Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is an action adventure game that takes obvious inspiration from the Legend of Zelda series. Honestly, that’s the first thought that comes to mind when you see any footage of this games before you even play it. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can tell the creators are fans of the Zelda series and take what is good about those games, and make their own thing here. There is a quality game here, so I see no problem with imitating another series’ mechanics and/or gameplay when actual care was put into making the game feel and play well. The world and lore set up their own story that is engaging for what it is. It is interesting enough and doesn’t feel generic, which is what I honestly expected. There is a good foundation that can be further explored in future titles, when they come.
You play as the Hero, who is your stock, silent protagonist with little to express or say. Obviously, you are supposed to put yourself in that role so the character is just merely a shell you project yourself on. Your father left you in the care of a Hermit on an island one night and set off on his own, leaving behind a journal of his adventures and a few clues of his whereabouts along the way. You set out to look for your father and at the same time, hunt for and defeat Oceanhorn, an evil monster reeking havoc across the seas.
Throughout the adventure, the story is told by various journal entries left by your father that are told once you visit a new island. Mostly a quick few sentences about your fathers thoughts of each particular island. Various cutscenes also tell the story when certain events trigger them. Nothing too unique here in terms of storytelling, but it’s structured decent enough. It isn’t just some slapped together, boring dialog so you should be able to get engaged in whats going on. I will point out however that the Hero character has only one expression on his face throughout the whole game, no matter what is going on, so it sort of takes you out of the scene during some cut-scenes. Also, I found myself getting lost if I took too many days away from playing the game. If you play it for a few sessions, then take a week or two off before you ever come back to it, you’ll be scratching your head as to what was going on and where you needed to be next, so be mindful.
The game looks nice on the Vita. It has a pleasant color pallet that is bright and cheery when outside or sailing in the sea, but can also be dark and dreary when it needs to be. Dungeons and caves change the atmosphere up, making you feel alert and keeping an eye out for traps and sneaky enemies. Outdoors, in some of the more sunny islands or while in the sailboat, the game has a bright and adventurous feeling. The game is in perpetual daytime, unless you’re playing during an event that changes the scenery, but I never found that to take anything away from the gameplay itself. Art style is pretty decent, it all comes together and creates it’s own pleasant presentation that looks clean and polished.
Music lends itself well to the mix. Nothing too catchy or captivating, but it gets the job done and sets the mood when it needs to. The ship sailing music feels enterprising and creates the feeling of an adventure at sea. Dungeons sound eerie and dank with spooky undertones. Boss battles blare energetic compositions to fit the faster-paced action. The game doesn’t create any memorable soundbites a game like Zelda does with it’s infamous chest-opening jingle, or chimes for figuring secrets out, but I’m not exactly faulting the game for that.
Gameplay and Design
What’s here in terms of core gameplay is nothing new to those familiar with the Legend of Zelda franchise. It doesn’t do anything that I haven’t seen before. This title doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel here, they played it a little too safe. However, if one were to take the fact that its emulating another franchise out of the equation, it’s still a solid game. There is also a fair amount of game here to justify it’s price tag. I see it worth the $12.99 they are asking. If you want to complete each island at 100% there is tons to look for and do here. There is more than just the story line here. You can go around doing side quests, collecting hidden bloodstones, or searching for secret rooms that house undiscovered treasure chests.
I do have a few gripes with the game however. For one, sometimes figuring out what to do next can be rather vague. Especially if you stop playing the game for a day or two and just forget what you were doing. There isn’t a reliable quest log that you can access in the item menu. There is a log of the past few text bubbles you read last in your adventure, but doing something like reading a sign, or talking to a “extra” NPC who only speak useless townfolk talk, can clutter the log and push out the useful information you read earlier. The pause menu needs polishing, I feel it isn’t as useful as it should be. I almost never found it useful as you can switch items around in-game. While you’re on an island, you are given three objectives that you can do that are different on each island that you view in the menu. These objectives change from island to island, so if you happen to be visiting an island that isn’t story specific at the time, you are lost on what to do next to progress the story. Also, not every task is required for the story so you will find your self just doing the side quests if you happen to have lost track. That’s fine for completionists, but not for people who just want to progress the story. Besides, finishing the three objectives given to you on the island, doesn’t complete it 100%. Those objectives are only a few things you need to do to completely clear the island. Many of the other things you need to do are just left for you to figure it out. I get that it makes the game more fun to just discover things on your own, but often times I found myself missing one little thing, sweeping the island in what I thought was every little nook and cranny, and just being stumped with a percentage in the 90’s taunting me. One thing I feel contributes to the perplexity of these “almost” completed island is using bombs to blow up objects or walls to discover hidden areas. I understand that using bombs in that way is a part of this type of game, but in the Zelda games, the areas where you needed to use bombs in this manner, showed some sort of marker, like a unique shaped crack in the wall. That isn’t really here in this game other than a couple unique spots that had a sign basically telling you to use a bomb. The areas I managed to discover on my own using a bomb, that weren’t obvious, were pure luck or accidental. You will probably end up using a guide to discover most of those secrets.
Sailing on the sea is sort of a mixed bag to me. I like the nod to Wind Waker, and sailing gives you this feeling that you’re on this vast high-seas adventure, sort of making the game world feel bigger than it actually is. What I am mixed about it though, is you have to sail to each destination every time you switch islands. There isn’t much to the sailing. All you do is shoot crates to gain items, mines that are in your way, or enemies firing at you. Sounds easy enough, it just feels tedious having to play this little “mini-game” of sorts, each time you want to switch islands. Sometimes enemy fire and mines I couldn’t shoot in time, destroy most of my health by the time I make it to my destination. Sometimes that’s a problem when I am just trying to get to another checkpoint to save my game and I end up nearly dying or dead, depending. This definitely pads out the game though, and it wasn’t unbearable to play, just tedious in longer play sessions.
Oceanhorn is a solid game, for a decent price. What’s here is very respectable in terms of “Zelda clones”. It’s familiar and will definitely scratch that Zelda itch you may have. However, it can also stand on it’s own if you take the “clone” aspect out of the picture. It looks great and sets an adventurous mood. It makes you feel like it’s summertime with it’s aquatic theme and colorful art style. I can see this becoming a franchise of it’s own, and it pretty much has as Oceanhorn 2 has been announced. There certainly are some rough aspects that need to be smoothed out, and I am sure the sequel will address those. This is a great foundation though, and many seem to agree, as it’s limited physical copy sold out in minutes, if not seconds, as what it felt like. I myself tried to buy one (with no success) even though I already have a digital copy because I liked it well enough to justify double-dipping. I would have to say that the Vita version is probably the best way to play this title as I feel it fits best on a portable system as I liked it best in short bursts, rather than a long play session on the couch.
Score: 7 out of 10
Oceanhorn does a good job of scratching that Zelda itch on a platform that doesn’t have a Zelda. The game can however still stand on it’s own, making it a cut above other imitators out there.