A Paladin’s Review: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. A Disappointing Sea of Content and a Boring Combat System.

Oceanhorn-wallpaper-GOTY

I’m reviewing an iOS RPG recently ported to PC this week. It’s uhh, well, read the review.

This review is potentially too harsh. However, I don’t have a lot of guilt about that when your store page says such things as “captivating storytelling, breathtaking 3D visuals and exciting gameplay into one epic action-adventure experience”. Sure, I get that’s marketing. But when you sell that and the experience inside doesn’t really live up to that, well, it’s hard to feel guilty. Still, I think I was reasonable overall considering this game seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it too. But why are you reading the pre-preamble when you could just be reading the review? Enjoy!

Read and rate this review on Steam.

A Paladin’s Review: Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. A Disappointing Sea of Content and a Boring Combat System.

  • Genre: Isometric Adventure RPG.
  • Developed and Published by: Cornfox & Bros.
  • Platform: iOS, Windows and Mac OSX
  • Business Model: Base Game GOTY Edition
  • Copy Purchased by Myself

Preamble

I was wondering the other day why we don’t have more Legend of Zelda clones on the PC. I mean, good ones that understand what made that series so popular both through its mechanics and storytelling. On PC, a lot of developers that create RPGs tend to go to the extreme Western side of designing an RPG. Games with big open spaces and tons of things to do but not a lot of focus on the central story. If anything, the central story sometimes distracts or detracts from the enjoyable part of the game. With adventure RPGs, such as the Legend of Zelda, they don’t seem to get a lot of cloning or inspired by games. To me, that’s too bad as I think the genre has room to grow. After playing Oceanhorn though, I’m a little less certain of that growth. I had first spotted Oceanhorn on Steam during my Journey through it several months back. I was, of course, highly interested in having a Zelda-like experience on my PC for the first time in a very long while. While Oceanhorn does some things right…it messes up on too many things. 

Overall Gameplay Thoughts

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is an isometric RPG clearly inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, at least the isometric/Game Boy versions. Everything from the lock-on sword play, the story about a hero gaining three valued artifacts of power to overthrow a growing evil and much of the visual design shows that inspiration in spades. Due to that inspiration, the comparisons to the Zelda series are easy to make. I hate to say this but more often than not, Oceanhorn doesn’t compare well. Whether by limitation of the iOS platform or the inexperience of the developers, a lot of ideas and mechanics were pale imitations of what’s been done before.

I don't think I said this in the review but the visual style is nice and colorful.

The visual style is nice and colorful, I’ll give it that much. The UI is also very functional, adapting to both keyboards and controllers instantly.

As the generically named Hero, you are eventually tasked with finding the three circles of power and striking down a living fortress named Oceanhorn as well as a growing evil known as Mesmeroth. The game’s levels are split up into multiple islands on a large ocean. A few are known to the hero when first starting but more will become “discovered” as you progress through the campaign as well as find bottles. Discovering an island is no great trick, once you know of an island, that island can be immediately sailed to. Oh and no, sailing in this game isn’t anything to get excited about. It’s one of the more disappointing mechanics Oceanhorn has. When you first load in, you might start thinking of The Wind Waker where you’ll be able to sail around a vast ocean, exploring discovered islands and finding treasure and sea monsters a plenty. Well, you sorta do in Oceanhorn, except it’s all on rails. All you can do is point the boat to a destination and then ride along on a predetermined track, shoot the same couple of sea monsters and other garbage on the ocean and that’s it. Shooting from this small ship is also poorly implemented too. The gun the hero has has a high rate of fire and it’s almost impossible to miss the target you’re shooting at, with all of the objects on the sea only taking a few shots or less to destroy. It’s pretty much a waste of time and you have to do it constantly as you travel between islands. I would have much rather had a quick loading screen than waste my time sailing between islands. Look, don’t include sailing between levels in a game if you’re not going to let me take control of the boat. It’s just a boring waste of time otherwise.

You could probably hear my heart sinking as I realized that I couldn't actually do any sailing.

You could probably hear my heart sinking as I realized that I couldn’t actually do any sailing.

