Review: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas: A Love Letter That Does Things Right

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Posted September 7, 2016 by Spencer Birch in Video Games

Developed by: Cornfox & Bros

Published by: FDG Entertainment

Release Date: September 7, 2016 (PS4)

Available on: iOS, PC, PS4 (reviewed)

 

Since 1986 The Legend of Zelda has been inspiring players worldwide. It was groundbreaking in many ways, and though each entry in the series has it faults it is a truly beloved and influential set of games. Many developers have tried to emulate Zelda, and some have done an excellent job of this, but many have also failed. So when developer Cornfox & Bros set out to make their very own Zelda clone on iOS and PC in 2013, they knew that it could either go very well, or very, very badly. Oceanhorn is unabashedly influenced by games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and the Mana series. On mobile, the game is technologically pretty impressive. It is fully 3D, voice acted, and features real time combat and puzzle solving elements. Much of the game is spent talking to NPC’s, doing fetch quests and learning about the world, though there is certainly no shortage of action. Oceanhorn made quite a splash at it’s original release, so when I heard that it was coming to PS4, I knew that I had to dive right in.

The game opens up with a small, fully voiced cutscene of your father writing you a farewell letter as he ventures out onto the vast ocean to confront Oceanhorn, a mysterious sea monster that has been ravaging the islands of Arcadia. In the beginning hours of the game you are treated to a well designed starting island that is set up to organically teach you the basics of movement and interacting with the environment. In rather short order you find out that your Father has ventured off to confront Oceanhorn on the high seas, and you are told that you must collect the three emblems of  Earth, Ocean and Sol in order to stop the curse set upon the islands by the terrible beast. Even in it’s very beginning, Oceanhorn gives you lots of things to do and it is never shy about putting dozens of pots in your path. You may not feel the same way, but as a longtime Zelda fan when I see a pot, I absolutely have to pick it up and immediately hurl it at the closest NPC.

Oceanhorn has no shortage of pots or collectibles hidden within. The game is setup with a leveling system where you collect gems from fallen enemies and destructible environments to gain experience. As your level rises you are treated with upgrades such as an increased sailing speed or a larger inventory. When I first booted up the game, knowing it was a console port of a mobile game, I admittedly wasn’t expecting too much. To my surprise however the game works really well on the big screen with a controller. Aiming your bow (and pots) is less trivial than it is on a touchscreen and the analog control actually adds a bit of challenge. In rare cases the perspective that the game forces you into can make aiming difficult (there is camera control, but it is extremely limited), but for the most part it’s a non-issue. This is due in part to a sort of passive lock on system in place that will hold your character’s attention on the nearest enemy when you are holding an object or have a weapon at the ready.

One of the major selling points of Oceanhorn to me is the soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito (of Final Fantasy, the SaGa games and many others) did the score for this game and it is outstanding. Honestly if you do nothing else, then find this OST and give it a listen. Each island has several themes depending on which section you are in, and each track is evocative of the environment that you are currently exploring. It’s clear that Uematsu and Ito are masters of their craft, as they have produced yet another excellent score that really helps to bring every element of the game together. Oceanhorn even employs some subtle yet effective mixing techniques to give the environments more ambience: Simple tricks like pulling down the volume of sound effects in areas where the focus is on the ambience and environment, or dropping the music completely to give you a very lonely feeling. It is these small touches that can really bring life to a game!

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In general, the gameplay of Oceanhorn is fairly simple. You have dedicated face buttons for your sword, an item, magic spells and to interact with the world or sprint. You can swap items using the D pad, and raise your shield with R2. That’s about it! Nothing too fancy here, and after playing the game for about 15 hours I don’t think that it really needs much more. The combat is pretty simple. I found myself mostly fighting enemies by alternating between turtling behind my shield and mashing square to whack things with my sword. There is a smart drawback here though that hasn’t been seen in the Zelda series too often which is a stamina system. Sprinting, swimming and having your shield hit by enemies will lower your stamina bar. The stamina bar recharges at an alarmingly slow pace, so it became quite important for me to learn movement and spacing with certain enemies when I knew that it was getting low. The game gives you a lot of really fun items to use against enemies, but for the most part I found myself saving these for puzzles and bosses. Boss encounters are not so hard as they are puzzle-like in and of themselves. In good old Zelda fashion, the boss of an area is usually weak to the item that you procured for use on that quest, but it is still pretty fun to figure out exactly how to implement these to their greatest effect.

There is even a deceptively fun fishing minigame!

There is even a deceptively fun fishing minigame!

Cornfox & Bros is not shy about how much Oceanhorn is influenced by games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and in some ways it really shows. Sure, yes, the game is literally about sailing to different islands and exploring them to find three magical emblems to help you find a missing person. This is the obvious Wind Waker reference, but there are a lot of smaller hints that really help to make the game it’s own. The Wind Waker is known in part for having dozens of NPC’s to talk with, each giving you a lot of dialogue that can help you along the way (or simply just entertain you). Oceanhorn draws on this smartly by giving you many characters on the different islands you visit to talk to, oftentimes as the only way to progress through the story.  NPCs will often give you interesting hints about islands they want to visit or have heard of, and revealing this dialogue will make that island appear on your map allowing you access to it. It is refreshing to see someone copy something other than the puzzle quest structure or visual style of a Zelda game!

As simple as it is, Oceanhorn is a really fun game. It may not be impeccably polished like some games that it draws inspiration from, but where it lacks in depth it makes up for in visuals, world design, and music. I began my journey with it pretty unsure that I was going to enjoy it, but I quickly found myself losing track of time as I sailed to new islands to see what I could discover. I ended my play through at about 15 hours with 90% completion, and it really felt right. The mechanics are simple and fun enough to sustain 15 hours of play, and the game is laid out in a non-apparent linear fashion that didn’t let me get bored at all throughout. I would really recommend this game to anyone, but especially if you are pining for that classic Zelda game structure but don’t have 30-50 hours to put in.

 

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About the Author

Spencer Birch

I dislike long walks on the beach actually, sand gets everywhere and the sun makes it hard to see my screen. Follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/spencermbirch