Review: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas

By Sean Clancy 25 Nov 2013 0
You'll be spotting Triforce-like figures in this title like a conspiracy theorist spots Illuminati symbols in currency. You'll be spotting Triforce-like figures in this title like a conspiracy theorist spots Illuminati symbols in currency.


Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is a new Zelda game from Cornfox & Bros. Ltd., and if you can't get on board with that then, well, sail on.

Of course the game doesn't actually star Nintendo's famed hero of Hyrule or its titular princess. It's just a shameless—that's wholly, in-your-face shameless—copy of those classic Link adventures, Windwaker being a particularly strong source of inspiration. From the precocious tone, to the mechanics, to the overall visual style, it's all Zelda, Zelda, Zelda, and Oceanhorn never tries to hide it. So, for now at least, you're going to have to pretend you don't know what a heart container or Triforce is, okay? Because Oceanhorn doesn't merely succeed in aping the superficial elements of a Zelda game—that's what it does best.



Gorsh, it sure is purdy though. One of those titles where you catch yourself lingering in places, just to take in the sights. If you have an iPad case that stands up on its own, you could prop a running instance of Oceanhorn up on your desk or mantlepiece and pretend it's one of those sci-fi movie Future-Frames—or, like, a Harry Potter picture—of some island vacation you never took. Or not. It's a looker, is the point.

And, hey, for an action-adventure title that's already on shaky ground in terms of originality, the story's not offensively slapdash. Dad was hero. Meet ancient evil. Now pass responsibility, son. Son must find things fight ancient evil. Dad kind of sound like narrator from Bastion. Son have small legs, large head. All right in world. It's breezy and insubstantial enough to get you right into the action, but consistent when it comes to doling out the lore. Like, there apparently used to be a race of anthropomorphic owls who were by all accounts pretty boss. Who doesn't enjoy learning stuff like that, going “Huh, neat,” and then immediately forgetting it all the moment you see some vases to toss around aimlessly?

The unlocking of a seed-shooting gun turns Oceanhorn's travel segments from peaceful sailing trips to a simulation of Vietnam-era patrol boat action. Unlocking a seed-shooting gun turns Oceanhorn's travel segments from peaceful sailing trips into simulations of Vietnam-era patrol boat action.


Yes, your top-heavy hero can run around and smack whatever he pleases with a sword, break pots, throw rocks around, and eventually unlock the ability to sling spells and loose arrows into so many plush monsters (as if there wasn't going to be a bow in this game), among other abilities. Oceanhorn does a good job of throwing a variety of combat situations at you. Sure, there are your defenseless overworld enemies—who just sort of wander around until they impale themselves on your sword—but, also, tougher foes like goblins and trolls, who can block your attacks and are hearty enough that they'll always be able to get at least one swing in before they go down. These latter engagements slow the tempo down, forcing you to use your shield and go for quick strikes when an opportunity presents itself.

As you might expect, Oceanhorn has but two main kinds of play: murdering up pottery and confused animals with your supporting arsenal and sword (what the game's presumably child-aged protagonist might call his “Shiny Metal Kill'em Stick”), and puzzle-solving. “Could be some puzzles in there I guess,” Oceanhorn's narration tells you before your first dungeon run, and boy is it right about itself. Thanks for the tip, Game! And thanks for reminding I'm playing a game, Game!

"You may flee with your lives if you wish, rats, but the pottery... the pottery belongs to me..." "You may flee with your lives if you wish, rats, but the pottery... the pottery belongs to me..."


But the puzzles aren't anything special. Pushing boxes and using the right item (which you probably just unlocked in the very same dungeon you're puzzling in) are the orders of the day. True, some of these box-pushers can be tough, and often require some neat navigational tricks in the sense that you need to “get” both the puzzle of moving boxes around and the puzzle of moving your character around and over boxes, but there's only so much you can do with this kind of setup. For item of the day “puzzles,” it's worth noting that at least Oceanhorn doesn't overuse old classics, and never devolves into an endless placing of bombs near suspiciously uniform cracks in walls.

Boss fights are the one area where these two components--murda' killin' and brainy thinkin'--meet, as is common in these sorts of action-adventure joints. Dungeons and the like will be bookended by impressive mega-foes with girthy HP bars, whose defeat can only come from careful pattern analysis and precise movement--what should be a thematic culmination to the level, or a test of the abilities the player has picked up in the previous 30 minutes of play. And, sadly, this is where the main problems with Oceanhorn come out.

The controls aren't that good. Yep, it's another action title with finicky touch controls, faux-thumbstick on the left and a few multi-purposed "buttons" on the right. In fairness, the scheme isn't terrible, and there are surely other titles who have done this setup far worse, but that's faint praise. When you're sticking purely to killing overworld baddies then, yeah, you'll be fine, as long as you spam the sword button and--if possible--abuse ranged magic and bow attacks. Same for puzzles, as long as you're careful not to move Oceanhorn's somewhat sluggish protagonist over a "reset" pad accidentally, wiping any progress you may have made on a task.

Oh, kid, don't stand that close to the glowing heart-aether, okay? It's bad for your eyes. Oh, kid, don't stand that close to the glowing heart-aether, okay? It's bad for your eyes.


The control issues only invoke peak frustration during boss fights, where you need to rely on quick, careful movement while simultaneously working out when and where the solution to the Big Bad's puzzle is. Persistence--and the eventual memorization of boss patterns that comes with it--will win out in the end, but only after so many seemingly needless deaths and restarts. It's not a deal-breaker, at all, hence the late mention here, but it is something that Oceanhorn should have nailed in trying for Zelda-clone competency, and it didn't.

So, now, let's acknowledge the Skulltula in the room. Shigeru Miyamoto has said that the original Zelda was inspired by his own boyhood explorations of his hometown's surrounding countryside and forestland. The paradox at the heart of Oceanhorn is that it's trying to capture that same sense of discovery... by directly lifting from other titles. When it does break from the mold, however briefly, it's in the form of a basic level-up system that just doles out a second subset of reward items and abilities over time--essentially the same as, but separate from, the unlocking of items through dungeon-delving.

The question is: how can the instantly familiar and recognizable also hope to be new and mysterious? Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is pleasant and engaging, for the most part (and, again, really good-looking, with fab music), but also so blasé in its borrowing of everything Zelda-like that the missteps it does make are noticeable ones. It has the heart of a Link adventure, but not the courage to strike out and try something fresh.

Review: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas

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