If imitation is flattery, then Zelda had better take a restraining order against Oceanhorn, writes Ronan Jennings.
This is a game that makes no bones (except the skeletons) about copying Nintendo’s legendary franchise. The thing is – and here is where Nintendo might start blushing for real – Oceanhorn is more fun than Zelda has been in years.
Oceanhorn was first released on Android and IOS in 2013 and was last week ported to PS4 and Xbox One. It’s a simple, independently-made adventure game that costs just E15 and is only 500 megabytes in size. It will probably finish downloading before you even remember the name of next year’s Zelda. Yet that smaller scope is exactly what makes Oceanhorn so enjoyable – this is a game that wastes no time and has no filler. Yes, it feels like old green slippers, but those slippers have been given a modern fit and are more comfortable than ever.
If the Zelda comparisons haven’t already tipped you off, Oceanhorn structures its gameplay around exploration of towns and dungeons, as the hero searches for sacred gems that will fend away the dreaded monster Oceanhorn. In each dungeon, there are keys to collect, crates to push, jars to throw and smash, familiar switch puzzles, bosses that protect special power-ups and even master keys that open the final doors. It will feel very familiar to anyone who has played a Zelda title.
What Oceanhorn does better than Zelda (and only because Hyrule is very old news now) is build a very simple, but ultra-charming world to explore, one that feels fresh but never outstays its welcome. Just like Wind Waker, you bunny-hop from island to island upgrading hearts and beating dungeons, but for some reason the adventure RPG tropes, such as desert and water temples, never grow old in Oceanhorn. Simply put, Oceanhorn doesn’t get bloated like most big-budget adventure games do. This is a game you can pick up and play for an hour, make some progress and feel like you’ve had your fix of old-school adventuring in that time. In fact, the whole game can be finished in around ten hours.
A big part of that charm can be attributed to the music, too. This is a soundtrack partly composed by Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu, two of Japan’s most celebrated writers of music for RPGs. Newcomer Kalle Ylitalo is also credited, but the end result is perfect nonetheless. Like the spirit of the game itself, the soundtrack has real substance without feeling the need to be ‘epic’ or convoluted.
Oceanhorn isn’t perfect. The combat can be frustrating at times, simply because enemies can hit you from unexpected distances – however, there is little punishment for death in the game. In addition, your character can feel a mite slow sometimes, despite a dash button.
Nonetheless, for the price of €15, Oceanhorn is great value. It won’t match the size or scope of Zelda, but it captures the essence of that genre perfectly. Like a cover song that starts to grow on you, Oceanhorn soon becomes a tribute worthy of its own praise. Worth a sail.
Inside out now
Playdead’s Inside also feels like a tribute. It looks and plays just like Limbo, the highly-acclaimed platformer from a few years back. In this case, however, there is less controversy attached – Inside is a spiritual successor of sorts, made by the same company.
Inside tells the story of sci-fi experiments gone wrong, as a young boy desperately avoids capture at the hands of soldiers and scientists while trying to figure out who he is and what his strange powers can do. At least, that’s how the story is told from the gamer’s perspective.
Inside is a great ‘weekend game’. You’ll finish it in a handful of sittings, but the experience is worth every penny. Beautifully crafted and artfully paced.
Finally, speaking of tributes, rarely has a studio been more lauded than Team ICO. They created both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus – two of the most critically-beloved games of the last 20 years. Their next game, The Last Guardian, was ten years in development and due to release in October, but has now been delayed until December. Hope it lives up to the legacy.
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