If not for the fact that the series is still running, it’d be much simpler to refer to Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas as a spiritual successor to the Legend of Zelda series. There is clear approximation of the latter’s flavour, to the point it’s hard to talk about Oceanhorn without at least touching upon what the Zelda games represent.
At its core it’s an homage, much in the way that Quentin Tarantino’s films are an homage in parts to the genres of blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti westerns.
Early impressions of the game might conclude it to be nothing more than a Zelda clone, yet Oceanhorn has enough of its own ideas that it can stand slightly off to the side. It’s unlikely it would exist without Zelda, particularly The Wind Waker, yet the concept of the Living Fortresses (of which Oceanhorn is one) lend it something new. Another key influence is Studio Ghibli, with some of the imagery and much of the soundtrack invoking parallels with Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
The game concerns the once-whole land of Arcadia, which was destroyed in the setting’s past, which in turn was responsible for the creation of the various islands you’ll visit. It opens with the Kid’s father setting off to battle against the titular adversary Oceanhorn, and then playing as the Kid, you’ll try to recreate this footsteps to find him, and then eventually face off against Oceanhorn.
Gameplay is mostly running around, slashing things with a sword and interacting with the environment. Each island has its own style, some of which will lead you to new treasures like the Trencher Boots or the Coral Saber, while others will see you discovering new abilities or searching for the mystical Emblems of Earth, Ocean and Sun.
It takes a while for the game to get moving – the early stages of the game move slowly, and some of the abilities that come about later. Bombs are the first that really change things, while the bows, boots and spells that arrive later each bring ways of accessing new areas too.
The layers of gameplay apparent in Oceanhorn are extraordinary, with many islands containing additional tasks that can only be accomplished late in the game, or areas that will be inaccessible early. In a similar fashion, enemies that required cautious handling become much easier to dispatch when you hit level 15 and the Coral Saber can shoot projectiles, or you can better block and evade their attacks.
The various boss fights are where Oceanhorn really stands out. While some of the early ones can be almost bypassed with enough bombs on hand, they become more situational in time. At first they might seem difficult or unfair, but repeat bouts always lend that extra level of understanding, and eventually a solid strategy.
One of the biggest issues with the game is how often it doesn’t explain things, or at least do so well. A teasing objective to use a special attack might be the only way you notice you can even perform a special attack, and it’s also somehow possible to not notice when the ancient flute ought to be used. It’s also very easy to not be sure about where to go next.
Some of the gameplay elements could use changes – throwing jars to break them is a shame, and the boat portions are on rails with a shooting gallery that doesn’t add much (and raises the question, why can’t we shoot like that on land?), and the fishing sequence is a lazy lift.
From a lore perspective, Oceanhorn has many of its own things. Some of the similarities are there only on the surface, such as a magical flute standing in for an Ocarina, yet there use and influence on the gameplay becoming very separate things.
Yes, the emblems of Sun, Earth and Ocean do turn into a Triforce of sorts when the three are combined, yet they still stand apart from the originating story. It’s the idea of the Living Fortresses as a combination of blood, magic and technology that give the game a separate identity, and would form the basis for something special.
Music is really one of the highlights of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. As mentioned earlier, there’s something very Ghibli-esque about the score, and even from the opening cinematic, it carries the game so much father. The theme that goes with Sky Island is in particular a delight, and carries the right level of excitement.
The truth about it all is that Oceanhorn is fun. Homages and clones are nothing new, and while it might not be as sophisticated as Wind Waker or other Zelda games in some areas, the ever-evolving gameplay means that it stays interesting almost from start to finish, and that succeeding at it always feels fun. There’s some definite meat here, and your playtime should exceed ten hours (fourteen for us in total).
Note though, that even though we were provided with a review code for Xbox One, there’s still a wait for Australian gamers on the console.