Picasso once said: “great artists don’t borrow, they steal”. Now I don’t like to accuse others of theft, but Cornfox & Bros, the makers of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas are master thieves.
On the surface you would be remiss to call Oceanhorn a Zelda clone. It’s not, it’s a Frankenstein’s monster, a patchwork of systems robbed from the graves of 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 angry legal hounds and pitchforks of Nintendo.
You see, on the surface at least, it borrows the look and structure of 2D Zelda games, but it shifts its perspective slightly, creating an odd isometric perspective, that while Zelda-esque, isn’t quite the same top down perspective as Nintendo’s classic 2D adventures.
It then pinches the island structure and boat from Windwaker, along with the on-rails boating, sections of its handheld sequel The Phantom Hourglass, but ditches the wide eyed protagonist and cel shading for a style that sits somewhere between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (which is where they pinched the games stamina system from).
Combat feels like a cross between the original Legend of 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 we’ll ever come to seeing the adventures of Link on a rival console (though thanks to recent developments I wouldn’t rule out seeing him on mobiles in the near future).
The narrative follows the adventures of a young boy who is searching for his father, who has gone missing while hunting a mysterious monster known as the Oceanhorn, an elusive beast left over from a dead civilisation that plagues the oceans. In order to find his Pa and defeat the Oceanhorn our mute protagonist known only as ‘coupling’ (in my game anyway), travels 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 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 (though sadly they aren’t based on properly utilising your latest gadget, so much as defeating them with whatever you have to hand). While outside of dungeons there are numerous side quests and secret areas that reward you with you with life-extending heart pieces. And cash, hearts and ammo can be found in breakable pots, or by cutting clumps of grass (sound familiar?).
If you’ve played a Zelda game in the last twenty years you’ll feel right at home with Oceanhorn’s controls as they’re (you guessed it) basically identical, with the left thumbstick controlling the character, a dedicated button to attack, another to defend with your shield, one to dash and your usable items and spells tied to the remaining face buttons. One nice twist though is the ability to quickly cycle through your inventory using the D-pad to quickly equip different items and spells.
Despite being an enjoyable romp, I can’t help but feel that Oceanhorn sticks a little too rigidly to the Zelda blueprint. Apart from its narrative, which, though obviously inspired by Zelda in many ways, feels like it stands on its own two feet for the best part, the actual gameplay shackles itself a little too tightly to the traditional Zelda formula. As such, the game lacks any sense of surprise; you know exactly how to tackle a particular puzzle or enemy as, for the best part, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to something you would have stumbled across in Nintendo’s venerable series.
In this way Oceanhorn feels like a missed opportunity by Cornfox & Bros. to actually add to the genre and stamp their own identity onto it. One thing that does stand out though, 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 donkeys ago). Mixing bombastic adventurous beats while traversing the over world, with more delicate and sombre tones while exploring the game’s dungeons and caves, the soundtrack frames the on screen action perfectly, and is the kind of beautiful orchestral score that you would happily listen to by itself.
Oceanhorn – Monster of Uncharted Seas is the kind of loving homage that makes you wonder how it hasn’t been the subject of a lawsuit. It may never feel original, but it doesn’t matter when the source material is of such a high standard. By pillaging the tombs of Zelda past, Cornfox & Bros have created a wonderful adventure that fans of the series are bound to enjoy, and those that always wondered what Wind Waker would have been like if it had dropped the cel shading and been a bit more like A Link to the Past, will certainly want to check out.