“It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.”
-Herman Melville, Hawthorne and His Mosses
This review is for the version of the game released this year (2017) on the Nintendo Switch.
Even if you’ve never played a Legend of Zelda game, you’ve likely played any one of its many homages, tributes, clones, rip offs and knock offs. Zelda certainly must be one of the most influential franchises in gaming history. As is frequently true of the biggest, earliest IPs, there have been a lot of games which have followed (consciously or unconsciously) in the Legend of Zelda’s footsteps. This is perhaps clearest in the indie scene, which often takes snapshots of past classics and builds on them.
This evidently accounts for Cornfox & Bros.’s indie action-adventure: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, a game I was excited to play for a long time (emphasis my own). Oceanhorn wears its influences on its sleeve: a young protagonist sails across a vast sea from island to island looking for lost treasures of an ancient civilization, fighting back a reincarnated evil by wielding bombs, arrows, a shield and sword (eventually a Master Sword analog). You’ll also find heart pieces, master keys, dungeons, and three gilded relics.
If that sounds familiar, recognize that the familiarity was intentional. Heikki Repo, the creator of Oceanhorn described it thusly:
“Oceanhorn is a game for the Nintendo fans, because it was made by a bunch of them. We are well aware that it is a smaller title and a different title from many of the console experiences that inspired it – but I truly believe that we were able to capture some of the essence of the classics in this game, as well as establish Oceanhorn as a franchise of its own.”
Well, I’m a Nintendo fan. Perhaps it was precisely this which drew me to this game since the day I first saw it.
Rather than a top-down, bird’s eye perspective or a full-on 3D approach, Oceanhorn‘s most significant visual characteristic is its isometric environments. The gameplay itself isn’t restricted to prescribed squares or hexagons, so I assume the isometric design is present for purely cosmetic reasons. It does clearly delineate for us the varying heights that constrain our hero’s journey through the archipelago.
Oceanhorn follows the life of a young boy, presumably an orphan. His father leaves him one fateful night to confront the mechanical beast Oceanhorn, a Living Fortress. However, his father never returns. The boy eventually sets out in search of his mother’s necklace and his father’s sword. One thing leads to another (which describes the simplicity of this game’s story) and the boy soon leaves his little island on a boat. He’ll run smack dab into ancient woes with the Direfolk, Gillfolk, Owrus and the descendants of Arcadia, but his goal is to… well, actually I’m not sure.
Oceanhorn sets us out on a tale but it’s hard to grasp exactly what kind of tale it is as its scenes seem almost like isolated moments, rehashes of memories we’ve accrued before elsewhere: playing as the orphan, watching the fireworks with a conveniently nameless girl, defeating a man in black bent on harassing innocents, discovering the last survivor of an ancient race, trying to stop the resurrection of an evil god, recovering the glory of a lost civilization, discovering your significance and ties to the past. By the time I reached the game’s climax, I wasn’t sure why I was there or why my character needed to be there, why he was headed where he was headed. I had a feeling this was going to be an issue when the game started world-building without giving me the protagonist’s name.
Thus, despite its similarities, this game is only superficially Zelda-esque. It’s the perfect example of an imitator that relies on all of face-value elements of Nintendo’s legendary series, such as Wind Waker sailing, tossing around bombs, dungeon crawling and puzzle solving with master keys, without providing any substance or reward for the player beyond experiencing familiar gameplay.
There once was a time when the ending of a game was its primary reward. Now, endings can be streamed and watched on YouTube. There’s nothing to “unlock” by means of your skill or patience that you can’t just get for free, in terms of conclusions. Beside that, the ending of Oceanhorn didn’t feel like any kind of rewarding payoff at all because I’d nothing invested in these nameless characters and their familiar world.
Oceanhorn feels well-acquainted but it lacks the majesty and gravity of Zelda stories. It lacks the sense of exploration that make Zelda games iconic. It’s devoid of the weight of the “end of the world” scenarios or the like which dominate fantasy titles. It doesn’t possess that magical curiosity of wondering what’s behind the next bend in the proverbial road, namely because its locales are too small, its world map too constricted to “rails”, and its puzzles too limited to typical cube-pushing and lever-throwing to furnish any intrigue. All this in mind, it lacked a lot of joy in the process of playing it. So without an ending reward and without the pleasure of the experience, I found Oceanhorn to be disappointing.
It’s an example of mimicry without capturing the spirit of what made its idols so wonderful. I don’t believe, as Repo asserted, that they captured any of “the essence” of the classics at all. They merely lifted the exterior qualities of the classics, tapped into their zeitgeist but nothing more than structurally and mechanically.
It could be said in its defense that Oceanhorn originally launched on mobile devices and it’s not unprecedented in handheld gaming that the games feel smaller and more streamlined. This may account for my take on Oceanhorn’s lifelessness and hollowness. However, I don’t think I need to remind our readers that there is a sizable group of Zelda games which were released primarily on handheld systems, a group which managed to maintain the earmarks of the Zelda series without compromise and provide unique gaming experiences despite hardware constraints.
