It’s often said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
While nice in theory, it’s just a pleasant way of saying “rip off” or “copycat.” In video games, truly original ideas are few and far between and a good clone of a successful game can still garner success. In fact, I still maintain that Saints Row 2 is one the best Grand Theft Auto games of all time. A developer can either go all in or make a blatant rip off, cribbing so much that it feels like you’re playing the actual thing it’s ripping off, or they can use just enough for the source to be recognisable while forging enough of its own path to make something special. Sometimes a game can bring so little new to the table that it winds up being a supremely lesser experience. Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is a definitely an homage to Zelda for sure, however it has none of the charm, whimsy or originality of that series and instead leaves an uninspired, utterly average and ultimately boring game.
The story of Oceanhorn is incredibly basic. A son of an adventurer sets forth on a quest to find out what happened to his father after he never returned from a trip to battle Oceanhorn, a beast that rules the ocean. Along the way he meets various people and fights monsters until he finally faces off against the mighty, mythical beast and learns what really happened to his father.
Really, that’s it. There are incredibly minor sidequests with stories to accompany them but it’s never more than that and it’s never engaging. Midway through I had forgotten that the son was even searching for his father until another character mentioned it. So what we start off with is an action RPG without a compelling story. Hopefully the gameplay will more than make up for it.
It sort of does, a little bit, at first and occasionally. If that seems wholly noncommittal, that’s how I felt about the gameplay. It’s certainly better than the story but rarely is it all that interesting. The bulk of the gameplay revolves around exploring islands until you find the master key which unlocks the main treasure on the island and occasionally a door that also requires the master key. You’ll fight monsters, find and use spells, bombs and arrows to aid you on your quest. There are also light puzzle solving and boss fights to mix things up. On paper, this all sounds great; in execution, however, it’s incredibly repetitive as these scenarios rarely change, the combat is dull, the puzzles are almost all variations of block puzzles, and every spell controls the same and only the effect changes.
One of the more perplexing design decisions in Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, at least how it exists on consoles, is that your items such as bombs and arrows have an inventory counter that goes down every time you use the respective items but killing enemies, smashing the almost obscene amount of jars or even cutting grass will often replenish the item you’ve just used which makes them nigh limitless. This makes the decision to have these items have counters seem completely superfluous and all but eliminates the usual risk/reward factor that comes with RPGs.
Talking to NPCs – and the word “character” should be used in the loosest of terms here – will often reveal the names and locations of other islands to visit and get the next item or spell that you need to progress the campaign. These “characters” are interchangeable as they have no distinct personality expressed in their dialogue so instead of feeling like I was on an adventure, I felt I was walking up to humanoid exposition and instruction terminals. Though I did get a kick out of the one girl character that you help and then she basically stalks you until you leave that island for the time being.
There are a lot of islands to visit in the game but unfortunately, they mostly look the same reusing many of the same assets over and over and over. Very few offer distinct locations or variance so it makes the copious amounts of backtracking and minor exploration feel more tedious. I understand Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was originally an iOS game but this is a game that’s available on consoles and PC now and it has to be judged on the landscape of the respective platforms. While this might seem fresh and novel on a mobile device, it feels like a slog on consoles. All of this is made worse because you can’t just fast travel between islands; instead you have to endure the same sailing sequence over and over with the minor diversion of shooting barrels, mines and the occasional sea monster that inexplicably shoots small boulders at you. This is a way to replenish items and health if you need it but the game isn’t hard and items are insanely easy to come by that it really is just busy work.
That’s not to say the game is without merits. While the gameplay never excited me, it was never bad, just uninspired. The environments may be repetitive but they sure are pretty, offering a 16-bit feel but with modern touches like smoothed edges, swaying grass and trees, water that splashes when shot or having something thrown into it, some nice animations and the actual highlight of the game, the boss fights.
Boss fights aren’t all that challenging but each boss, as is standard in boss fights, has an exploitable weakness and figuring out what that is doesn’t require much beyond some experience playing video games with boss fights. Still, they are all a welcome change of pace to the average but repetitive core of the game.
I don’t mean to sound like I hated Oceanhorn, because I didn’t. It’s a completely fine and competent game that may satisfying someone who is less discerning or has some time to kill with it. However, if you’re a fan of Zelda or action RPGs in general, you can do much better than Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas.