Picasso once said, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal”. Without wanting to overstep any boundaries, it is safe to say that Cornfox & Bros., the makers of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas are master thieves.
To the uninitiated, Oceanhorn may appear as little more than a Legend of Zelda clone, but such an approach to classification of the game would be remiss. Rather, it is a Frankensteinish patchwork of systems lifted from Nintendo’s long running franchise and cobbled together in such a way that the fairy god mother of fair use and the inability to copyright rules have kept it safe from the legal hounds of Nintendo.
Oceanhorn borrows the look and structure of 2D Zelda games, but shifts the viewing angle slightly, utilising an odd isometric perspective, that while Zelda-esque, is not quite the same top-down viewpoint as Nintendo’s classic 2D adventures. The game also pinches the islands and sailing mechanics from The Wind Waker, along with the on-rails boating sections of that game’s handheld sequel, The Phantom Hourglass. Instead of a wide-eyed protagonist and cel-shaded artstyle, however, Oceanhorn adopts a style that sits somewhere between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (which is where are the developers also pinched the game’s stamina system from). Meanwhile, combat feels like a cross between those systems found in original Zelda and Ocarina of Time. It may not be particularly original, but Oceanhorn captures the spirit of The Legend of Zelda so well that it feels like the closest gamers will ever come to seeing the adventures of Link on a non-Nintendo console (though recent developments may see him on mobiles in the near future).
The story of Oceanhorn follows a young boy’s search for his father, who has gone missing while hunting a mysterious monster known as the Oceanhorn, an elusive sea beast left over from a dead civilisation. In order to find his Pa and defeat the Oceanhorn, the nameless, mute protagonist must travel across an archipelago of varied islands, fighting monsters, exploring dungeons full of puzzles, and finding new gear that helps him in his quest.
Oceanhorn is a skilfully crafted homage to all things Zelda and as such, fans of the latter series will feel right at home in the game’s dungeons, which feature plenty of block puzzles, targets that need shooting with arrows, moving weights onto switches and culminate in an inevitable boss battle. Sadly, those boss battles are not based on properly utilising your latest gadget, so much as defeating them with whatever is to hand. Outside of dungeons, meanwhile, are numerous side quests and secret areas that reward players with life-extending heart pieces. Furthermore, cash, hearts, and ammunition can be found in breakable pots or by cutting clumps of grass.
Long-term fans of Zelda should feel right at home with Oceanhorn’s controls as they are basically identical. The left thumbstick moves the character, one button attacks, another defends with a shield, one dashes, and the remaining face buttons are tied to usable items and spells. One nice twist, though, is the ability to quickly cycle through your inventory using the D-pad to equip different items and spells easily.
Despite being an enjoyable romp, Oceanhorn sticks a little too rigidly to the Zelda blueprint. Although the narrative stands on its own two feet for the most part, the gameplay shackles itself a little too tightly to the traditional Zelda formula. As such, the game lacks any sense of surprise; players will typically know how to tackle a particular puzzle or enemy as most bear more than a passing resemblance to something previously introduced in Nintendo’s venerable series. In this way, Oceanhorn feels like a missed opportunity by Cornfox & Bros. to add to the genre and stamp their own identity upon it.
One thing that does stand out is the game’s superb soundtrack, featuring a score composed by Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy, The Black Mages) and Kenji Ito (Secret of Mana) (possibly working together for the first time since SaGa on the Gameboy). Mixing bombastic, adventurous beats for overworld traversal, with more delicate and sombre tones while exploring the game’s dungeons and caves, the soundtrack frames the on-screen action perfectly, and is a beautiful orchestral score that can easily be listened to by itself.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is the kind of loving homage that makes one wonder how it has not been the subject of a lawsuit. It may never feel original, but that hardly matters when the source material is of such a high standard. By pillaging the tombs of Zeldas past, Cornfox & Bros. have created a wonderful adventure that fans of the series are bound to enjoy, and those that always wondered what The Wind Waker would have been like had it dropped the cel-shading and been a bit more like A Link to the Past will certainly want to check out.
Oceanhorn: Monsters of Uncharted Seas was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Cornfox & Bros. | Publisher: FDG | Genre: Action/ Adventure | Platform: PC, PS4, PS Vita | PEGI/ESRB: 7+/E10 | Release Date: September 7, 2016