So what we’re left with is at its core a toned-down Zelda game stripped of explorative magic and without the recurring mythos of Nintendo’s series to maintain fan interest.
There’s no archetypal Link, the virtuous hero, Zelda, the faithful princess, or Ganon, the embodiment of evil. In their places is a confusing narrative in a setting without a fleshed-out history or any quirky or lovable characters, the things that made Zelda games great. You’ve just got a nameless kid playing a rail shooter on the open sea looking aimlessly for “stuff”, eventually confronting a mechanical sea monster.
If its main draw is its Zelda-esque qualities, then you may find them gravely lacking below the surface level. If its main draw is its a fantasy indie you can play on a handheld, then there are better choices. Either way, I don’t see myself finding any alternative routes to enjoying this game, as much as I tried looking for them out on that big, blue sea.
The 8-bit Review
Lighting, camera angles, character design and models are the big areas where I think Oceanhorn suffers some blows. The potato-faced cast of the game are as expressionless as the tubers I compared them to. Their glazed concern or gawking stares do little to heighten any sense of narrative in the game, and I wonder if this game would’ve been better emulating the look of 2D games rather than 3D ones. Enemies, too, aren’t free from this and they look and move as if they’re made of rubber.
However, the environments in Oceanhorn look great. They’re never complex and one must maintain the illusion that a forest is a forest for a tree or two, but the use of scale, mist, and weather effects subtly help the tiny pocket universes of each isolated island feel larger and grander than they are. The ocean is the best example of Oceanhorn’s portrait of nature: a crisp, reflective, undulating surface stretching from horizon to horizon. I love the sea and I love being near the sea, on the sea, under the sea, so the sea was a large part of the draw of this game for me. The rigidity and repetition of traversing it made its size feel less significant but visually it’s impressive, at least, especially in that well-defined HD.
Really poor voice acting. Sounds like they got just anyone to do most of the voices, and by “doing voices” I don’t mean that they “did” any voices at all. These are almost entirely just regular voices. It’s like they just got mom and dad and Becky to do the voices. I actually found myself reading the non-voice acted dialogue and playing around with my own weird voices. Considering this is a fantasy world, that right there is a missed opportunity. The voice I thought was decent in Oceanhorn was the protagonist’s missing father narrating his old notes for you. He’s a little bit Matthew McConaughey in his line reading.
Then there’s the music. When I first started this game and watched the opening credits, my whole face lit up when I saw Nobuo Uematsu’s name. The man who laid the musical foundation for Final Fantasy, the Japanese Beethoven, I was ecstatic to discover that one of my favorite composers was attached to this project. Also musically involved is Kenji Ito of Mana and SaGa series fame.
As far as which tracks the two composers and Square vets themselves composed, I’m at a total loss to identify them. So strangely my excitement for Uematsu soon turned to dismay. Not only did the tracks all sound the same, and I couldn’t pick out that distinctive melodic, pianist style Uematsu uses, but the soundtrack as a whole didn’t resonate with me, either. I picked out the few tracks that I enjoyed but the fact that Uematsu felt so absent from this OST, despite his credit, was a personal letdown. Could you imagine a classic, thematic Final Fantasy soundtrack coupled with a wonderful Zelda game? Well, do not go in expecting that.
Like the streamlined and narrowed qualities of the game as a whole, the way the game handles feels stunted, stifled, and restrained. Case in point, the fact I mentioned earlier about sailing on the sea feeling like a rail shooter. I saw someone commented on this game that at least one could do more things at sea in Oceanhorn than in Wind Waker, but that’s not even true, and the stripped-down sailing was a bummer among many.
In Wind Waker, Link and the King of Red Lions could drop a hook for treasure, change the direction of the winds, fire a cannon, and explore any island that darkened the horizon. In Oceanhorn, you can shoot a pellet gun while your boat automatically traverses its predetermined paths from isle to isle. Shooting the gun is only important for dispatching squid (octoroks) or blowing away mines. That’s it. So yeah, it’s a rail shooter and a rather boring one where you’ll see everything on your maiden voyage.
The isometric environs are an interesting look but the main character has these stumpy little legs which I guess prevent him from stepping up onto anything that’s higher than his knee? This is yet another way in which the explorative nature of the Zelda framework is limited.
Another? Swordplay. Sword swinging mechanics in Oceanhorn feel about as elegant and as stylish as a toddler swinging a stick around. The range is also incredibly short, because again, the main character has stumpy limbs. I found myself just mashing the attack button any time an enemy was near, inching forward between each swipe, hoping to hit something, anything, only to take damage myself. Of course, I could’ve just used bombs or arrows. I certainly avoided using the clunky spellcasting, which requires you stand still and drag a console-slow cursor across the screen.
Speaking of slow, why does this game even have a stamina bar? Does it serve any actual purpose? Does it mix up the gameplay sufficiently to give it reason for being? No, because it runs out in about two seconds. That’s enough for a mad dash down a short hallway, but you certainly won’t be relying on it to do any significant dodging or even jumping. I laughed when you get the boots but then you don’t even have enough stamina to cross the jumping bridge of stones in one go. You just have to sit there and be molested by bats, and nobody wants that kind of action. The stamina bar, once empty, recovers at a snail’s pace.
