(editor note: Oceanhorn has recently been updated to take advantage of the latest graphics and speed improvements in iOS 9 and the iPhone 6s. Developers FDG have impressed us not only with the game, but their support of iOS and the updates with just about every iOS update. If you like this kind of open world game, you won’t find better a better one.)
At first glance, Oceanhorn resembles Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, a 2003 Gamecube game which just received an HD re-release on Wii U. The more you play Oceanhorn, the more the similarities stand out. In both games, you play as a young adventurer armed with a sword and shield who sails between islands and conquers dungeons. You’ll also collect bombs, arrows, and pieces of heart containers to improve your offensive and defensive capabilities.
While it clearly uses Zelda as a template, Oceanhorn still feels like an original experience thanks to its excellent visuals and level design. The visual style is wonderfully vibrant, with 3-dimensional isometric levels that are carefully arranged like stacks of building blocks, providing the illusion of depth. Every island and dungeon is a well-crafted maze, with a series of complex puzzles and enemy encounters.
Nintendo deserves all the credit for inventing and refining the Zelda series over the decades, but some iOS developers have taken those original ideas even further. Action-adventure iOS games like Horn, Lili, and Bastion (originally on XBox Live Arcade) have a lot in common with the Zelda games, but Oceanhorn is the most sincere imitation yet, and it’s a perfect fit for the platform.
Combat in the game works very well, too. It’s quite simple– you can move with one virtual joystick, swipe your sword or charge a special attack with an attack button, and use your shield, bomb, bow, or other items with a dedicated button. You’ll have to pause to switch between items, which can break up the action, but otherwise this simple scheme works well for the game’s minion, mini-boss, and end-level boss battles.
Oceanhorn provides quite a challenge, too. Over the course of many hours, you’ll sail between islands that each have their own unique layout and objective. In one, you’ll have to procure a jar of honey to bribe a guard and open the gateway to a fire-filled dungeon. In another, you’ll explore a well that leads to a scribe’s lost tomb. Like in the Zelda games, there are plenty of optional secrets and side-quests for you to explore.
Although we loved the wide-open nature of Oceanhorn, occasionally we’d find ourselves stuck or confused about where to go next. Oceanhorn doesn’t provide much obvious direction, so you’ll have to pay attention to dialogue and cutscenes so that you know where to set sail next. Plus, we occasionally hit a few snags when navigating the scenery, with our character getting stuck in some inescapable pits due to graphical glitches. After blowing ourselves up with a few bombs, we were able to respawn somewhere safe, but this is a problem we’d rather avoid altogether.
With its gorgeous graphics, simple touch controls, unique storyline, and expansive feeling of freedom, Oceanhorn is a real gem on the App Store. So many details of the gameplay mechanics, from leveling up by defeating enemies and collecting gems, to firing pumpkin seeds at floating barrels on the open sea, feel like they were carefully thought out by the developers. If you’ve been searching for a Zelda-like adventure on iOS, Oceanhorn is the hero that rises to the occasion.