Sometimes you can’t have your graphics and gameplay too.
When I first laid my eyes on Horn back in March at GDC I got excited. Phosphor Games had proven that they knew how to create an interesting and great-looking world with their previous game, Dark Meadow. Sure, it wasn’t a flawless game, but it took Infinity Blade’s tap-to-move and swipe combat mechanics and spiced them up a bit. The environments were mysterious and the monsters were horrifying, but it fell short due to a complete lack of a save or checkpoint system. For a game like Infinity Blade that lacks a strong story line (or rather, builds their story line on the idea of each failure producing a new character from the same bloodline), restarting your game after each defeat made sense. For Dark Meadow, a game with an entirely different plot, this idea really worked against the it in Nigel’s review. Phosphor did a good job beefing up the swipe-to-slice combat in Horn, but it seems they still have a thing or two to learn when it comes to building a truly engaging action-adventure game. Oh, and also about proper game-save systems.
Now that the intro paragraph is out of the way, I want to be upfront and say that I have not beaten Horn. According to my save file, I am almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the game as of writing this. I hope you can forgive me for breaking out of Touchgen’s rigorous “play-to-the-end-before-reviewing” policy when it comes to story-based games. While I haven’t read any other professional reviews of Horn before writing this (a personal policy of mine), I can only imagine that there plenty of (secretly) partial reviews praising Horn for any number of it’s seemingly great out-of-the-box qualities, from the graphics to the “free-roaming” gameplay. This is not one of those reviews. It may seem harsh, but at TouchGen we pride ourselves in providing honest reviews of games we play. We do our best not to buy into the hype or the pretty wrapping that a game comes in.
Horn starts off promising enough with a mediocre intro video and a great-looking title screen. The story picks up when our protagonist, a young boy named Horn, wakes up to find himself in a strange tower. Even stranger yet, the world seems to be inhabited with stone gollum creatures that are later referred to as Pygons. You quickly discover that at their core, these creatures are actually organic animals and humans that have been transformed by some sort of curse. I love this premise, and the game does a good job giving you a glimpse at some absolutely huge Pygon monsters right at the start. The “tiny kid vs massive beast” theme will certainly draw some comparison’s to Shadow of the Colossus, but trust me, Horn is nothing like the fondly remembered Playstation 2 game from 2005.
Horn looked fantastic when I saw the short proof-of-concept demo at GDC, and while it still looks good, I was a bit off-put by the amount of muddy textures throughout the environments. In some areas the artwork felt downright lazy. One example of this was shown with the caves and doorways used to link different parts of various levels. Many of these exits were obviously empty rooms with a black texture to indicate depth, which is a very common trick in video games. Sadly, that illusion doesn’t work when you can see the wall and run into it for several seconds before the screen fades to black. On a different note, some of the levels take place at the edge of an ocean, and rather than slow-moving waves, the water looked like it was moving at 90 mph in seemingly random directions; sometimes at the land and sometimes away from the land. It’s also really bizarre when everything in the environment has a shadow except for the things that move around in said environment, including the protagonist. You might say that these are all far too miniscule to mention in a review, but I found that it was the sum of all these “little” things that brought my overall experience down well-below expectations.
According to the game’s iTunes description, one of the big sells for Horn is the idea that “anyone can fully explore and enjoy a beautiful console-style world, all controllable by touch gestures.” This is similar to what I was told at GDC, and the idea of a completely free-roaming adventure game along the lines of Ocarina of Time, and well, Shadow of the Colossus, was music to my ears. One of Infinity Blade’s biggest complaints was spurned out of the fact that you can only tap to progress through a few linear level paths. Well, I’m sad to reveal that Horn suffers from the exact same issues. Rather than controlling Horn through a virtual joystick to allow full freedom of movement, you are forced to tap your way through each linear level as if you were playing Diablo III with a trackpad. Playing through Horn on my iPad became painful due to that amount of constant tapping required while holding the device in my left hand. The lack of comfort lessens on an iPod or iPhone, but it’s still a hassle.
One other downside of creating a “free-roaming” game with tap-to-move controls is the inherent inaccuracies associated with tapping in a 3D environment. On more than one occasion I accidentally stepped Horn into a battle or dropped him off a ledge (when the ever-present invisible walls weren’t blocking me) while trying to do something else. I even had a couple instances where I would tap in front of Horn and, rather than moving forward, he would turn around and run in the exact opposite direction. All of this would have been solved with the inclusion of a simple on-screen joypad. Introducing free movement to a tap-only game seems like a good idea in theory, but if Horn is any indication, it falls flat on it’s face during execution.
