It’s not unusual for developers to borrow ideas and take inspiration from other games, but at what point does a tribute become a rip-off? This is a question that crossed my mind many times throughout my playthrough of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, an isometric action-adventure title from Cornfox and Brothers. The game closely follows the formula laid down by the Zelda series, and by ‘closely follow’ I mean the type that might warrant a restraining order. While Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas doesn't quite live up to the dizzying heights of Nintendo's series, it's still a lengthy, lovingly crafted experience.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young boy, armed with a sword, shield and bow, must save his world by exploring dungeons, slaying skeletons, solving puzzles, and systematically destroying every clay pot in existence. The similarities get even more specific than that, though - Oceanhorn's cartoony hub world is navigated via a sailboat, just like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
With the game’s striking resemblance to Zelda, you’d be forgiven for thinking, as I initially did, that Oceanhorn is a creatively bankrupt imitation of a well-known franchise. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. The game is every bit as polished as the series that inspired it, with a gorgeous, colourful visual style and amazing compositions from Kalle Ylitalo, along with industry veterans Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Kenji Ito (Mana series).
It’s hard to believe that Oceanhorn started out as an iOS app, at least from a visual standpoint. The game’s vibrant colours, smooth animations and imaginative designs are a sight to behold - this is a great example of style trumping fidelity. The move from mobile to PC has allowed for some upgrades though, such as anti-aliasing, increased resolution and detailed reflections. Unfortunately, this PC version seems quite poorly optimised as I was unable to get smooth performance on the higher settings, even on my decent rig.
When making a game for touchscreen devices, certain concessions have to be made with controls. In Oceanhorn’s case, this meant combining sprinting, interacting and picking up objects into one button. The result is less messy than it sounds, but I can’t help but think that these actions could have been split up with the addition of a gamepad or keyboard. Overall, though, the game controls very well: I never felt like I was fighting the controls like I so often do in mobile titles, and even did in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Part of the reason for this is that the Oceanhorn is very easy. Bosses and smaller enemies rarely pose a threat and the game’s simple block-sliding puzzles won’t challenge seasoned fans of the genre. The only difficulty comes from the fact that the game offers no level maps or objective markers to guide you, so you’ll normally have to rely on your initiative to follow the main quest. I’ll admit that I referred to a walkthrough on a few occasions when I wasn’t sure which island to head to or character to talk to.
It's hugely impressive that, despite being an indie game, Oceanhorn doesn't feel like Zelda on a budget. On top of having stellar soundtrack and gorgeous visuals, each of the game's 14 islands are well-designed and filled with secrets to uncover. The main questline will take around eight hours to complete which, combined with the other activities such as fishing and collectibles, more than justifies the low price tag. While the plot about the return of an ancient threat is hardly inspired, the occasional uses of voice acting are nicely delivered and are a fresh addition to the formula.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas isn’t an innovative game - the developers clearly set out to make a Zelda title for non-Nintendo platforms - the surprising part is that they succeeded. While the game doesn’t add much to the genre, it’s a confidently made adventure from a studio who clearly have a love for the formula. I, for one, would like to see what they can do with more original material.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
While highly derivative of The Legend of Zelda series, Oceanhorn is a beautiful and expertly-crafted game that will delight fans of the genre.