It goes without saying that the early months of the Switch saw the new console effectively being defined as a portable Breath of the Wild machine that you could also maybe play other games on if you really wanted to. Still, those who snooped around the eShop could find some gems that were certainly worth a punt, and one of those early titles was Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas.
Played from a top-down perspective, Oceanhorn was rather forthright with how heavily it was cribbing from Zelda’s playbook, but it was largely received well due to how effectively it emulated Nintendo’s storied franchise. Now, three years later, Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm has seen a release on Switch, bringing with it the promise of evolved gameplay built upon the strengths of the original. It still ultimately remains trapped in the shadow of its clear inspiration, but Oceanhorn 2 nonetheless proves itself to be a nicely enrapturing action game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The story sees you assuming the role of a nameless and mute hero who loves smashing pots (sound familiar?) just after he’s granted the rank of Knight by his father. The two live in a peaceful and quiet village, but the hero’s skills are soon called upon when a plane comes crashing down in a nearby forest, hotly pursued by a contingent of evil robotic warriors. These warriors are led by none other than Mesmeroth, an evil warlock who was defeated in a decisive battle in generations past, and it’s up to your hero to stand up to the threat by collecting three ancient MacGuffins scattered around the world and finishing Mesmeroth off once and for all.
The narrative is fine for what it is, but it’s the sort of thing that feels like it gets in the way of the main experience just a little too much. For example, your companions on this journey have some excellent voice work that does a great job of instilling them with personality, but the lines they actually speak mostly consist of thinly-veiled exposition dumps and passive commentary on mundane objects or enemies in the environment. Many times, then, it feels like the thin story doesn't add much to the overall game, but neither does it necessarily take away from it. The story is just sort of there, acting as a way of getting your hero from one point on his quest to the next.
Since the original Oceanhorn, gameplay has seen an interesting shift to a much more impressive third-person action style that still maintains the gameplay loop of the original. The core of the experience is centred around exploring a semi-open world in search of treasure chests and secrets, with the occasional enemy encounters or simple puzzles acting as rewarding distractions. Combat is handled much akin to the swordplay in the older 3D Zelda releases, although here, it unfortunately feels far less engaging.
For one thing, you have no means of locking on to the enemy you want to face, aside from when you have your shield up and are expecting a strike. As soon as you press the attack, the lock-on fails and the camera subsequently returns to its previous position, which can sometimes throw you off enough to miss attacks or get hit. It’s not a terrible combat system and it’s easy enough to get to grips with, but it’s simply off just enough that most enemy encounters are a bit of a slog.
Matters are not helped by your nearly useless AI partners, who essentially just act as walking paperweights to sit on switches or to activate levers. You can order your allies to attack specific enemies, and sometimes they even do just that, but we had one too many instances where they evidently forgot what they were doing in the heat of battle and decided either to do something else or to just not participate in the fight any longer. There are occasional brief glimpses, both in combat and in puzzles, where you can see the potential of having these AI partners at your command, but that potential unfortunately goes mostly unused.
When you’re in dungeons or just poking around in one of the overworld sections, you’re sure to come across the odd puzzle that dangles an enticing treasure chest or reward just out of reach. Rarely do these rise beyond the typical ‘bomb the wall’ or ‘light the torches’ sort of conundrums, but they still introduce some nice variety to the gameplay and make progression slightly more cerebral than simply marching through dungeons.
Part of the simplicity of these puzzles is no doubt due to the relative shallowness of the hero’s inventory, which consists of the basic grappling hook, gun, bombs, etc. These things are each used well, and some of the puzzles require you to use them in tandem in some interesting ways, but those of you with an extensive background with the old 3D Zelda games have already seen these puzzles countless times before.
If anything, that perhaps speaks to the largest issue that we had with Oceanhorn 2. It does a fantastic job of aping the core concepts of Zelda games. It has the combat. It has the puzzle design. It has the lighthearted, yet semi-serious tone. But, other than some light RPG elements, Oceanhorn 2 doesn’t really bring anything new of substance to the table. Moreover, it doesn’t execute any of the copied concepts nearly as well as its source material.
This doesn’t make it a bad experience by any means, but it does make for one that frequently feels hamstrung by its own lack of ambition. There are plenty of interesting ways in which other releases have built upon the tried-and-tested Zelda formula and made it their own, but Oceanhorn 2 seems content to simply tick off the boxes of what people like about Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time and to go no further. The final product, then, could be likened to the generic variant of a popular cereal. It’s cheaper, it’s pretty much the same thing, but that extra little bit of something that it’s missing is ultimately what makes it feel thoroughly inferior to the real deal.
Luckily, presentation is one area in which Oceanhorn 2 redeems itself somewhat. The world of Gaia is simply gorgeous, with diverse terrain, foliage, and wildlife making each area a sight to behold. Advanced lighting effects help to instil locales with plenty of atmosphere, whether that’s the shadows in an ancient temple or the light filtering through a tree canopy, and the animation remains fluid throughout. This is all backed by a relatively laidback soundtrack and the excellent voice work mentioned earlier, which all combines to make for an experience that both looks and sounds great – even if the gameplay doesn’t always fulfil its potential.
Oceanhorn 2 is a decent game, albeit one that doesn't do enough to stick out from the crowd. Excellent presentation and a clear understanding of the mechanics underlying the Zelda franchise make for a game that is satisfying and ultimately worth the price of admission. At the same time, however, a slight pervasive shallowness in the various gameplay systems keeps it from ever becoming too engaging of an experience, as it never delves as deep as it could with many of its ideas. We’d give Oceanhorn 2 a light recommendation, but with the caveat that you might want to wait for a sale on this one.