When Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was unveiled for mobile devices a couple of years ago, it wasn't hard to draw comparisons to a certain iconic Nintendo franchise. Since that time it's enjoyed some success and made its way to other platforms, now including the Switch eShop; the question is whether the transition to dedicated gaming systems serves the title well.
First of all, let's get the comparisons to The Legend of Zelda out of the way. It's clear that the developers were inspired by Nintendo's IP, from the appearance of the hero, through to the narrative and some broad design approaches, the similarities are undeniable. That said there's nothing inherently wrong with small studios giving their spin on gaming classics, and Oceanhorn does also go its own way.
For starters, the game takes place on a series of islands that are designed with a diorama-like approach, typically with various buildings and caverns to enter that function as small puzzle areas or broader dungeons. The approach varies rather nicely per island in terms of the settings, while a core principle of linear and steady progression is at the heart of play. You can explore a little off the beaten path, but primarily you look for bridges, ladders and pathways to advance to the next section.
Our hero can't jump (though earns a form of jump later in the game), so navigation is at the mercy of environments and assist objects. You use the face buttons for simple sword combat (and yes, there's a charge attack), using a number of familiar sub-weapons, utilising a brief dash or using magic spells that you acquire. It's intuitive, as is blocking with ZR, with the lead character moving well. It's a solid template for a top/down isometric adventure.
To pick up on how smooth the experience is, it's worth noting that this certainly isn't a sloppy port, but on the contrary runs with ease on the Switch. It sails along at a buttery 60fps, and the general visual design - which is colourful and focused on chunky assets - comes across well both on the TV and in portable mode. Performance is at a high level in those regards, and the audio is also fantastic; there's a mixed bag of voice-acted lines, but the music is top-notch, with some industry luminaries contributing.
Early impressions are very good, then, and hold up reasonably well. Nevertheless puzzles and environmental designs struggle to evolve after the easy start, with a few attempts at complexity unfortunately coming across more as obscurity later on. The layered multi-level design of environments, and the linear progress they encourage, seem to hold back smart puzzle design, leaving us for the most part with simple switches and block pushing that struggle to establish a truly independent identity for the game.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas also makes much, in marketing, of the hero's ability to sail between islands. Unfortunately you don't actually control this, until you get a gun to shoot at obstacles later on. The boat controls itself, so it's worth being aware that sailing is actually a rather pretty loading screen with a shooting minigame; that's not a criticism in light of this being a download title at a reasonable price, but players should be aware of what's truly on offer.
In some respects Oceanhorn executes its ideas very well, with attention to detail and optional islands and quests to discover alongside the core story. Unfortunately its mobile roots do show, however, and not enough has been done to improve it for console gaming. Combat is simplistic and often very easy, as we're using physical controls to fight foes designed to go easy on mobile players grappling with touchscreen inputs. Enemy AI is also painfully dull, occasionally missing you entirely or walking into water to drown, meaning our only deaths came from our own sloppiness. The visuals, while nice in general play and in the environments, also needed an upgrade; characters have little to no facial expressions, scuppering some attempts at emotional storytelling, and a few animations are unfortunately crude and limited at the wrong moments.
It's an experience that has some downsides, then, but that's not to say it should be dismissed entirely. It took us around 9 hours to clear the adventure with a decent number of collectables and sub-quests completed, and it was a pleasant time. The excellent soundtrack, some pleasing environments and a relaxed vibe ensured it was enjoyable, even if the flaws of the title always lingered and made their presence felt. We may not rush back to play it again, but also don't regret the time spent working through to the final heroic confrontation.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas is an ambitious title that does some things rather well, finding a way to endear itself to players. It has a few problems, some from design choices and others from its mobile legacy that should have been adjusted for console, but what it doesn't lack is heart. The desire of the developers to pay homage to classic adventure series, but in their own way, shines through. It's a flawed title, but if you're willing to overlook those issues you may find it to be an enjoyable experience on the Switch eShop.