Horn, a new action adventure game app developed by Phosphor Games, takes us one step closer to closing the gap between gaming on mobile and console platforms, a divide that's also being bridged by the development of new and more powerful smartphones and tablets. Taking many of the steadfast elements that we expect in our console experiences and translating them seamlessly on to iOS devices, Horn is sure to blow fans away.
After playing Horn, there's one thing of which I'm sure. Phosphor Games loves the Legend of Zelda series as much as I do. Horn pays homage to the iconic action adventure series, emulating a number of the mechanics including its interesting concoction of action, puzzle solving and sparse RPG elements. However, that's not to say that Horn is a mere copy of the past. While outside influences are certainly noticeable, Horn combines those elements with its own unique narrative filled with imaginative characters and witty banter, giving this title a life of its own.
Horn follows a number video game tropes. To begin with, players assume the role of Horn, an orphan with a convoluted past who has taken to being a blacksmith's apprentice. Through a series of unknown events, Horn awakens to find his world and its inhabitants transformed. With all of humanity now cursed to take the form of golem-like creatures known as Pygons, it falls upon Horn to reverse the curse and save his world.
Yet, while Horn may start out like so many action adventure games before it, once the story matures, it reveals its own identity. Without a doubt, the driving force of the narrative lies in the dialog, particularly the relationship between Horn and his begrudging Pygon companion Gourd. Unfortunately for Gourd, he lost his head (literally) in his first encounter with Horn. He now finds himself an unwilling companion on Horn's journey. The sharp jagged edges of Gourd's skull are only matched by the cutting wit that emanates from the creature's mouth. It quickly becomes apparent to players that Horn and Gourd aren't particularly fond of each other, as each will take any chance he can get to make a jape at the other's expense.
However ,through their banter, both characters show a great deal about themselves and their respective worlds. In addition to fantastic writing, the dialog is matched by superb voice acting that is sure to make players tune in. Accompany all of this with beautifully crafted static cut scenes (similar to Fable) and you get a narrative experience unlike any other seen on the mobile platform. Never before have I found myself so invested in what characters had to say in a mobile game.
Another catalyst for this epic adventure is its serene dystopian art style. The crumbling wasteland offers an interesting contrast between majestic skylines and crumbling ruins. Though this is a land in great peril, the colors are vibrant, breathing life into the world and adding to an ongoing dichotomy between the struggles of humanity and the current peaceful state in which the world resides. A great level of detail has been placed in the world's atmosphere. Coating every corner are beautiful lighting effects and minute details, such as falling foliage. The only downside is that the environments become somewhat repetitive as the game continues. Players will find themselves entering rooms or areas that feel all too familiar as the same design concept is iterated more than once. However, while not ideal, the somewhat repetitive level design can be forgiven considering how wonderful everything looks.
Players will also find a wide array of Pygons which beautifully complement the toppled ruins of humanity. Breathing creativity into the world, the Pygons span a wide spectrum, from the small bird-like chopper Pygons whose darting patterns decorate the skyline, to the larger than life leviathans who make the world tremble in their wake. Best of all, though, despite their varied natures, each Pygon seems fully at home within the scenery, further augmenting this immersive experience.
In addition to the gorgeous scenery, players can also expect a masterful soundtrack from Austin Wintory (composer of PS3 title Journey). Much like the old action titles that Horn draws its inspiration from, the soundtrack is used to add an emotional element. The backtrack reiterates the magnitude of this grandiose tale. When players find themselves cornered by enemies, the soundtrack highlights the severity of the situation.
Horn suffers from split personalities, but I mean this in best sense possible. One minute, it pushes you to explore and solve puzzles. The next, you are locked into an epic battle with a giant armored Pygon. The two different game modes complement one another quite nicely and also serve to add great pacing to the gaming experience.
Horn is able to bring these two distinct styles of play thanks to its natural touch interface. When in exploration mode, players will be able to fully explore the 3D environments. Clicking on the screen sends Horn to that location. Swiping up at a ledge will cause Horn to scale it. Jumping across wide gaps requires players to quickly tap the edge for Horn to grab hold of it. Every action meshes with the corresponding control, making navigation feel natural.
Combat controls differ a bit, as Horn will only be able to navigate right or left by dodging via the two corresponding buttons that appear on both sides of the screen. Players will also be able to throw bombs and consume potions thanks to the two additional buttons placed at the top left of the screen. Swiping your fingers across the screen will cause Horn to attack in the direction swiped.
Overall these controls work quite nicely. However, due to the lag that can occur with touchscreens players, will sometimes find they are unable to dodge incoming attacks. Also, with some attacks (specifically from bosses or difficult opponents), depleting large portions of Horn's life can become somewhat problematic. Still. for the most part, the controls are well thought out, as the fluidity of the touch controls is actually a huge advancement over simply placing an awkward d-pad for players to use on the touchscreen.
Although the controls are occasionally problematic, when everything is going smoothly the combat is a pleasure. It is simplistic in that all the players really need to do is to dodge incoming attacks and land attacks on their enemies. Yet reading the enemies' attack patterns to land devastating combo slashes can be very rewarding.
Additionally, some enemies will be adorned in crystalline armor that makes them impervious to attacks from certain directions, meaning that players need to be even more tactical about how they approach each fight. Finally, each Pygon has its own weak spot. When HORN is able to attack that area enough times, this will reveal the enemies' weak points, allowing players to drop enemies exponentially faster. Again, while somewhat simple, the core combat mechanicss will have players frantically swiping their fingers to vanquish foe after foe.
Another area where the game opts for simplicity is in its puzzle design. Old-school gamers will be rushed with feelings of deja vu, as many of the puzzles are reminiscent of the similar puzzles found in the first few temples of most Legend of Zelda titles. In fact, the game even has its own magical instrument, a horn that when played alters the world using an old and mysterious magic (I'm looking at you, Ocarina of Time.)
Unfortunately, while the game does offer some interesting puzzle mechanics, the puzzles never progress beyond a rudimentary level. The horn, for instance, is used in a great deal of puzzles, but it can only be used at certain pedestals and the game automatically chooses the corresponding song needed to solve the puzzle.
Players, though, will find themselves enticed to explore the beautiful landscapes and fanciful creatures in Horn's world to unveil the game's numerous unlocks. Thanks to Horn's blacksmithing abilities, players will be able to create and wield new weapons and equipment, all of which harbor their own unique stats and abilities. However, to build these powerful upgrades. Horn must collect blueprints along with the required resources. Players will find these blueprints and resources scoured across the land in dark caves and reclusive recesses, giving them just one more reason to extend to every corner of the map.
The numerous unlocks can also add some replay value to players. With loads of trinket and weapon blueprints sprinkled throughout the world, not to mention a number of available character costumes, there's plenty for players to unlock.
Chances are that players will still find plenty to do even once they've completed this 10-hour epic.
To say the least, I was surprised by Horn. I still find myself skeptical that mobile gaming can fully reach the same heights of its console counterpart, but titles like Horn might come to change my stance.
Is Horn perfect? Of course not. The controls are still a bit clunky and the simplistic puzzle design will leave many gamers wanting more. Regardless, Horn offers an unrivalled level of production value for the mobile platform. The static cut scenes and landscapes are beautiful, and Gourd and Horn's relationship serves as a great catalyst for telling this epic tale.
While Horn certainly has its faults, players will be hard pressed to find a better 10-hour experience for the price of $7 on any platform. If you're an old-school gamer who's looking to relive the glory days of action-adventure titles and epic quests, do yourself a favor and pick up Horn.
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