simplistic, as they involve way too much block-pushing, switch pressing, and target-shooting, offering almost no moments that will inspire true awe; likewise, its bosses come off as too straightforward, as the process of beating them features no smart tricks and twists, and its plot as not engaging enough.
It is clear, therefore, that Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas exists in a rather tight balance. If on one hand it is indeed an enjoyable game that will hold the attention of kids and adults alike throughout its duration, even luring some of them into tackling all of its secrets; on the other hand it is clearly far from the best experience of its kind, as it chooses to neatly follow in the footsteps of a franchise that simply cannot be beaten at what it does. Had it taken a more subversive approach to some gameplay aspects or opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled. But as the path it takes is that of a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts. Nevertheless, the Finnish Cornfox & Bros. are able to pay a decent enough homage to The Legend of Zelda and give one friendly nod to one of its most remarkable outings, the unforgettable The Wind Waker.