Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas Review – Missed Potential

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas
Release Date: June 22, 2017
Developer: Cornfox & Bros.
Publisher: FDG Entertainment
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (eshop), Playstation 4 (Playstation Store), Xbox One (Xbox Live), PC (Steam), PS Vita (Playstation Store), iOS (iTunes), Android (Play Store)
Prices: $14.99 USD (Switch, PS4 Xbox One and Steam), $12.99 USD (PS Vita), $7.99 USD (iTunes), $5.49 USD (Play Store)

Originally released as a mobile game for iOS back in 2013, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas slowly trickled it’s way to releases on almost all major platforms. More recently, it made it’s debut on the Nintendo Switch. The game was highly regarded as a mobile game that brought us a pretty in depth in adventure, as compared to the typical shallow experiences that come with the market. Since it’s console debuts, it’s scored much lower all around, and is commonly referred to as a Zelda rip off. Oceanhorn does a lot to borrow many aspects from Zelda, but is it a blatant rip off? I personally think not, and it simply falls short in many key areas, and here is my review as to why.

In Oceanhorn, you play as an unnamed hero. He wakes up one day, to find his father is gone and the only lead he has to go by are a letter, and a necklace that once belonged to his mother. The letter speaks of a threat in the uncharted seas, known as Oceanhorn. You immediately set out to put a stop to this menace before it consumes Arcadia. The story is quite hands off, occasionally chiming in to give you some back ground of past events. It’s not very involved and quite easy to forget.

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With sword and shield at hand, Oceanhorn plays very similar to a top down Zelda game, but with a slightly tilted isometric view. Gameplay consists of the typical array of things you’d do in Zelda. Run around killing monsters, find treasure, uncover secrets, talk to townsfolk. As you progress through the game, you gain more skills and spells, such as bombs, bow and arrows, and spells that set enemies ablaze. There are also some secret spells hidden away as optional content, for those seeking an added challenge to uncovering all of what Arcadia has to offer.

Gameplay is quite simplified, but feels good otherwise. There are a few aspects that do hurt the game. One is button mappings. There seems to be a limited set of buttons actually used to accommodate all you can do. I can see being originally a mobile game why this would be the case. I’m sure this was simplified for the scope of being a mobile game at first, however it’s since been brought to pretty much every major platform, I would have expected some refinements in this department. For example, I find equipping certain items to be a bit cumbersome. You have to press a button that cycles through your items or spells respectively. So if you miss your item, you have to cycle through everything again until you find the desired item. I would have preferred some form of a quick menu that let me select specifically the item I needed. It ends up making me rely on items less, which sucks, because it kind of forces you to just be a sword swinging maniac at times. If you want to quickly swap items, you need to memorize the order in which they appear to do it efficiently. Alternatively, you can select items from the pause screen.

What makes it worse, is there are things like boots in your item selection that grant you the ability to roll and jump over obstacles. I don’t understand why this needs to be equipped, they are freakin’ boots, shouldn’t the hero always be wearing these boots? This implies that the hero must put away his bow, to put on a pair of boots, jump over a gap, and then take off his boots and pull out his bow again. It doesn’t make sense, especially when there is several other buttons that could have been permanently mapped for something like the boots. The shield is forever mapped to the right trigger, so why can’t boots be mapped to the other trigger, or either of the shoulder buttons? This would have made traversing some puzzles a bit more streamlined and not force the player to keep equipping boots to jump over gaps.

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Taking out enemies is never too difficult

Thankfully, the problem of swapping items doesn’t hit you too hard, simply because the game isn’t overly challenging. Most scenarios encountered don’t require you to need to use multiple items to beat enemies. The enemies aren’t too challenge, most require you to simply hack and slash, and permanently hold down your shield to avoid getting hit. Other enemies are bigger and you can simply attack, move out of the way and come back in for another attack, or swing around behind the enemy to hit their weak spot. Some enemies may take away quite a bit of damage at times, only if you are really careless however. Even if you are left with no health, getting hearts from nearby bushes is almost a guarantee when missing even one heart.

