Let’s start by tackling the obvious question. Is Oceanhorn – Monster of Uncharted Seas a Zelda rip-off?
Listing just a few of the game’s elements will paint a familiar picture: An ancient tree, a blue-shirted young hero, heart pieces to collect, jars to smash, boxes to push, and torches to light. It’s all there. It even has a wise owl NPC, a boat to sail, and a McGuffin called the Triforce, sorry, the Triloth. It’s blatant, and, on occasion, brazenly shameless.
Yet, Nintendo doesn’t seem to mind Oceanhorn being sold on the eShop, so perhaps we should assume it’s not quite the copycat we think.
Calling Oceanhorn a Zelda game suggests that it displays a modicum of design, pacing, and humour, or has fun combat, devious boss encounters, a sense of adventure, and memorable moments of puzzle-solving gameplay. And it, for the most part, it doesn’t.
So, despite the familiar feel, it’s obvious why Nintendo doesn’t mind. Oceanhorn simply doesn’t bear comparison with even the most tepid of Link’s adventures.
Oceanhorn was originally released on iOS in 2013, a time when mobile gaming appeared to threaten the traditional console experience, with disastrous consequences expected for Nintendo. It was an example of a mobile game that really looked the part and, at first glance, played as well as it looked.
Fast forward four years, and that future doesn’t seem quite so inevitable. Nintendo has a finger in the mobile pie, and a renewed sense of purpose with its console/handheld hybrid. By arriving on Switch in the wake of Breath of the Wild, Oceanhorn now feels positively ancient.
The game remains eye-catching, serving up a glossy isometric diorama to explore that evokes a Playmobil toy set, but in terms of gameplay it lacks variety and urgency. Oceanhorn finds a closer cousin in the tedious split-level cave networks of the Pokémon series than it does in Zelda’s dungeons.
The game’s rudimentary gameplay betrays its touch screen origins, leading to one note combat, simple puzzles, and a general lack of tension. Add in some poor sign-posting, and longer play sessions can feel aimless and draining. Playing in handheld mode helps, making the experience feel more aligned to the game’s limited scope. And compared to the mobile version, it does have the obvious advantage of traditional console controls.
That suggests Oceanhorn controls well, but, adding to its litany of annoyances, it doesn’t. Movement feels floaty and vague, another reminder that it was a game made for thumbs and not thumb sticks.
Oceanhorn, therefore, falls between the gaps. It’s an attempt to replicate the console experience on mobile, that now finds itself unable to live up to its inspiration when given the full set of tools.
And yet, it’s not entirely without merit.
Firstly, the game has exemplary production values. The visuals, as mentioned, work well, especially on the small screen. The music is also rather beautiful, featuring contributions from Nobou Uemtsu. (Tellingly, his name is the first on the opening titles, a sure sign of where developer Cornfox & Bros spent a good chunk of the game’s budget.)
It’s also well acted – although our hero has a strangely mature voice for such a small lad – and where Cornfox & Bros depart from the Zelda template by adding their own flourishes to age-old mechanics, the game is occasionally capable of creating its own magical moments.
If Oceanhorn was better priced – it’s £13.49 in the UK eShop, versus £7.99 on mobile – there’s a chance I might recommend it. On these warm summer days there’s an appeal in a game with low stakes that you can drift in and out of like a lazy afternoon nap. But the Nintendo Switch is not short of solid, polished mid-tier experiences, and your money will be better spent on the likes of Snake Pass, or the amazing remake of Wonder Boy The Dragon’s Trap.