As I don’t have any IOS devices, the original release of Oceanhorn back in 2013 completely passed me by, but I was instantly intrigued when I first saw it with it’s nice looking visuals and classic gameplay. Finnish developer Cornfox & Bros are fairly new, as far as I can tell having only worked on a Death Race remake for Remedy a couple of years ago, so I’d not come across them before but reviews of the IOS version were decent so when I saw that it was being released on Steam I decided to give it a shot.
So, to get the obvious comparison done at the top: Oceanhorn is very, very, very much inspired by the Legend of Zelda. The core gameplay mechanics are very similar, from the way health is displayed to the spinning sword slash when you hold down and release the attack button, collecting multiple heart pieces to add to your health bar and so on. Much like Wind Waker, it has travel between a number of small islands on a boat, and has a similar cartoony style without the cel shading.
This isn’t really a problem for me; I love Zelda games and getting to play something like Zelda on a platform where I normally couldn’t is something I look favourably on.
Oceanhorn takes place in a world largely covered in water. The once thriving Arcadian civilisation had been taken to the brink of destruction by the evil Mesmeroth taking control of the Arcadian’s robotic battle tanks called Living Fortresses and using them to destroy everything he could. Centuries later, descendants of the Arcadians live scattered across the islands in fear that the last of the Living Fortresses, the titular Oceanhorn, will return to wipe them out again.
The story begins with the father of the unnamed player character (I believe he’s known simply as Hero, which is what I’m going to call him) disappearing in the night to the sound of Oceanhorn’s attack. As you’d expect, Hero then sets out on a quest to find and hopefully rescue his father.
You begin with just a sword and shield, and start exploring the starting island which quickly establishes the game mechanics. Hero can attack with his sword, lift his shield to defend himself from attack and can also run over short distances. As the game progresses you will also acquire extra items such as the bow and arrow and also several magic spells. Unlike Zelda, attacking enemies gives experience that serves to level Hero up, each level adds a new perk such as the ability to carry more arrows or more stamina to be able to run further.
After performing a few tasks for the old man (who, sticking with the basic naming theme is simply called Hermit) that lives on the island you’re given a boat and set on your way to the next island, which more or less serves as the hub of the game. Sailing between islands sadly isn’t all that interesting though. You select your destination on the map and it sets a course that it follows automatically. Quite early on you do acquire a gun that allows you to shoot at enemies and items that appear in the sea, which for some reason you can’t use when on foot, but outside of that all you can really do is look around until you get to where you’re going. I can understand the design reasoning behind it – you don’t have to make any more of the world than the player can actually get to and you don’t run the risk of a player getting to somewhere they shouldn’t be yet and getting stuck, but it feels a little restrictive.
Islands appear on the map when Hero first learns about them, so when you first set off you only have a choice of two locations. Conversations with the various NPC characters as well as completing story goals will add other islands to the map, giving you more places to go. Most of the islands are involved in the main story quest, though there are smaller islands that either have little side quests or items to be found.
Most of the main islands will have a large overground area to explore before going into caves or mines beneath the surface. Each area is scattered with smaller and often very familiar seeming enemies, with as you’ll likely expect a larger boss battle at the end of the island. Some of the boss fights in particular are well constructed and make good use of the various items and spells you accumulate through the game.
Unlike the touchscreen controls of the IOS original, the PC version of Oceanhorn fully supports gamepads as well as keyboard controls. In game controls all work well, though I found the menu system a bit clunky, with some parts the felt like should should have been able to click on them for more information not actually doing anything. Spell casting was also a bit odd, as you had to select a location on the screen to cast the spell to, which would have felt perfectly natural with touch controls but a little off otherwise.
While there is an option to read back through previous conversation text in the menu, a proper quest tracker or even a reminder of what you were doing would have been helpful. At one point while playing through the game I was away for a couple of days and had a little trouble on my return working out exactly what I was supposed to be doing next.
The art style on the game is quite nice generally. The characters are quite simply animated, with some of the movement particularly in cutscenes being a bit stiff but the designs are fine and the various island locations look pretty good. Even though I'm not running on the most powerful gaming hardware I was surprised that I couldn’t max the game out without a significant drop in the framerate though, so I suspect it could have done with a little more optimisation.
The dialogue in the game is one of my biggest gripes. The voice acting generally is pretty flat and unexciting and I wonder if it would have been better served with just text on screen as the Zelda series has always done. The spoken dialogue didn’t always correctly match the subtitles and there were a number of odd grammar errors – one that really stuck out to me was how some things were intermittently referred with and without the definite article, often in the same sentence. I know that the developers are from Finland and so likely aren’t native English speakers so I’m willing to cut them a fair amount of slack on that basis, but the game does have translators and proof readers credited and it really seems like they should have picked this up.
The soundtrack has several composers credited on it, including former Square Enix contributors Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu. I’m not sure who composed each track, but there are some really good themes in the game with the main sailing theme and the music of Sky Island being particular standouts for me.
The Steam release of the game also includes the extra quest that was added to the IOS version a few months after release, the Island of Whispers. While not a bad section of content itself, it seemed a bit oddly placed, as you had to have completed the main game for the NPC that gives you the location of the island to appear. On the IOS version this was fine as most players would have finished the game at that point, but coming after the final boss it felt a bit anticlimactic and I feel it would have fit better inserted into the game proper.
The quest also added fishing to the game which is integrated better as you get the rod earlier, and a significant chunk of the game’s achievements are tied to catching all of the fish. Fishing is a bit counterintuitive at first as it feels like you’re pulling in the opposite direction to what’s happening on screen and again this is something that seems like it didn’t quite translate right from the original touch controls. A couple of the fish types are also incredibly elusive and random spawning, which makes tracking them all down a bit of a chore, but they are however completely skippable if you're not interested in the achievements.
If you like Zelda and want to play something that’s like Zelda then it’s a bit of a no brainer really. While a little rough around the edges in a couple of places, Oceanhorn is overall a very enjoyable game and I’d certainly be up for playing more like this from Cornfox & Bros in future.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is out now on Steam.