I admit that I am a bit on the jaded side when it comes to some of the genres of iOS games out there, but when something like Horn [Free] comes my way, all those cynical bits seem to dissolve away and leave something childlike in their wake. Maybe it's that Horn, the young blacksmith's apprentice that you play the game as, reminds me a bit of Ico (in fact, there's something distinctly Team Ico-esque about the entire games's aesthetic). Or possibly I was drawn in because this is composer Austin Wintory's first musical project since the heartachingly beautiful score he wrote for Journey. In other words, Horn has a lot going for it by means of look and pedigree.
I was a big fan of Phosphor Games' last project, The Dark Meadow, which was a similarly unique and attractive take on bringing a more immersive overall experience to iOS gaming. As mentioned before, you play as Horn, who lives in a rural village that, one day, becomes mysteriously populated with monsters. These monsters have a secret, which I won't give away here, but suffice to say helping them is going to become part of your quest. In fact, you'll actually get one of them as a sidekick, who is a bit on the ill-tempered side to say the least, but crucial to the rhythm of the storytelling, not to mention for puzzle-solving you'll need to do later in your quest.
I'm used to iOS titles having pretty barebone stories, so the atmosphere and attention to detail on Horn really stands out. I wasn't in the world for five minutes of game time before I found myself absolutely enchanted. So much so, in fact, that I found myself overlooking things like awkward controls just to spend more time investigating this wonderful world I was in.
One of the big mistakes that Horn makes is not offering the player a D-pad for movement, instead having the player touch a space in front of them (or an object) in order to make Horn advance. This just felt strange to me, and while the finger swipes worked beautifully in combat (you roll left and right with small buttons in the screen corners and attack with a swipe), they just felt weirder in world movement, especially once you add swipe-based camera control into the mix.
Making your way carefully along a narrow wall by swiping is great, though. In many other games, it would be a distraction, but Horn has so much going for it that I just took a breath and vowed to adjust. After all, I wanted to know what else was in store for me.
I can't say I've heard a lot of incredible voice acting on iOS in my day, but Horn changes all that. These performances really shine, and are gorgeously completed by Wintory's soundtrack, which goes a long way towards making an interesting world that much more beautiful. Speaking of beautiful, this moody world is simply stunning to spend time in. Crumbling ruins and long-lost cities await you, and even tiny details such as a running stream beneath your feet while you cross a ledge above it really stand out. Sometimes the game stutters while it goes from action to cutscene, but I have a feeling a patch will fix that right up, and I hope Phosphor considers one. Considering what Zelda-like appeal Horn has, I am sure that it will draw the attention of a wide variety of players, but I'm not sure that all of them will be as patient as I was when it comes to the various hiccups.
While there are lots of fun things to do in Horn aside from slashing with your sword, such as puzzle-solving, one of the inherent flaws comes out in design. As gorgeous as the world is, it's hard not to notice that some of the puzzles and environments can become a little repetitive at times. However, it's easy to forget that when you get into combat with a big monster. This was one of the most thrilling parts of the game for me, and I really enjoyed the way battle movement was set up. It's all about finding a baddie's weak spots (and what boss battle isn't), but there's something particularly invigorating and fun about the way this part of the game works, and I found myself really looking forward to the bigger fights.
Another really cool aspect of Horn is that is allows you to craft (which is called "forging"). You seek out blueprints which can be found in the world to learn how to make the gear, and then you collect resources in order to assemble it. I'm not a fan of crafting at all personally and always feel like it's a bit of a time waster, so I loved that all you did was click "create." Some will probably feel the procedure could have benefitted from being more complex, but frankly, all I wanted to do in this game was spend more time in the story, so I could care less about making weapons.
Despite it's flaws, Horn is a glorious success. It sets the bar high for what we should expect from iOS, and it really shows us what kind of adventures we are capable of having on the device. It bites off more than it can chew from time to time, but somehow, when it has so many winnings in its corner, it's forgivable. Above all, it stands as an example of wonderful ideas come to life, and it tosses the cookie cutter puzzle and physics game concepts out the window and reaches for something more. We could use more titles like it.
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