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Oceanhorn Review

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been playing a new iOS game called Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. I play a lot of things I don't care about, and this isn't a dedicated review blog, so if I'm bothering to post a review, then spoiler: I liked it. It's not a perfect game, though, and I'll also be discussing some of its flaws.

Oceanhorn sets out to be the Legend of Zelda's kid brother on iOS. I haven't played most of the Zelda series, but it's immediately recognizable as a game of that lineage: the player's inventory includes sword, shield, bombs, bow and arrows, a flute, and boots that allow you to jump or roll. The player increases maximum health by collecting pieces of Hearts. The main use of bombs is blowing up fake walls. Late in the game, your sword even shoots out radiant bolts when you're at full health. It's a bit simplified compared to its spiritual predecessor, though: even with pursuing a lot of optional content it's less than twenty hours of gameplay.

The Good

What it does have is a colorful, interesting world to explore. The world is made up of small islands (a great use of the iPad's limits on how large of a level it can comfortably store at a time), in a way that has enough in common with Earthsea that I like it a lot. The player's boat may not actually be called the Lookfar in the game, but I don't let that stop me. Travel is actually a rail-shooter mini-game, as there are obstacles and sea monsters that threaten the sea-lanes. The player (a typical silent youth) has a pumpkin-seed gun with a devastating rate-of-fire.
Side note: If Cornfox & Brothers, the game's creators, ever decide to release expansions with additional optional content, I'd like to see more variety in the rail-shooter portion. A boss that the player fights from the boat would be especially nice.
The game's overworld islands and dungeon levels are full of little puzzles. The majority of the puzzles take no more than one or two steps to complete, but a lot of them are there to be reasons to go back through earlier content once you get the item that allows you to attempt the puzzle. In theory, it's also teaching you the game's symbolic language of puzzles - the shorthand that make later, more complicated puzzles (especially ones that present actual danger) more approachable. This doesn't completely work out, but I'll get to that later. Heavy use of puzzles is also a key part of anything that wants to live up to a Zelda heritage; while most of these puzzles are less complicated than Zelda-franchise puzzles, they're still a good time.

The game's graphics are excellent, in a cartoonish and stylized way. They avoid feeling childish in a way that a lot of cartoonish, stylized games do not. My understanding of art design isn't deep enough to point to why, but I was happy with the game's visuals throughout. The overworld and dungeon maps are well-lit, interesting, and navigable - not that there aren't mazes, but the camera and the scenery don't make it unnecessarily difficult.

I love how much optional content is in the game. This is something I want to see more games do: there are several whole islands that the player never needs to explore, even though two of them have a lot of extra backstory on the game and substantially enrich the experience. I like for games to have strong narrative elements, but dungeons and B-plots that I only engage with because I want to are excellent. If the dungeon holds a rich, self-contained story, all the better. The Elder Scrolls games are top-notch examples of this.

The game's leveling system wouldn't be anything special, except that leveling does grant interesting new feat-like abilities and early-edition D&D style level titles. It's not a useful game feature, but I found it appealing.

Oceanhorn is among the more expensive iOS games I've played, but I feel like it was a good value for that price. In terms of cash-per-entertainment-hour, it's one of the best. The single best thing about it is that I paid up-front, and that was that: there was no kooky monetization scheme interrupting my gameplay to cadge me for a few more bucks. I want more games to do exactly that.

Below the cut, I want to talk about some of the rough spots.

The Rocky Parts

The game's main weakness is in its dual-stick controls. You can control movement by tapping on your destination, but this makes the game a lot harder to play; you'll generally want to control all movement in the lower-left corner like you're used to from other games. They don't always work, though, and it seems like they are at their least reliable when the screen is the most busy and the hero is in the most danger. The problems didn't last long or stop me from having a good time, though.

The basic sword-attack control isn't as good as it could be, and a straight-up sword fight is the least effective way to beat the game's stronger opponents even when you do get the Coral Sword that the game spends so much time talking about. The scarier bad guys often have shields, and it's very difficult to time swings against the shield's movement. It would also take enough hits that it emphasizes finding another solution. There's nothing wrong with that, but it feels a little disappointing if you're not expecting it.

The boss fights don't really stick to the language of what the player needs to do all that clearly. There are essentially five boss fights in the game, since the final fight is a two-form battle. The third fight comes right after the shield upgrade has been introduced, which would suggest that the shield is important to the battle. It is, but the visuals of what's going on don't suggest the shield's use. For a minor spoiler: the game explains that the shield can reflect energy, and the player uses it to solve a mirror puzzle shortly before this. The boss is not shooting a laser, though - he's hurling big fireballs that you need to reflect back at the boss, using the shield. In his second phase, turrets fire purple lasers at the hero... which can't be reflected and simply need to be avoided.

The flute is criminally under-used, even if it is the solution to the last boss's final form. That usage isn't really telegraphed (or if it is, I don't remember the game's dialogue clearly enough to recall this), but it feels disappointing that this item only has that one usage, and in a one-and-done kind of way. This too could be expanded into something awesome in future optional content.

It seems like the game wants the bomb to be an occasionally useful attack, but the camera is zoomed in close enough that it's hard to get far enough away from the monster that you're out of the bomb's blast radius, other than the one flyer that you must use bombs to kill. It's also not super easy to get monsters to stand close enough to the bombs if you just place them and back away as the fuse burns. Likewise, the bow is a weapon against only a few opponents, and its main purpose is to shoot targets in the world.

The game's puzzles are mostly too easy to feel satisfying, but I recognize that I'm not exactly the game's target demo. There are also puzzles that are a little too hard, or at least require a logical leap that I didn't make. I do appreciate how difficult puzzle design is, but a lot of the game's puzzles need just one or two more steps of logic to feel right. Also, the puzzle rewards aren't quite rewarding enough - refreshing your supply of arrows or bombs feels disappointing if you already have all you can carry, and a small lump sum of XP or gold just feels like something you could have gotten some other way. I appreciate that the game is handing out an XP bonus for exploring and engaging with the optional puzzle content, but the game needs just a few more things to hand out.

I'm not sure how many other games have shared the game's story. I don't want to get too deep into spoiler territory, but the story doesn't have a lot of surprise reveals. The young male hero wakes up in his bed after an opening cut-scene and chases after his absentee father - for a minute there I was pretty sure I was playing Final Fantasy X, except that there weren't any other playable characters or an incomprehensible 3D water polo game. The hero turns out to have been the Chosen One from the beginning - there is literally no one else in the setting who could have succeeded. This isn't the post to trot out all of my problems with special-by-birth hero types, but suffice to say that it's been used so many times that I've got to call it lazy at this point. Still, Oceanhorn's story is no worse than other games, and there are some worthwhile flourishes along the way, which is more than a lot of action-puzzler games can claim.

On the increasingly-widespread FACE scale, which as every schoolchild knows rates things from five frowny faces to five smiley faces, I would rate the game one smiley face in the broadest spread of video games. Restricting the context to iOS games, I would give it a solid 3 smiley faces: among the best-in-class, but also highlighting the ways in which the mobile gaming industry still needs to grow. If Zelda-style games are your thing, pick this one up for sure.

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