If you were looking to find the perfect action adventure game to try, you’d be hard pressed to find better examples than the Legend of Zelda universe. From classic princess saving to time travel and even confusing ghost trains, Link has set the bar for enjoyable journeys in familiar and distant lands alike. It’s no wonder, then, that Cornfox & Bros sought to capture the same kind of feeling and effect with their flagship game, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. Released a few years back on iOS, Oceanhorn has received several updates and ports. Just recently, it has come to the Nintendo Switch. Lucky me, I never had an iDevice that I would have been willing to try a multi-hour RPG on, so this foray into Oceanhorn is a first for me. I have to say: this is a pretty good homage.
While not entirely groundbreaking, the setup for Oceanhorn is still pretty decent. You are the son of a widower on a tiny island where you live in a tent and just try to survive the day. The sea, as it turns out, was ruled by three massive beasts, with the only remaining leviathan being the worst of them all, the titular Oceanhorn. Your dad, driven by compounding grief over the loss of his wife/your mother, leaves you alone with but a letter to let you know that he’s off to find answers and kick some ass. Upon waking, you find yourself alone, but determined to find your father. You will also probably have to kill the monster that definitely murdered him, because he left you his sword. And like, not even in a convenient spot; he left it in a cave on the other side of the island that you need to work out a small series of puzzles to get to. What the hell, dad? You couldn’t have dropped it off with the weird hermit who also lives on the mountain? Or, I don’t know, kept it in the tent so I didn’t need to fight jelly monsters with a stick?
After some quick errand work to figure out the controls and grasp what the game is going to play like, you find out that the only way to defeat Oceanhorn is to gather three seals that have been hidden away throughout the world on various islands. People will help you, but there’s a shadowy figure somewhere in the background that’s commanding a growing army of machinations and zealots to keep Oceanhorn powerful and sink the world into darkness. Typical stuff, you know. It becomes a story of magic vs machinery a la Final Fantasy VI, and there’s some light romance and lore sprinkled throughout. It’s certainly not a bad setup, and I like that it was settled enough in 16-bit RPG tropes that it felt comfortable and familiar, even though I had never played it before. That’s what you do with a good tribute game: it’s a nod, not a point. Give people subtlety; don’t hit them over the head and scream “SEE? IT’S LIKE THAT GAME!”
Oceanhorn has to be given some allocation for how the game both handles and unfolds, given its origins. I honestly can not imagine trying to play a game of this length on a touchscreen device, and a lot of old forum entries I discovered talked about which bluetooth controller was best to make the most out of the game. Besides moving in eight directions, you need to juggle four buttons of items and commands, another button for shield blocking, and a couple extra buttons to bring up the menus and such. The thought of cramming that all onto a HUD overlay on a 4-6 inch screen is haunting.
For the most part, Oceanhorn controls well with the Switch. Moving around was mostly effortless, and I didn’t lose track of where I could and couldn’t walk, though I did end up swimming just a bit too long. Oh, right; since most of the game is island based, you’re surrounded by water and will automatically start using up stamina to swim once the water is higher than your knees. Then you’ll drown when you don’t get back to shore fast enough, but drowning just means you lose half a heart and get kicked back to shore. Just like in real life!
Like the Legend of Zelda, you’ll find and pick up certain items, both passive and active, as you make your way along the story. Things like bombs and arrows become your bread and butter while I think I only went fishing…maybe twice? It serves its purpose later on, but, unlike some of the tools, the fishing rod is mostly forgettable. You also run into this with magic spells, I found. They were good to have, but you mostly used them only for specific aids and puzzles. If I had a choice, I tried not to use the magic, as they didn’t seem to port as well to controllers as the other tools. There was a lot of “this used to be for touch screen, but you can’t touch your TV, so use this cursor.” Even when I played undocked, I was less inclined to touch my Switch simply because I felt it took me out of the moment.
Things like the bow and bombs are obviously kept in limited stock, but you don’t have to worry about running out of perishables. Seriously, Oceanhorn felt way too generous with bushes, enemies and pots always spawning exactly what I needed. During one boss fight, I kept hucking bombs instead of getting slapped repeatedly in the head, and I found that, if I grew dangerously low, I just had to mow the strategically placed grass and receive more. Run out of grass? Break off one boss’ tentacle and, surprise, he drops a bomb! Did I mention you can throw bombs, safely out of harm’s way for 85% of enemy strikes? Why would I use anything else, when it practically rains bombs in Oceanhorn?
Combat and exploration is a traditional 3D top-down 3rd person jaunt. You can’t really adjust the camera, so you might occasionally run somewhere you can’t see, but it’s not an issue. When you’re not on the island of your choosing, you’re off to explore in your very own ship, similar to Wind Waker but without the open-choice of it all. You pick a point on your map and the ship auto-sails while you interact a bit with the ocean environment around you. It’s a nice break from the hacking and slashing, though it will seem UNBEARABLY slow at first. As you level up, one of the unlocks is “sail faster,” which is such a blessing. Hilariously, prior to that you unlock a “boat gun” that lets you shoot everything around you with unlimited bullets. Not everything is affected, but it’s still fun to fire wildly into a passing island while screaming about your turf.
Speaking of leveling, I think Oceanhorn does a good job of balancing the grind with speed. As I mentioned before, leveling up unlocks aspects for your character: larger inventory, more health, and perks on your boat. Killing enemies and completing quests gives you blue shards that are equivocal to EXP, and you get a notification when you have enough to level up. When it comes to these things, the game keeps itself in check. You can grind all day long on the first island to get a bunch of levels, but what good will it do you? More bombs? You can’t have more of zero, champ. You gotta unlock bombs before you have more of them. The quests vary from story based (“Save the Honeyman!”) to skill based (“Bomb 10 crumbling walls!”). It’s great for completionists who want to tick off all three quests for every single island.
Lastly, the islands themselves. They don’t just all appear on your map at once. Talking to people and finding out about the game’s lore will reveal the location of more islands, each with their own level of significance. Some are future teases, like finding out about the island with the ultimate sword where you can’t even get off the dock until you find the jumping boots MUCH later. Some are just weird little side stops for more bloodstones and a bit of exploration. Oceanhorn is surprisingly huge, and I don’t think I explored all of it even with about 15 hours dedicated to the game. This may not sound like much, but I gotta tip my hat to anyone who had considered sitting for half a day, squinting at a screen to accomplish a long and pretty engrossing story.
Oceanhorn has a solid anime-inspired cartoon feeling about it. The enemies, from rock-spitting octopi (perhaps a bit more on the nose than other Zelda-esque monsters) to humanoid bird people and massive mechanical beasts, all fit well into the world and feel like they belong there. Well, except the steampunk robots, but they’re not supposed to belong there, so I think that’s okay. They all stand out in their own way, and you learn to anticipate the monster that goes down easily (silly little beetle!) to those who’ll be trouble (TROLL! TROLL IN THE RUINS!).
There is something to be said for a bit of blurring as far as ramps and landscape goes. You see, there’ll be many times where you need to ascend or descend to another level in order to continue further into the cave/city/forest, and you’ll simply pass by the ramp eight or ten times. It’s because several of the ramps blend in way too well with the dusty plains or the dark cave corners or whatever, and it’s honestly frustrating. I spent eight minutes walking around a small cavern, trying to find what wall to bomb or which switch to hit, and I finally found an up ramp that was hiding in plain sight the whole time. Not my proudest moment, but I also blame the game, because, well, I’m prideful.
The bosses are sufficiently dynamic. You might reach a point where you’ll have a minor battle and it’s serious and focused and you think, “Wait, is this a boss?” Then the world shifts and life meters appear and you realize that, no, this large, screen-obstructing menace is a boss. It delivers grandiosity that reminds you, however easy the previous enemies have been, they are only appetizers, and this is the main course.
My biggest peeve with Oceanhorn is the protagonist’s stupid face. I know he is trying to look serious, but he constantly bears an expression of doing a math equation and the answer keeps being “salad.” This works when he’s receiving troubling news, sad history or even when he’s listening to a bad guy wax poetic about his master plan. However, when a girl confesses her affection and takes you to watch fireworks with her, and he’s still grimacing at long division, it totally ruins the moment in a huge way. It’s such a shame, because most everyone else wears a neutral expression that allows for the dialogue to do everything, and hero there can’t seem to stop grunting.
The soundtrack of Oceanhorn, bar none, is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure to listen to in recent times. While it may not be the driving caliber of Jake Kaufman, Oceanhorn’s Kalle Ylitalo set out to paint a picture of exploration, wonder and mystery, and I think that was completely successful. Atmospherically, I felt a dynamic shift between each island without the composers going out of their way to try and make things radically difficult. I say composers because, against all odds, Oceanhorn also had video game legends Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu to lend their works as well. I don’t even know how that happened, but Uematsu’s name is practically a gold standard in RPG music, and his contributions are severely appreciated (not trying to overlook Ito, but Uematsu did Final Fantasy VI, the best OST of all time).
This remastered version also includes several moments of voice over dialogue, which feels surprisingly fitting in the different moments. From the protagonist’s spoken journal entries upon arriving at an island to brief moments of oral exposition from various NPCs, Oceanhorn manages to pick and choose appropriate times where hearing instead of reading adds depth and flair to the story. Had everyone spoke at all times, it would have been exhausting and grating (I can’t imagine hearing the same damn boat yokel screaming at me every time I pass him on the ocean). Instead, it’s soothing, from the dire goodbye your father casts at the beginning to the last of the Owru remembering his lost people and their history. Just some excellent choices all around.
There’s a lot to love about Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. The storyline, the mechanics, and the soundtrack take the cake and really elevate it above your run-of-the-mill RPG Maker indie. On the other hand, the overly generous drops, the slightly wonky targeting and poor lighting can make the game frustrating and boring at times. At the end of the day, I enjoyed my time with the game, but I can’t say for certain that I’d revisit it. It’s a good hot dog at an out-of-state state fair. You’re surprised how good it is and it’s satisfying, but you’re not going to cross into Vermont every year just for that hot dog. Zelda fans who appreciate a fan game should absolutely give this a go, RPG fanatics might consider it, and I will keep it on my Switch and, someday, might voyage out across the waves again.