This and other gameplay stumbles improves incrementally over the course of the game thanks to one of the best features: gaining experience and achieving new ranks. With each level, something about your “stats” goes up: the ability to recover your stamina faster, for example. It’s few and far between but it’s there enough to provide some hope that the cumbersome gameplay at the start of the adventure won’t describe the entire game’s journey.
One last note on gameplay. One of the sidequests involves gathering bloodstones which can be found scattered through the realm. You have to walk up to them and hack away at them with your sword a dozen swings or so in order to wedge them lose. I wish that had been a little clearer. As it is, I didn’t discover you had to button-mash them loose until late in the game, and by then I was about as disinterested in going back for all the ones I missed as I was with the horrifically boring fishing mini-game (and I normally love fishing in gaming).
The beats may be predictable but to avoid SPOILERS for the story of Oceanhorn anyway, please hit Ctrl+f and search Accessibility to skip to the next section.
That said, I seriously couldn’t tell you much about this game’s story. My perception of it is that the main characters father tried to defeat Oceanhorn himself and failed. His son goes out into the world, finds his mother’s magical necklace and three artifacts relating to this game’s pantheon, as well as his father’s sword. He later gets the Coral Sword which can defeat the sea monster. Looking for the third gilded relic, he travels to a sky island (where mom came from) and tinkers with its mechanisms to bring it down to the Earth, and learns that he’s a descendant of the ancient Archadians who, along with Archimedes, built Oceanhorn and other Living Fortresses. That’s why Oceanhorn was coming after daddy and why it’s something of the main character’s destiny to destroy it.
There’s also some bit about a fantasy-stuffs called Triloth and an evil being called Mesmeroth, but between all of the discount Quenya and the lack of any narrative pressure, all of that seemed like side issues that only popped up now and then while playing the game, thus making these things seem irrelevant, and not a threat. Mesmeroth I guess was the original target that Oceanhorn and two other Living Fortresses were originally created to destroy, but now the dark dude inhabits Oceanhorn.
What seems problematic to me is that Oceanhorn doesn’t take its time, allowing us to become familiar with the characters or settings. In Wind Waker, you spent a good deal of time on the first island, getting your bearings, nurturing a sense of the vastness of the world beyond your shores, understanding who the hero is and some of his destiny.
There’s little worse in a game’s story than when you spend all your time doing menial tasks and you’re “rewarded” with some big cutscene, and some NPC explains what happened and what you accomplished, except you had no idea that that’s what you were trying to do the whole time. Oceanhorn is all rail shooting, sword swinging, cube pushing, and lever throwing so when the sky island comes down safely to the surface of the sea and an NPC congratulates you for giving them hope that ancient Arcadia can be restored… I thought “Is that what my character set out to do, or did it just happen on accident?”
Again, perhaps this could be forgiven because its a handheld game, but then I’d say it was over-ambitious.
All of the combat and gameplay is so thinned out so as to be highly accessible. I imagine this is something you’d want from a handheld adventure game, the kind you’d expect to play on the run and in short bursts, so this is probably the strongest feature in Oceanhorn.
The game gives you ample time to learn its simple combat so it’s never truly difficult. The puzzles are only head-scratching in a few places, but once you’ve had a bit of practice pushing cubes, then they’re all the same. In fact, they really felt like they got easier toward the end of the game, mere speedbumps rather than actual puzzles. Perhaps the boss fights could be considered “tricky”, but I felt they dragged on and were somewhat repetitive.
Remember the quote we began this review with?
My Personal Grade: 4/10
“Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas combines captivating storytelling, breathtaking 3D visuals and exciting gameplay into one epic action-adventure experience.”
Not “captivating”. Not “breathtaking”. Not “exciting”. Not “epic”.
Many of Oceanhorn’s issues and limitations could be due to its originally being released as a mobile game, however, this is where the marked difference between the imitator and the imitated becomes apparent. Oceanhorn ends up feeling like a scaled-down excursion through Zelda games we’ve already played. It doesn’t cover any new ground so it lacks a certain sense of excitement beyond immediacy. If Nintendo had produced this game, they would’ve utilized the uniqueness of the mobile platform to create a different kind of game we hadn’t exactly seen before. I think this is obvious from their recent big name adaptations to mobile: Pokémon GO and Super Mario Run. Both of those games take advantage of being on mobile devices to make for new kinds of experiences that even their long running franchises hadn’t exactly seen before, in one introducing augmented reality and GPS features, in the other streamlining gameplay so it can be played with one hand.
I found it hard to believe that this has a Game of the Year edition… I struggled to get through this game. Actually I had to force myself to, and it came down to watching a Let’s Play for the final dungeon. I couldn’t be bothered otherwise. The reason why Oceanhorn feels more like a rip off and a clone than an homage, to me, is because it does nothing to take advantage of being essentially a mobile device Zelda game. All of its beats have been covered in far better games before it, the only difference here is it can bore you on a cell phone, or in this case: the Switch.
Aggregated Score: 4.1