Editor’s note: Oceanhorn was originally released on iOS in 2013. We’re reviewing the Xbox One release which debuted back in September.
Oceanhorn watches The Legend of Zelda sleep. It collects strands of Link’s hair from the furniture and calls him, not saying a word, just breathing really heavily until he hangs up, disgusted. It’s a few bad days away from skinning him and making a Link suit, Buffalo Bill style. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Passion for classic games is completely normal and a great motivator for developers to craft their own experiences within the realms of the old. Oceanhorn is built on the grand foundation of Nintendo’s greatest adventure franchise – there’s a little boy with a sword collecting ancient emblems and heart fragments so he can go take a crack at some ancient evil. You’ll kill seed-spitting enemies by reflecting their projectiles with your sword, you’ll throw bombs at stuff, you’ll talk to fish people.
The only relevant question when games derive this level of inspiration from other games is whether the developers have simply aped the object of their affections or used the framework left behind to take the concept into -ahem- uncharted waters. Oceanhorn lands somewhere in the middle, stripping back a lot of stuff to deliver an adventure that at once feels streamlined and strangely bloated. Navigating the world, fighting enemies, it’s all simple and enjoyable. You wake up on a lonely island with only a hermit for company, kill a few things with sticks and stones, and then your silent protagonist is handed a sword and some exposition and sent out on an epic voyage to kill the titular Oceanhorn, a legendary monster probably responsible for your father’s death.
Not-Link on his boat, the King of Not Lions, travelling the seas on his way to kill a bunch of Not-Skulltulas.
Zelda trappings aside, the game itself is very well crafted. It might feel a tad clunky on consoles – you’ll only fight 1-2 enemies at a time and the pace of combat is somewhat staggered. Some enemies don’t adequately broadcast their attacks before they make them, and with a limited amount of health you’re often reduced to hiding behind your shield, making the odd flail until the opposition is chipped down. But exploration, accompanied by a swelling Nobuo Uematsu score, is a nostalgic throwback to when gaming was a little more innocent. Sail to an island, poke around until you find you can’t get any further without an item from another island. Traditional and fun, but simple and sometimes a bit illogical. The dungeons are filled with mostly straightforward block puzzles and cutesey enemies, bright graphics and the lovely soundtrack portraying unerring optimism. Oceanhorn is made with love, no question about that.
Dungeons are excellent for the most part. Having been developed for mobile devices a lot of hard work has been put into making sure they’re all self-contained challenges easy to drop in and out of. Checkpoints are liberally placed, and failure never sets you back too far, although erratically respawning enemies can make getting from one part of the overworld to another repeatedly feel like a chore. Your travels are also accompanied by a levelling up system that rewards you for completing certain challenges (like blocking ten attacks with your shield or killing a an enemy with a thrown pot) with periodic rewards of items and coin. It adds a vital sense of progression to what can otherwise feel like a little bit aimless.
You already know where that bomb has to go.
Unfortunately a large percentage of the game ends up feeling like traipsing through filler. It’s not a majority, but certainly a big enough chunk to frustrate. The NPCs that populate towns are essentially faceless exposition machines leading you to new events and islands. It swaps between text and actual voiceover seemingly at random and for the most part the recorded lines are delivered deadpan. It would have been much more effective (and truer to its roots) to avoid the voice acting entirely, and it stands out as a particularly strange choice. Sailing between islands is a stilted, on-rails chore that breaks up the game’s good points almost to the point of becoming too far away from each other to persist. The travel over-inflates what would otherwise be a refreshingly simple, concise adventure into a series of clever dungeons and carefree exploration broken up by a glorified loading screen that dominates far too much of your time with Oceanhorn.
Dungeons are a highlight, distilling the grander scale of Zelda’s intricate dungeons into compact gauntlets easy to drop in and out of, perfect for the game’s original mobile format.
But it’s rare that we see experiences this cheery and carefree these days, especially not on Xbox One, and while it might fall short of greatness, Oceanhorn rises above a handful of flaws to prevail as a title worthy of your time. In an industry full of muddy brown shooters, messy politics and constant infighting between fanbases, it serves as a gentle reminder of the things that got us all into gaming in the first place. For many of us, and I think many of the developers over at Cornfox, that was Zelda. No flashy graphics, no over-the-top advertising. Here’s your sword, here’s the world – now go have some fun. This ethos elevates Oceanhorn beyond the unassuming simplicity of its mechanics into a much grander statement. Nintendo is the only company that even tries to make games that still abide by that philosophy, and they’re troubled, to say the least. Oceanhorn might not break the mould, but it makes a decent and satisfying experience within it that Link should be proud to have inspired.
The Oceanhorn TL;DR:
- Simple, streamlined adventuring that’ll bring back all kind of fuzzy warm nostalgia.
- Inspired dungeons are great for pick-up-and-play, a fantastic game to drop in and out of if you don’t have a lot of time.
- Travelling from place to place can be a real drag but persist and you’ll be rewarded.
- Combat can be a little dull due to its simplicity but gets better with the introduction of spells and gear.
Oceanhorn is developed by Cornfox & Bros and published by FDG Entertainment. You can purchase the game on iOS, Xbox One, PS4, and Steam. We reviewed the Xbox One version.