Promising a meaty RPG adventure for on-the-go play, it comes as no surprise that it launched as the poster child for Apple Arcade. The result of developer Cornfox & Bros’ stringent approach to creating a console-like mobile game is an experience that does not in any way play to the strengths of the platform, but that still largely succeeds as both a technical showcase and a well-intentioned love letter to all things Zelda.
At the same time, the fact that the series’ appeal is still so deeply rooted in its aping of Nintendo’s classics remains one of its major limitations. With the arrival of the fairly definitive-sounding Golden Edition, I’d hoped to see refinements and a more unique personality shine through. And while it makes great strides forward with the former, Oceanhorn 2 largely remains at a standstill when it comes to the latter.
The story kicks off 1,000 years prior to the original game. You take on the role of a budding knight tasked with heading out on a quest to unite the nations of Gaia against Mesmeroth and his technologically-advanced army. This time around, you have followers who’ll help you out in combat and can be manually repositioned by aiming and telling them where to stand. They’re fine, though a little inconsistent in their behaviour.
Gen, a samurai robot, and Trin, the granddaughter of a powerful leader, are likeable party members, and the addition of new voice lines helps to give the cast some extra life. The narrative is standard fantasy fare, but Gaia’s mix of high-tech sci-fi and more medieval designs is regularly sumptuous, now more than ever given the Golden Edition’s visual enhancements, which include new physics-based water simulation, improved animations, and an optional 60 FPS mode.
Those who remember the original Oceanhorn will know that it was played from a top-down perspective. The biggest change in the sequel, then, is the move to a behind-the-shoulder third-person view. This greatly opens up traversal and combat opportunities, especially when exploring the game’s more open, often lush environments.
These areas are generally large enough to offer reasons to venture off the beaten path without suffering from the same open-world bloat that has plagued similar titles in the past. This also means that its narrative moves along at a fair clip, as you never really get bogged down in working your way through endless side content. My concern with the Golden Edition was that it would pack in more of the filler that the vanilla release had managed to avoid. Thankfully, the latest additions prove to be quite welcome indeed.
Hidden side bosses, a deflector shield, and an extra dungeon flesh out the late-game experience and give you fresh reasons to return to previously-explored regions. But while the new foes provide a nice challenge, they also highlight the restraints of the controls and fiddly combat.
Taking on large groups at once can be monotonous, and the flow of battle still feels a tad off, with enemies either telegraphing their attacks too much or too little. And yet, I still find myself consistently surprised by the fact that it’s playable at all. It feels like we’re almost there; we’re so painfully, tantalisingly close.
General exploration and puzzles fare better than the more combat-intensive sections, and the approachable dungeons are still a highlight. Across the board, Cornfox & Bros has clearly gone to great lengths to translate what makes Nintendo’s series work, adapting the fundamentals of those adventures – the feelings, sights, sounds, and loops – while making necessary concessions and integrating some more standard features of the RPG genre, including an XP system.
It’s also interesting to see what the team has learnt or taken away from Breath of the Wild, and the answer is, surprisingly, not a great deal. Yes, there’s a stamina meter and a slightly heavier lean on puzzles this time around; however, I would say that the sequel really only dips a toe into Nintendo’s reinventive take.
Its more linear nature and greater focus on traditional dungeons will scratch the itch that BOTW never aimed to, but there is a limit to this approach that the game routinely bumps up against. Outside of being playable on mobile devices, what exactly is it that Oceanhorn offers? A checklist of tropes that, while very comfy and technically adept, struggles to cement itself as something greater than a stand-in for another game.
My problem isn’t that Oceanhorn takes a great deal of influence from Zelda, it’s that it identifies what is at the heart of those games, builds itself around that core, and largely stops right there. As a result, it never finds its own voice or reaches the heights of Nintendo’s best, lacking the narrative and mechanical boldness of Majora’s Mask or the overwhelming charm of The Wind Waker.
Oceanhorn 2 is about as solid a replacement as one could hope for on mobile, but a potential third game would do well to break free and deliver an adventure truly of its own.
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