Bosses on the other hand will test you quite a bit more. A couple of the bosses are actually tough to the point where the design of the encounter feels unfairly stacked against you. One boss requires you to deflect fireballs back at him using your shield. Problem is, the fire ball moves VERY SLOW, and with the enemy lazily floating left and right, it’s often that the deflected fire ball will miss it’s mark. Your only other option is to light a torch, and use that to light an arrow and fire it at the boss. Problem is I don’t think most players will figure this out, and what happens is the boss feels poorly designed instead of fun. I think any encounter like this, using the harder option shouldn’t feel like a chore, and instead should be a fun challenge, followed by that AHA moment where you realize the alternative quicker solution. Instead, because of how many times I died before I had that moment, the boss fight dragged on too long, and having to restart over and over took away from the experience because it ended up just feeling sluggish.

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Boss fight although being sluggish, do look impressive

Where things feel a bit more in place is when navigating Oceanhorn’s many dungeons. Although the dungeons aren’t the most imaginative things out their compared to the likes of Zelda, I was always curious about what was around every corner and just to generally keep pushing on until the boss encounter. In the dungeons, you run through the same set of sequences you would expect, find locked doors, open treasure chests containing keys, unlock those doors, find the master key, find the dungeons special item. It’s nothing new, but overall I enjoyed them. Some optional dungeons late game gave me some cool vibes that I had when playing similar areas that you’d encounter in the likes of Diablo III.

The puzzles encountered weren’t the most imaginative, and some were a bit too cryptic. Majority of them require you pushing blocks to open paths or create walkways. Other involve you hitting switches to open gates or raise blocks from the ground creating new walkways. There are also some in the form of targets that are require you to land a shot with your bow and arrow to open a gate. They aren’t overly complicated by any means, but they mostly work for the purpose of the game.

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Pushing blocks is one of the puzzle types that repeat over and over

Outside of dungeons, you will navigate Oceanhorn’s many islands uncovering treasure there and solving puzzles as well. There are problems in navigation that extend outside of the dungeon and affect the game overall. The landscape is arranged into different levels, and are effectively many blocks stack on top of one another. Finding your way up is usually straight forward, but coming down is where confusion starts. You can leap off of some ledges if they aren’t too high. However the ones that are too high, you can’t. The height of the fall is what really gives away if you can do this or not, but with the way the camera is tilted and just the overall layout of everything, I found this a very hard thing to judge, making back tracking pretty difficult overall.

Another thing that bugged me is I never found Oceanhorn to be intuitive in how it directs the player. It was never clear the general direction I needed to go, or where I could possibly find the thing I needed to do to move forward. For example, in one part there was a switch that was literally hidden under a random bush. I got very lucky by just randomly cutting bushes and encountering the required switch, but I can see this really frustrating players who wouldn’t expect the game to hide a pivotal progression piece under some random bland looking bush. Other areas sometimes need you to bomb a wall, but the wall needing to be bomb does not stand out at all to say “BOMB ME!”, making it guess work, or never making it apparent that a rock can be destroyed. Some assets used are apparent in other parts of the game, and appear indestructible.

Where the game really fails is in it’s rewards. There are many chests scattered around that don’t reward you anything meaningful. Instead of getting a key, piece of heart, you end up getting five bombs, or arrows, or coins. Coins seem the most useful, but there is not a whole lot to buy in the stores in Oceanhorn. There are times where you do uncover that piece of heart, or full heart container from a shop keeper, but overall I found finding chests and ultimately uncovering it’s so called treasure very redundant. The amount of useless rewards far greatly outnumbered those that actually gave me something good.

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There aren’t many rewards to find, but heart pieces can be quite valuable

Arcadia, the world of Oceanhorn is a vast open ocean. There are several islands scattered around the land. Each house anything from towns, to dungeons, to bare islands that hold some rewards. There is a decent amount of islands to explore and uncover as you play through the game. Quite a few of them are optional, so those seeking to do a bit of exploring out of the main quest may have some fun here.

