Part of being a Zelda fan is perpetually searching for a way to scratch that Zelda itch as you impatiently wait for Nintendo to release a shiny new entry in their illustrious franchise. Not to say that nothing will ever fill that void, but in all honesty great Zelda-likes are few and far between! All we can ever ask for is something that comes close!
Well, if embarking on a Windwaker-esque open seas adventure in search of your long lost father, and trying to stop an ancient and mechanical living fortress sounds like your cup of tea, then Oceanhorn: Monsters of Uncharted Seas from Cornfox & Bros., might be exactly what you’re looking for!
I received Oceanhorn in a Limited Run blind box a few years ago and had never heard of it before then. After doing some research however, I was excited to see that it looked like I was in for a Zelda-like experience and I was totally ok with that!
Fast forward a few years later when we decided to actually take the plunge and pop it into the PS4, craving a Zelda adjacent experience. I knew it was a port from a mobile game, but was really hoping not to encounter too much leftover mobile-ness. The graphics were crisp, pretty, and upscaled nicely so my hopes were high that Oceanhorn had been ported properly.
Oceanhorn was one of those games that has been in my periphery for years, and with it having heavy influences from The Windwaker (one of my all time favorites), I was super intrigued! I’m not exactly sure what took us so long to dive in and give it a try, but after receiving a physical copy of it in one of those Limited Run Games blind boxes, we thought it was high time we took the plunge.
I love the idea of exploring remote islands, solving puzzles, and hacking apart innocent re-animated skeletons, so what could go wrong?! I mean, I wasn’t exactly sold on its aesthetics, and the fact that it was a mobile port from 2013, didn’t exactly make me jump out of my seat, but you can’t judge a game by a couple of screenshots, right? Also, the soundtrack was composed in part by Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematuse, two of the most prolific JRPG song writers in gaming history, so it had that!
If all you wanted was a game to look, and slightly feel like The Windwaker then I think Oceanhorn hit that nail on the head. Once you start playing it however, that’s when the fact that it was developed with mobile platforms in mind, really rears its head. On the surface the game controls well, and is actually quite intuitive to play by way of following the Zelda standards. You talk to islanders, find heart pieces and equipment upgrades, and explore dungeons that end in an epic boss fight! Classic Legend of Zelda shenanigans.
Where it suffers, is how all of that is kind of dumbed down. Both visually and from a gameplay standpoint. The art direction, environments, and even the animations feel canned and uninspired. While the mechanics of solving puzzles, exploring the various islands, and fighting enemies feels uninspired and honestly a bit simplistic. The benefit I guess is that it made for a short game, and we never really struggled to make progress. Well, I can’t say that because some of what they wanted us to do was a bit obtuse, and we got lost, but from a challenge standpoint Oceanhorn was a breeze.
Comparing it to a Legend of Zelda game is kind of unfair but Oceanhorn definitely gives off a Link’s Awakening/ Windwaker vibe. But it’s really just that, a vibe. The gameplay is much more standalone and mobile port or not, any game would have a hard time standing up against a LoZ game from any generation.
You collect heart pieces to make heart containers, you travel on a boat from island to island, there are boss keys with boss treasure chests. There’s even a boss where you have to hit back his energy balls at him, so there is absolutely a heavy LoZ inspiration. The main character even looks very Link-ish with his messy blonde hair and Breath of the Wild styled tunic.
I think it’s a pretty risky move making a game that takes such direct inspiration from such a beloved franchise. Unfortunately though, the polish just isn’t there even as a short, mobilized version of a LoZ game.
The puzzles presented almost no challenge whatsoever which was disappointing. We often found ourselves overthinking them because the solution just seemed too simple. Push a single block or light a torch and you’re done. More complicated puzzles would definitely be a welcome change in the sequel. Make me think a little or at least work a bit to earn those treasures and keys!
I did appreciate that you had access to a device in the very beginning of the game that told you how many total Bloodstones were available and how many you had already collected. You got a pretty good reward for collecting 40 of them, but only a trophy for collecting all of them. Not even some money, or a heart piece, or something? C’mon!
Travelling between the islands got old pretty quick as well given you have no control over the boat while sailing. You do unlock a gun for your boat to shoot mines, crates and an octopus enemy, so at least you aren’t forced to just sit and ride along the whole time. Being able to control the boat yourself would open up the possibility for a bit more entertaining exploration though.
My biggest gripe had to do with the sailing portions of the game. Where in something like The Windwaker you were able to wander the open ocean and happen upon new and interesting islands to explore, Oceanhorn mimicked that only in essence and definitely lacked the spirit. So, instead of having the freedom to explore, you instead unlock those locations by talking to people or completing story quests, and then you just select them on a world map and your boat automatically follows a linear path to the destination. At least they let you shoot at things during your trip, so you have something to do in the meantime! I think it would have made it so much more engaging if you weren’t stuck on rails. I mean that was literally part of the fun of The Windwaker! At that point you might as well just let us warp between each area. It would have made it a little less tedious at least.
Not to say Oceanhorn didn’t have things to be inspired by though! The soundtrack for example, was soothing and well composed. Not necessarily something you’d listen to on loop for the next month, but definitely suited the atmosphere of the game. I also really enjoyed some of the narrative concepts Oceanhorn was going for. It had potential, but like most of the other game’s aspects, it didn’t really follow through in a satisfying way. With that said, I’d love to see it expanded and refined, which I hope the sequel can accomplish!
One thing I can say that Oceanhorn does a great job of when it comes to replicating the feel of a Zelda game, is its progression. Like Zelda, there are various dungeons that you need to explore that act like the bookends to a story sequence, so it made it super easy to pass the controller back and forth. Plus, there wasn’t really much of a difficulty curve, so even as you enter later parts of the game you don’t really have to worry about jumping in after you haven’t played it for a couple of hours.
If nothing else, playing the game together helped us when trying to spot the various hidden items we had to find, or reminding each other where the crap we needed to go to complete our current objective!
While the whole game centers around exploring individual islands, each were all of varying size so splitting up the turns per island didn’t really work. We just ended up going by major story portions and handed over the controller once the boss bit the dust. The game was pretty short as well so really it was just a few turns each anyway.
Once it came time to clean up those bloodstones we took turns having one person navigate via a guide and the other did the leg work. There wasn’t much to puzzle out together but I’m glad we played it as a team since it just by default made it a much more enjoyable experience.
All in all Oceanhorn turned out to be an OK distraction. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the Zelda-adjacent experience we were hoping for either. If you’re looking for a game to satisfy your Zelda craving, it probably won’t do that with its simplistic approach to the formula. It’s kind of like being able to smell that delicious LonLon Milk, but never being able to taste it. It isn’t however a big time commitment to dive into either so if you’re on the lookout for something chill and easy to pick up and play, then this might be the game for you!