The action-adventure genre is, perhaps, the most packed genre in video games. Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Seas attempts to carve a niche for itself in that genre by pulling at your nostalgic heartstrings. You can see and feel the inspiration from past genre titans in the gameplay, story, and art design. Does Oceanhorn stand on the shoulders of giants to reach new heights or crumble under the pressure of being a relic of the past? Let’s take a look…
Oceanhorn begins with you taking control of the hero character and getting a brief introduction to the world. You are on an island with a hermit in the middle of the Uncharted Seas. Soon after, you learn your Father has set out to slay the ancient beast Oceanhorn and has not returned. Thus begins your adventure to learn more about your past, the history of the Uncharted Seas, and about the sea creature named Oceanhorn. You find a trusty sword and shield (your Fathers of course) and soon begin to sail island to island to piece together the puzzle of the story. One aspect that surprised me was how much time you spend on your boat in this game, and how valuable that time is. While traveling there is a mini-game of sorts where you utilize a gun to take out sea creatures, mines, and floating boxes all the while earning EXP, coins, and hearts. It is a nice way to recover your character and pass the time as you travel between islands. Additionally, every island you arrive at gives you 3 different challenges to complete. You can complete the challenges on any island to receive credit, but how they are presented almost feels like a “challenge of the day” from a mobile game. I do not see them as bad, as they often gave me ideas of different ways to interact with the game, and they give you EXP to level up, but how the challenges are presented felt unnatural.
Beyond the initial introduction, the story is straightforward. It does manage to instill a bit of charm, but for the most part, the narrative is a serviceable way to get you from the beginning of the game to the end. There were no huge twists, surprises, or anything unexpected that happened. The Hero character you play is silent, but there is some voice acting in the game for the narration as well as other characters you meet along the way. While I appreciate what the voice acting is trying to do, it is a bit below par when comparing it to voice acting in other games. It may be unfair to compare Oceanhorn to AAA games in the voice acting realm, but they went for it, and I appreciate the gumption; but if they decided to continue with voice acting in Oceanhorn 2, I am hoping for a step up in quality.
The rest of the sound design for the game is excellent. The songs and theme are memorable enough that I have caught myself humming the theme while I sit at work. Playing the game with headphones is also a treat as you can really pick out the subtly of the pieces, many of which I missed when just playing the game through my soundbar. The soundtrack is dynamic, heartfelt, and poignant. It has not moved me as much as some of the great video game soundtracks, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and scope of the score.
One of the most amazing things about Oceanhorn is the art design. While definitely not a graphical powerhouse, the game still looks solid. This is especially true when you consider the current game is a port of an iOS game that came out in November of 2013. Additional platforms and content has been added between the original release and this console iteration, but it still is impressive to look at. Crisp colors pop off the screen and help make the world feel lived in and exciting. The character models look like something you might find more at home on a Nintendo console rather than the PS4, but they fit the art style of the game. Similarly, the enemies fit their environments well and feel like a naturally occurring part of the world. The islands in the game are well designed and have their own personality and mood that is evident the moment you step foot onto them. Some are teeming with life and activity, others are barren and desolate, while others still are lush and green. While I wish this game was on Vita, the presentation on the PS4, despite a few shortcomings (most notably mouth movement during voice-acted parts) looks good.
No matter how good the story, sound design, or art direction of a game are, they can be overshadowed by poor gameplay. Luckily, Oceanhorn transitioned seamlessly into the console space. The controls are snappy and intuitive. While picking up and throwing pots or rocks, I consistently hit the enemy I was aiming at, despite there being no lock on (as far as I am aware). Arrows regularly hit their mark, and bomb placement was almost always a breeze. The mechanism for casting magical spells took a minute to get used to as the game slows down and a cursor comes up allowing you to pick almost any item/enemy on screen to target. However, soon I was fluidly transitioning from blocking with my shield, to slashing with my sword, to shooting an arrow, to casting a spell, and back to blocking with my shield without a second thought. My only gripe with controls is that X is your button to interact, and sometimes a few items to interact with were really close to one another. This led to occasional climbing ladders I did not mean to, or opening doors to leave rooms I did not intend to leave yet. The game takes you through all of the familiar tropes of the genre, including puzzle solving, exploring dungeons, chatting with townsfolk, discovering side-quests to pursue, and of course, fishing. Overall, no matter the situation, the gameplay makes your hero feel in control and on top of his game.
Oceanhorn does most things well (music, overall gameplay, exploring, having a narrative thread to follow), but there are a few things that could use a bit of improvement. I wish the map in the game had been a bit better. Island navigation is not too difficult, but when you are trying to 100% an island, being able to look at the entire island map would likely be helpful. Maybe there is a way to do it in the game, but I did not discover it. Also, leveling up is a bit anti-climactic. You get cool new abilities, especially later, but how you level up is automatic. I wish I had a bit more agency in what skills or abilities I could level up. Finally, there are boss fights in the game, but I found most of them to be pretty easy. I am guessing these would have been far more difficult with touch controls on mobile, but I only ever died to a boss once (that I can recall) and most of the fights were pretty one sided. Overall these nitpicks did not really detract from my enjoyment of the game, but I think they could have helped take my enjoyment to the next level
Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Seas is a good first entry into the action-adventure genre. The game is inspired by some of the great games in history, and while there are some chinks in the armor, I am glad I partook in the adventure.
*A copy of Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was provided to Play Some Video Games by the Publisher for the purpose of this review.*