Coming into Oceanhorn, it’s world map appeared highly inspired by that of Wind Waker. Many screenshots and previews highlighted you in a boat on the open ocean. It looked great, but was too good to be true here. While navigating the ocean, you have no freedom at all to explore. While the world map is open, you select your destination island, and from there, the game automatically guides your boat on a predefined path. Along the way, enemies and mines spawn in your path, requiring you to shoot them down. Despite the reason for there no being any form of open sea exploration, whether it be resources, or simply an idea that was too ambitious for this team, because it draws heavily on imagery seen in Wind Waker, this ultimately comes as a huge disappointment. Any form of manual navigation would have been much appreciated, because without it, the sailing aspect feels like a glorified loading screen.

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Although it’s pretty, it’s a shame you cannot freely explore the ocean

Oceanhorn visually is a pretty game however. Despite the open sea being a tacked on shallow rails on shooting experience, the ocean looks great. Details like seeing the sky being reflected off the water look great. Coming onto land, the forests, although not dense, are vibrant and well designed. Textures appear quite crisp, and when being able to reach high points on islands, the view is quite nice. From an artistic perspective, the game does well, and lays the foundation for the world this team has created, and has much potential to continue being expanded.

Even though at face value, Oceanhorn looks great, it’s animations bring it down quite a bit. While in cutscenes, character lip syncing and body gestures appear overly simplified, which are hard to ignore, because the camera usually zooms up close to the characters, really exposing these flaws. In combat, animations mostly look fine, but some boss animations appear lazy and sloppy, and take away from the seriousness of those moments encountered.

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When it comes down to it, Oceanhorn’s visuals and art are done well

In the sound department, nothing really stands out as being that great. However, voice acting is apparently bad. The levels of the voices are a bit loud and harsh, and not only that, the lines are delivered pretty bad most of the time. It can be quite laughable at times. I do appreciate the effort of providing this much voice acting, but combine the bad voices with the poor cutscene animations, the presentation as a whole take quite a hit. I think they might have been better off just having written dialogue and keeping the camera static. I might have taken the story a bit more seriously this way, since I don’t think the writing is all that bad.

Last and certainly not least, the one area that really stands out in Oceanhorn, is it’s incredible sound track. Just about every song in this game is brilliant. Whether you are exploring an island, sailing the ocean, tip toeing through frightening graveyards, or taking on some big bad bosses, the accompanying music always fit perfectly. I’m quite surprised a game that lacked polish in many areas has such well composed sound track. It’s grades beyond the rest of the game. How this happened? I have not a clue, but I’m simply glad I was able able to experience great boss music like this.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think Oceanhorn is a bad game by any means. There were moments where I did have quite a bit of fun in certain boss fights. Dungeons were pretty fun to navigate and learn as well. However, as I left the initial honey moon phase of the game, it quickly became apparent that Oceanhorn wasn’t going to do much to stand out. Combine that with some of the design flaws seen in things like item management, and boss fights, it makes this game a tough sell. Moments that should be a walk in the park, or a fun challenge are needlessly made a chore, or simply frustrating at times. It’s not bad value for it’s price of admission, as it clocks in around 10 hours for an average play through, and even more if you want to uncover some of the secret spells and quest items hidden in the lands. Despite my negative criticism of the game, I do feel it has a ton of potential. As the team is already underway with Oceanhorn 2, I feel like if they can patch up the problems and expand the scope of the world and what you can do, this could be something that could rival the likes of the early Fable games. I’d love if it came to that point, and regardless, I’ll be having my eyes on what comes of Oceanhorn in the future.

Disclaimer: This review was done using a Nintendo Switch copy of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas provided by the game’s publisher, FDG Entertainment. Please be assured that this did not affect my opinion of the game, and that my criticisms are an honest and true representation of my thoughts on the game.

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