Bit of a change from other titles in this genre is the experience system included in Oceanhorn. Which, to be honest, I’m don’t think it makes the game better. As you gain a new level by the usual means of gaining experience, you’ll gain access to new or enhanced abilities. The majority of the good unlocks are here including expanded item carrying, reduced magical use of spells and so on. To gain new levels requires quite a bit of experience to the point that you’ll need to grind chests or monsters to get what you want. It’s not essential to be a certain level though as the level you’ll be by the end-game boss will probably be enough. I don’t like the necessity of grinding monsters in a game like this, it just doesn’t work for me. It slows the game down unnecessarily and I’m not convinced it really adds anything. Not when these same rewards could have been put into chests to reward the players for exploration and solving puzzles instead.  

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This whole thing is just ridiculous. And the reward was an item pickup and a key. >=(

Speaking of chests, there are the usual keys and boss keys to be discovered on each major island. The rest of the chests in this game give some variation of a gold, experience or item refill reward. Those item refill rewards aren’t very rewarding when I often found myself full on bombs and arrows quite often. A few chests do have heart piece rewards which, when four are found, combine into a new heart piece. There’s a harder-to-find collectible called Bloodstones that are sparsely littered all over the islands. Bloodstones are eventually used to get you a reward but in the 10 hours I played this game, it said I didn’t have enough to reward me for my efforts. According to the wiki, you have to find 40 bloodstones in order to receive a black hole spell and 55 of them nabs an achievement. Oh yay, a pointless achievement. The spell itself is not needed to finish the game. So, unless you’re a completionist, it’s not worth traveling to every single island and finding the bloodstones. Speaking of achievements, yes, those do exist in this game. 63 achievements that get pointed out to you in threes every time you visit a level. However, with the exception of a few of them, those achievements don’t need to be completed on the island they’re featured on. So, why Oceanhorn even points them out on those particular islands is a mystery. But hey,at least we can do some fishing on them, right?

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Well, this fishing mini-game that would initially seem like a major component of the game with its own space and UI on the menu screen. Outside of a few quests though, it’s largely ignored and you’ll quickly ignore it because it’s one of the worst implementations of fishing I’ve ever had the displeasure of playing. After the line is automatically cast into the river/ocean you’re standing by, all you have to do is wait for the bobber to get pulled below the surface and hit the button to start reeling the fish in. (There’s plenty of time to do this). Once you’ve done that, all you can do is pull to the left or right in the opposite direction the fish is going until sooner or later you finally reel it in. However, the fish will fight you and at times it goes on for far too long. (I think I once spent 15 minutes reeling in a fairly simple fish). There’s no pulling the line back or letting it go forward to try and catch the fish off-guard. There’s nothing you can do but hope the game eventually lets you catch it and it is so boring. This is by far the worst implemented mechanic in the game.

Story Thoughts

The story is ok at best. It’s a traditional story of a young boy who goes out to find the three magical Emblems of the Elements and put a stop to an evil entity. At first, we’re introduced to Father, who goes out to fend off a living fortress known as Oceanhorn and what happens to him is ultimately unknown. After gathering Father’s sword & shield as well as preparing yourself for sailing, Hero goes out to gather these circles. He has Father’s journal with him which will narrate a little bit every time you visit an important island. Hero goes to a forest island, a desert island and an island in the sky to collect all three magical sources of power. Along the way, Hero meets two different races that have fallen into ruin due to the evil machinations of Mesmeroth and some of minions. So, through some dungeon crawling, Hero will eventually right those wrongs done and those races will eventually rise from defeat….in maybe another game. Once the pieces of the puzzle are assembled, with help from Hermit along the way, Hero will go to Father and fight Mesmeroth once and for all. During this quest, a few side characters will come in and out of the story but otherwise, Hero is on his own for this journey. Having only the guidance of Father’s journal and the power of the elements to “guide” him. The emblems are only in the game to push the story along, nothing else.

Father's Sword & Shield. How it got into this dungeon's chest and why he has another set is never explained.

Father’s Sword & Shield. How it got into this dungeon’s chest and why Father has another set is never explained.

