If there’s a game series that has inspired countless game creators over the years, Zelda would be amongst the highest no doubt. Although the recent entry, Breath of the Wild, did a lot to break away from the formula, the series has had a consistent beat-for-beat progression and mechanics that we all thought was timeless.
One of the more open about its inspiration is Oceanhorn, which although by now in the world of video game development, is quite an old mobile game from 2013. After being in released on other platforms over the years it’s now on the Nintendo Switch, arguably the best place for it.
Without wanting to carry on the comparisons to Zelda too much, due to the budgetary difference making it largely unfair, the gameplay plays very much the same. It plays more like the 2D games, which are far more grounded but it goes for a isometric viewpoint, an interesting mix. You walk around islands, attack enemies, solve puzzles in dungeons and use special items to your advantage, things we’ve all gotten used to.
The story begins as your character sets off on a journey to find his father, along the way destroy the eponymous monster, Oceanhorn. To do this you must travel around an archipelago of islands to find three sacred treasures that could help you defeat the threat. There’s a word that I might use fairly often in this review: quaint. For what was, at first, an iPhone game, it has a surprising amount of production gone into it. Along with the story, there’s voice acting, cut scenes and an exceptional music score.
The first question that will arise for a mobile port will always be about the controls. While they don’t completely hide its origins, they work surprisingly well even if the walking is a tad on the sluggish side. You can attack with your sword, dash, use magic and use a special item; each assigned to a face button. Different magical spells and items can be cycled through using the D-pad. Finally, the ZR shoulder button is used to defend yourself with your shield.
The combat is pretty easy and very few enemies will test your mettle as long as you’re cautious and use your shield well. In that regard it’s very simplistic with little depth to fighting the same few types of enemies throughout the game. Even the boss battles are a breeze once you get used to their patterns and the special way to deal with them. If you’re on the more reckless side, you may fall in battle on occasion, especially due to the low health count. Fear not though, as death is not the end. The game has an auto save and checkpoint system which means you’re back on your feet in no time at all.
You can’t jump in Oceanhorn (aside from using an item which let’s you jump across gaps in certain places) which is a little frustrating, especially with regards to traversing the environments which are quite all over place, and your character can’t go up any height at all, even small tiny ledges. A small jump button could have improved this without breaking the game. On the reverse side of it, it’s also annoying how you can’t always fall down from certain ledges, but can others. The game is designed to protect you from mobile controls, but it’s still rather annoying when you’d rather just fall down a ledge to somewhere you want to go instead of walking all the way around and down.
One of the weakest aspects of Oceanhorn is sadly in its dungeon designs. They’re not bad by any means at all. In fact I was pretty entertained throughout, but I always wished it could have expanded into something more. Puzzles almost entirely consisted of pushing blocks and hitting switches and that’s about it. Occasionally there were some things a little more on the cryptic side, but they never made much of an impression.
One thing that sets Oceanhorn apart from a certain other adventuring title is the fact there’s a levelling up system. It’s very simplistic though. You don’t really get stat bonuses, in fact you get small, useful things like holding more arrows, use less stamina and so on. I actually like how it’s implemented. I like the fact it’s not a dull stat-fest and it keeps the game balanced at all times.
Despite the graphics being untesting of the system and obviously shows its format of origin, Oceanhorn manages to still look lovely with it’s bright colours that really pop from the TV and Switch screen. 1080p docked and an unwavering 60 frames per second, it’s nice. It’s not perfect though, clipping is often an issue as well as being able to see each voxel that makes up the environment.
I briefly mentioned the music as being great, and it is. On the composer list there are a couple of genuine legends of the business: Kenji Ito and, my personal favourite composer of all time, Nobuo Uematsu. While, unsurprisingly, the developers want to push those two to the forefront, I suspect that neither had much to do outside a song or two. You can easily feel which songs were composed by who. The main bulk of the soundtrack was composed by Kalle Ylitalo whose music, while not as standout or epic as the other two efforts, is also excellent and above standard for a game of this type.
There are a score of islands to explore during your adventure, many of which play a key role in the compact 10-or-so hour story. Some are small but others are surprisingly large, even in their exaggeratedly mini-style. Some are towns, others act as dungeons while the rest are bonus places. You can’t travel to any island you please from the start, in fact you can only know of an islands existence by people telling you, or reading it somewhere. This invites you to talk to people and explore a little more and I just love how it gives the game an air of mystery, like there’s always something new to be found.
Many people have many comparisons to Wind Waker in regards to islands as you sail around them, but actually it’s much less interactive than that. You can’t actually control your ship, only tell it where you want to go from a map. After that, you watch the boat sail on its own while you control a cannon to protect it from enemies and mines. It’s nothing more than a mini game diversion, but to be honest I am fine with that.
Another sort of mini game is the fishing, which while not much in the way of strategy or entertainment, is a decent way to get experience. It’s also something extra for completionists out there.
Oceanhorn is pretty packed package for what it is. A sizeable adventure with a smattering of things to do outside the main story, although it may come from a mobile game, it’s well adjusted to life on the Switch. It’s a lovely, quaint and charming game that wins you over despite it’s simplicity and shortcomings with dungeon design. It may not be as deep or superlative as the series aspires to be, but it doesn’t need to be. I really enjoyed my time playing Oceanhorn.
Game was purchased by the reviewer