Luckily, Horn’s levels are extremely linear, so tapping to move from one area to the next doesn’t feel very far off from existing on-rails tap-to-move games. Each level only has a handful of “hidden” holes to discover and crawl through for a chest or a few shards of “pygite” (the in-game currency for buying upgrades). You start off in the abandoned town of Cuthbert, which features two level areas and a on-on-one battle arena to grind out as much pygite as you can before being defeated. You then progress to a beach hub area that features two new levels and another arena. I’m assuming the same is true of the third area, but as I mentioned, I didn’t quite make it that far. There is very little to explore, and each level must be played through three times with slight path variations, different enemy placement, and off-shooting paths in order to progress to the next hub area.
As with any good adventure game, I expect the meat of gameplay to consist of two things: combat and puzzles. Horn actually delivers fairly well on the former, as the combat is by far the best part of the game. While there are only a few different types of monsters, as you progress you will fight more difficult versions that feature armor and “weakspots” that vary. The combat, while still the basic IB model (lacking counters), feels good. Watching enemy’s armor crumble from my hammer blows was great, and discovering a weakspot to do massive damage turns each encounter into something of a puzzle in itself. I did notice that oftentimes the dodge controls didn’t work during battle, locking me into getting pummeled by whatever upcoming move my opponent decided to make. Most of the enemy moves are telegraphed by a subtle “tell” to let you know it’s time to move. Learning the quirks of each enemy type was probably my favorite part of the game, even if larger boss enemies seemed to fall too easily.
The rest of the game is downright boring and filled with pointless busywork that is only loosely strung together by generally uninteresting journal entries and mediocre voice work. I have an abundance of examples, but I’ll just share two. The game features points that let you use your hooksh- I mean blue rope gun thing- to grapple up to ledges. About a third of the way through the game, these points are replaced with a Pygon creature that you have to shoot with your arrow before the grapple point appears. That’s it. The same exact same formula is applied to zip lines, which go from being readily available to requiring mindless interaction with what appears to be a Pygon creature’s gooey phallus. The second example involves a coin that splits into three shards when you approach it. You then have to back track to find the three pieces that are scattered throughout the area before you can progress. I have no idea why it does this, or what the significance of this coin is to the story, but it sure adds gameplay time!
After just a couple hours Horn goes from being interesting and mostly dazzling to being repetitive and boring. The relationship between Horn and the disembodied Pygon head he decided to keep with him could have been a great source of comic relief. I hoped for a begrudging partnership like that of the HK-47 droid from the Knights of the Old Republic games. Instead, I got a couple lines of bland dialogue after every couple levels or so. Perhaps Horn’s relationship with his Pygon “friend” gets more interesting in the final chapter of the game? It seems pretty obvious to me that at some point the Pygon will be “cured” of the curse and turn into someone quite significant to Horn, but I don’t have the patience to find out.
All that said, the absolute worst part of Horn is also the worst part of Phosphor’s last game: the crappy save system. Some of the levels you encounter require a lot of repetitive tasks to reach the end, and only a few of them feature a much-welcomed checkpoint. On more times than I can count, some sort of movement glitch would get Horn stuck into a wall or other object, forcing me to quit and relaunch the game. Upon loading my save, I would appear right back in the hub area as if nothing had happened. To make matters worse, the game doesn’t auto-save your state when you go back to your home screen to use other apps. If the game gets kicked out of the devices memory, the next time you launch it from the task menu it will completely restart the game, featuring the same unskippable gameplay video in all it’s glory. No progress will be saved, and you’ll have to embark on another journey of mindless tapping, semi-entertaining swiping, and mind-numbing switch puzzles to get back to where you were when you quit the app. Of all the little and large aspects of Horn that discouraged me, it was the combination of bugs/forced restarts and the lack of a practical save system that broke me. Even now, I simply can’t make myself finish Horn.
By now it’s painfully obvious that I didn’t have a whole lot of fun with Horn. I could talk about the extremely high in-game cost of the game’s weapon upgrade system that forces you to pay extra money to get any sort of decent upgrade without grinding the arena for hours. I could point out the poor, Gameloftesque character animations or lack of good storytelling in the game. In all honestly, I don’t feel like there’s much more to be said about Horn aside from the fact that I am thoroughly disappointed and surprised at my experience. This game showed so much promise at GDC, but now looks like the months of effort since were spent more on the game engine than the rest of the game’s elements.
As with many “AAA” titles before it, Horn seems to suffer from the same fate many iOS games have met before it. Games like Modern Combat and Shadowgun boast beautiful game engines but always fall short when it comes to things that make the game fun and unique. Gameplay, story, controls, and all the innovations that lie therein are extremely important to creating a world and experience that draws the player in and takes them along an enjoyable ride. It’s not that there is no enjoyment to be found in Horn, but one really has to get their hands dirty with the negative aspects of the game to find it scattered about. Throughout the week, every time I sat down to play Horn it was not because I wanted to play it, but rather because I had to play it for this review. It saddens me to say it, as I’ve put a lot of hope in this game from early on, but Horn is another example of how to make an iOS game that looks and sounds pretty while lacking in almost every other aspect of the quintessential “AAA console game experience”.