Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas Review

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

In a post-Breath of the Wild world, it’s easy to reminisce about the days of Zelda past, and perhaps pine a bit for those times when the franchise still followed a very carved-in-stone formula. In 2013, Developer Cornfox & Bros answered this call with the start of the Oceanhorn franchise, a love letter to open-world Zelda titles that were…just a little less open. Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is the inaugural entry in this series, taking inspiration primarily from the ocean-faring Wind Waker. Though some of its aspects come up a bit wanting — dungeon exploration and combat chief among them — it’s an enjoyable enough, if short and very easy, ride that provides a quick injection of nostalgia for those who haven’t fully committed to leaving the old Zelda formula behind entirely.

The game sees players take on the role of a young man whose father stole away in the middle of the night to hunt down Oceanhorn, a notorious ocean-dwelling monster. In order to find and save his father, the kid (as he’s frequently referred to) must travel between the many islands of his home, the Uncharted Seas, searching for the great beast himself. Along the way, he’ll discover treasure and helpful items, solve puzzles, aid island dwellers with their problems, and hold his own against the creatures that make the seas unsafe.

Taking to the open ocean is highly reminiscent of a particular Zelda adventure of yore.

Oceanhorn wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and they are so conspicuous that anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Zelda franchise will be instantly transported back in time. The kid is armed with a sword and shield, but can also use helpful items like bombs and a bow and arrows in combat and during exploration. Chests are scattered about, ripe for the picking, but one particular chest per dungeon will require a special key, which is also needed to unlock the door to the dungeon’s boss. Chests can contain money or a supply of usable items, but may also contain heart pieces, four of which expand the kid’s health pool by one heart. The biggest tip of the hat may be the frequent instances of traveling from one island to another, where the kid boards a boat that sails on auto-pilot to the desired location, with the player responsible for shooting the aquatic enemies that pop their heads above the waves and fire projectiles at the kid. Since sailing is handled by simply choosing a destination from the map, there is no inherent freedom of nautical exploration or any sunken treasure waiting to be pulled up to the surface.

Instead, it’s the islands that need to be explored. Of the seventeen islands, a handful are so small as to feature no appreciable exploration; the rest, however, are spacious enough to hide secrets and treasures, and, in a few instances, even a dungeon or settlement. However, there’s a certain lack of deliberateness to the exploration, a lack of thematic design. Stepping foot an a new island or entering a dungeon in Oceanhorn feels like a far less formal event than it always has in past Zelda entries; rather than seeking and finding a dedicated lair that must be conquered, often designed with a specific element or motif in mind, constructed around specific puzzles and platforming challenges, the whole process feels a lot more haphazard here. The kid will simply stumble upon a dungeon in the course of exploration, making progress almost by accident, generally falling into one of two main categories: “caves” and “deeper caves”.

The look is a little different, but combat is quite in line with older Zelda titles.

The story feels equally surface-level, tasking the kid with retrieving a few ancient artifacts that will open the path to his ultimate objective. Along the way, he’ll need to discover new islands to travel to, as islands in the Uncharted Seas only appear on the map once he’s been made aware of them, read about them in a diary, or finds mysterious messages in bottles referencing them. While this is a neat progression mechanic, it means that many islands can be discovered out of order (and, in any case, can be traveled to mostly out of order) so there’s little in the way of sequential game progression, with some exceptions like the major dungeons. For example, in order to use bombs, the kid must first visit Bomb Island to acquire some, before being able to use them elsewhere.

Considering the game’s portable background, its presentation looks and sounds quite good, with warm and colorful graphics and sprites that pop pleasantly. It goes in a wholly different direction than the cel-shaded Wind Waker but is no worse off for it. The water effects in particular stand out, with reflective waves rippling the surface as far as the eye can see. Sadly, this eye candy doesn’t make the frequent auto-pilot sailing sections any more interesting, and those wishing to 100% each of the game’s islands will end up taking lots of little sailing trips back and forth. The instrumental music is very pleasant to accompany the exploration and dungeon-diving, though without any particular standouts for good or ill. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the musical pedigree behind the game includes name-drops like Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu, who contributed to its soundtrack. There’s even the occasional bit of voice acting, though only piecemeal and nothing worth writing home about.

There’s a strong emphasis on laid-back exploration to match the idyllic island vibe.

The game’s iOS legacy rears its head in much more negative ways elsewhere. Combat is rather simple, which isn’t too surprising given its inspirations, but carries with it some inherent jank likely caused by being designed for touch-screen controls. However, since precision is rarely called for to defeat the hostile island-dwelling monsters, rudimentary sword-slashing generally gets the job done. Navigating menus, however, feels nothing short of clunky, and was clearly not designed with a controller in mind.

All told, one can do far worse than Oceanhorn for a shot of Zelda nostalgia. The basics are all present and accounted for, and the game offers good presentation values for a ten-hour-or-so stroll down memory lane. It may not quite nail the sense of charm we’ve seen in similar world design or exploration, but it certainly never goes so far in the other direction as to outright disappoint. With its sequel being released two years later, it’s a short and simple introduction to a new IP that’s plenty friendly for newcomers and supplies a bit of that good old Zelda nostalgia the main series has started to evolve away from.

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'Average' -- 3.0/5

Manages to capture some of that old Zelda charm

World is brought to life through vibrant visuals

Soundtrack boasts some impressive contributors

Gameflow feels more haphazard than tightly designed

Combat lacks grace and precision

Dungeons would have benefitted from stronger theming


Pascal Tekaia

Pascal joined up with RPGamer in 2015 as a reviewer and news reporter. He's one of THOSE who appreciate a good turn-based JRPG grind almost as much as an amazing story.

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