by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is a new PC release from Cornfox & Bros. A top-down 3D adventure, it gives you freedom to explore a vibrant world of fantasy, monsters, and magic – the open ocean at your bow, the wind in your hair, and the nagging sensation that you have seen something like this before. In fact, it is difficult to describe it without referring repeatedly to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series. But does it lean too heavily on its likeness to Nintendo’s famous franchise, or can it stand on its own two feet as a competent, fun adventure?
IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE
The game starts off with a fairly familiar opening; your father has disappeared, gone to fight a mysterious menace, and left you nothing more than some equipment and a ravenous hunger for adventure. Fortunately, there is a friendly hermit living nearby who is more than happy to fill you in on the extensive lore of the lands and their people – he doesn’t seem to have a name, but we will just call him Mr. Exposition.
After some fluff-filled cutscenes, you are finally let loose with a sword and shield. There’s not much in the way of a tutorial, but it hardly seemed necessary; if you have played a Zelda-style game in the last twenty-odd years, you already know how to play, so Oceanhorn won’t treat you like an idiot.
The bulk of the game is spent wandering across fields, into caves, and through towns from a traditional 3rd person perspective. Cornfox & Bros. have put a lot of work into building these environments, and it shows. Despite the levels having been built out of 3D tiles, they are often filled with small details that lend individual personality to everywhere you visit. Tellingly, the camera sits at a middling distance – close enough for you to see what you are doing in combat, but far enough out for you to soak in the environments during down-time.
Once you meet some enemies, the combat flows nicely. The classic sword and shield mechanic is easy to get to grips with, and you will quickly be confident enough to trade blows with creatures of all sizes. While frenzied slashing will generally get the job done, Oceanhorn rewards a more careful, defensive style – blocking attacks and taking advantage of openings when they appear. What surprised me was that many of the bosses, which crop up from time to time, are just as susceptible to this tactic as their minions. Using more powerful weapons is certainly an option, but it’s not at all difficult to tackle almost every enemy in the game with just the sword and shield, and it would’ve been nice to have some more challenges there.
LET’S GO SAILING
Geographically, the world is broken up into a series of islands of varying sizes, themes, and challenges. New islands are unlocked gradually, rising from the sea on your world map as you learn about their existence from people, mysterious carvings, or messages in bottles.
Naturally, travelling around the world is done via boat, which should be familiar to anyone who has played Wind Waker. You don’t get any direct control over sailing here, though, which is a shame, but early on you do unlock a pellet gun with which you can fend off sea monsters and smash floating debris. It’s a shallow conceit compared to the complex sailing mechanics of Wind Waker, but it does help the journeys to pass. With so little control over what happens while sailing, though, it’s a shame there is no quick-travel option.
As you whiz about, Mr. Exposition will occasionally shout at you through a magic seashell (a trick he, uncharacteristically, never explains) to give the plot a nudge in the right direction. But even if you’re not sure exactly where to go next, there is no shortage of things to do. Every island has a set of three challenges (linked to Steam achievements), and doing all three is necessary if you want 100% completion of each island.
As you progress through the game, you will gain access to a familiar inventory of items like bombs, a bow, and a fishing rod, as well as an array of magic spells. They are revealed at a good pace, always giving you something new to look forward to. Crucially, the many islands in the game tease future abilities by showing you items you can’t yet interact with, and things you can’t quite reach yet. In a similar vein – and a departure from the Zelda template – you also gain experience points by killing monsters and completing tasks. Over time, levelling up will unlock more abilities, which gives a great sense of progression as you go from a mere Vagrant all the way to an adventuring Legend.
Oceanhorn is a beautiful game, too – resplendent in bold, bright colours, without ever being over-the-top. There is some slow-down and stuttering in very complex areas, which I thought unusual for playing on a high-end machine, but it only happened rarely, and was certainly nothing game-breaking.
Enemies, too, are all distinctive and good-looking, with a cute, low-polygon charm that almost makes it a shame to have to bash them to death with a sword. The appeal is matched by excellent sound design, as enemies all have their own recognisable noises. The audio quality carries through to the voice acting, which, although only in cutscenes, is outstanding in each instance. Oceanhorn’s soundtrack is a little on the repetitive side when you spend lots of time in one area, but the tunes are catchy and I never felt like I was getting too sick of them, even after the twentieth loop.
A LINK BETWEEN FRANCHISES
There’s no way of skirting the issue – this game is a Zelda clone, through-and-through. From the bombs and arrows to the comically oversized chests you find them in, Oceanhorn is a mere re-skin mod away from being the Zelda release for PC we all so desperately long for. In fact, this may well be the closest we will ever get.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so. While it shows little in the way of originality, it does a great job of reproducing the magic spark that keeps players coming back. Make no mistake – this is no cheap copy, and will easily keep you entertained for hours. It would have been great to see Cornfox & Bros. take a few more risks to give the game more of a distinct personality, but don’t let that stop you from casting off on this excellent adventure on the open seas.
Tried-and-tested gameplay. Charming graphics. Plenty to do.
Doesn’t do much to break the mould. Plot is somewhat forgettable. Some minor performance issues.