I have to say, having such names as: Hermit, Father, Mother, Hero (you), Queen Fin, Collector, makes it rather difficult to get invested in these characters. There’s very little background on these characters or their motivations, so most of them come off as 2-dimensional caricatures of fantasy tropes. The most we even learn about is how the world came to be and what living fortresses are about. Strangely, it also likes to jump back and forth between voiced lines during cutscenes and unvoiced lines the rest of the time. It can be a jarring experience to interact with a “mute” character only to have them suddenly start talking to you. Honestly, they should have scrapped the voice acting altogether. It’s sub-par most of the time, with most of the actors sounding bored or uninterested in what’s going on. There’s very little emotion and even when lines should be a little more emotional, they come off flatly. They also interact with Hero like he’s supposed to talk but, as is the case with most mute heroes, it’s a one-sided conversation that’s weird to experience.

Apparently his parents hated him and named him Hermit.

Apparently his parents hated him and named him Hermit.

The rest of the story often feels like there are chunks of script missing. That I had missed a conversation which explained what’s going on or why characters are doing whatever it is they’re doing. There’s even a random romance/infatuation scene halfway through the game with a girl you know very little about. She just happens to follow you around the island making random quips about events or people. Suddenly, once you kill off the boss, they have a moment together as they watch fireworks light off. The dialogue going on during this cutscene seems to indicate that the two (or just the girl) is in love with each other but you never get that sense up until that cutscene. Nothing ultimately happens in that scene but it’s such a weird disconnect from what went on up till that point. There are far too many moments in Oceanhorn that things come entirely out of left field with little build up or explanation. It’s possible I’m being too harsh or missing something but it happens far too often for me to think so. At the very least, the pacing is problematic in Oceanhorn and so very much done that it’s hard to really get all that interested. Not when your main character is supposed to be you and the characters around you have little to no personality or involvement in the story.

Puzzle Thoughts

If you’ve played any Zelda games, you’ve probably seen every puzzle in this game at one point or another. Puzzles are extremely standard and the only ones I couldn’t get past immediately were due to the room being unclear about the ultimate solution. A lot of them are clear blocks out of the path so I can pass by or shoot a target with my bow. There’s even platforming in the game when you acquire a boot item allowing Hero to jump. But, someone decided to tie jump and a rolling dodge into the same button. Combined with the semi-precise nature of the platforming, it was a constant source of frustration to try and jump to the next block. Often, I would instead roll off the block I was standing on and have to start the whole process over. There was one particular puzzle that had a semi-complex platforming section tied with a timer where I constantly had to reset it because I’d keep rolling off blocks. Much cursing was had. I didn’t find the puzzles to be all that enjoyable or interesting, they relied far too often on the same ideas only slightly scaled up in difficulty as you progressed along the campaign.

Combat Thoughts

The combat has the worst problems. Using a sword and shield most of the time, you’ll have a lot of slap fights with bullet-spongy (sword-spongy?) enemies in the game. They will often require a ton of hits to bring down and there are a lot of enemies per level which also happen to respawn rather quickly. It definitely feels like grinding through a level, if the experience system didn’t make that particularly obvious. Bloodstones in particular, while not enemies, seem to require 20 or so sword attacks to collect. Why? I don’t know but I thought that was a waste of time. As far as blocking projectiles/attacks with the shield, this seemed to be hit and miss on which attacks would and wouldn’t be blocked, leading to a constant source of frustration while fighting. As a whole, the system works and you can get through the game. But it’s not going to be a whole lot of fun. Oh and there are spells which are used for some puzzles and can be used for the fights. However, I found they often used far too much mana so I usually only used them for puzzles. This is thanks to the lack of an adaptable inventory system. There’s no bottles you can hang onto to replenish health or mana, everything has to be found in the levels. It makes boss fights a lot less interesting as well. 

There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 jars in this level to be broken as needed.

This is an ok fight.

Boss fights are where these problems are most notable. Several of the initial fights are easy to win with either slapping them with the sword until they die or throwing five or so bombs directly at them and then they die. Which is easy to do with the lock-on system and bombs immediately exploding when they touch an enemy. The second to last boss fight has a major problem where the boss can actually float off the level and into the surrounding deadzone, making it impossible to hit him. Eventually the game might correct itself but it was aggravating to have that happen. Especially with Hero’s limited amount of health/mana and inability to recover those two stats. There was also a constant stream of bullets thrown at Hero that would occasionally hit him even when they shouldn’t have. I hated that particular boss fight and it nearly got me to rage quit the game. The final boss fight is worse in its two stages but what’s particularly infuriating is that in order to defeat the last boss, you have to use a flute at the right time in order to win the fight. Problem is, Oceanhorn gives zero indication that the flute is the key to victory. I had to look up the solution online! What should be enjoyable boss fights ends up being long slog fests of pushing switches, breaking tons of jars to get health/item pick ups and slashing enemies until they’re dead. It really tries its best to vary things up but the base sword and shield is too grindy and lacking any real punch to it to be any fun. There’s also a lackluster set of equipment to change things up as well. I mean, only a bow and bombs? There really wasn’t any room for additional items? 

PC Settings & Port Report

It’s got a pretty OK selection of options. You have four different graphic presets including low to ultra. There’s a bunch of different options that turns various objects including clouds and soft shadows on/off. V-sync and anti-aliasing is included. Fullscreen and borderless windowed are here as well with a reasonable choice of resolutions. FPS can be set to 30 or 60 FPS locked/unlocked. In the pause screen, you can adjust speech, effects and music with individual sliders. You might want to consider lowering the music slider which I’ll explain later on. Keyboard and mouse work ok with Oceanhorn but it feels off. Not that controller is a lot better either. Some of the action keys can be rebound but the implementation limits where they can go. Mouse keys can only be rebound to other mouse keys and the same goes for keyboard ones. Why did we decide this was a good idea? No clue. It’s a big no-no.

The graphics setting menu.

The graphics setting menu.

Framerate isn’t always a consistent 60FPS on ultra/high graphic options which I have to wonder why all things considered. It will often dive well below 45 with multiple NPCs on screen or lots of special effects. The game also crashed on me once during a boss fight. I was less than pleased when that happened. Otherwise, no real serious porting problem to report.

Music and Sound

I don’t often talk about music in its own section but I think we need to talk about it with Oceanhorn. The OST isn’t fun to listen to. It took me a while to figure out what the problem was because compositionally, the soundtrack sounds fine. However, it was difficult to listen to while I was playing. To the point that I almost muted the music altogether multiple times. After talking it over with a friend, (thanks Managarmr), we came to the conclusion that it’s the mastering. There’s no real dynamic to the songs being played, no EQ being used and stereo separation is almost near zero. As a result, the songs come out in a blast of constant noise that have no ups or downs to them. It’s probably due to the developers trying to make the soundtrack sound good on mediocre phone speakers or headphones. Which is fine and dandy until you try listening to it on a 2.1 or 5.1 speaker set. Then, the issues with the mastering become self-evident. It’s too bad because I think the soundtrack is at least quite decent, if very repetitive due to individual tracks being short and constantly looped. This definitely should have had more attention.

How he holds a bow is awkward looking in-game. Like they forgot to animate it.

How Hero holds a bow is awkward looking. Like they forgot to animate it.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the frustrating part about Oceanhorn is how much this game treads the same ground so many others have in this genre. Sure, it’s one of the better iOS to PC ports I’ve seen in a long time. There’s nary a mention about touching the screen or buying microtransactions in the App Store and I respect that. Unfortunately, the game still suffers problems inherent to the mobile platform. It’s a mechanically boring game that’s a chore to get through rather than an experience to be enjoyed. The gameplay is filled with repetitive and somewhat unresponsive gameplay that completely lacks meaningful feedback to hook the player in. The optimization is questionable too. The story, honestly, the story feels like it was missing a chunk of itself. There are two dimensional characters abound and its hard to stir myself into getting interested while I’m playing. 

Oceanhorn was just a drag to get through, especially towards the end. The entire time, I was constantly reminded of what this game could have been instead of what it was doing. I was constantly disappointed every time a new mechanic was introduced or an area shown. Most of the time, what they had implemented was done on the most basic of levels, giving me nothing to sink my teeth into. Other reviewers constantly talk about how much this is like Legend of Zelda except on an iPad. This, at best, is a passing imitation to that series. I myself cannot recommend Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. 

GOG Link

GOG Link

Thanks for reading as always!

-KingIsaacLinksr

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