It’s hard to believe that Horn is made by the same company that publishes Words with Friends and Farmville. It bears the mark of their freemium model, but beyond that, Horn is a console quality Adventure-RPG on the iPad. The game carries DNA from both Infinity Blade and The Legend of Zelda, but what makes the game worth playing is its original story. The gameplay is simple and immersive, but is marred by some bugs. Players with the newest devices will find a game that uses all the available power.
Horn is a blacksmith’s apprentice and orphan, raised by his aunt. He awakes in a tower after sneaking out one night and his only clues are a crystal shard and a magic horn. It doesn’t take him long to find out that all living things in the world have been transformed into Pygons, which are magical robots only vulnerable to Pygite crystals. It’s fantasy, so don’t poke too hard at the mythology, but it’s enough of a pretense to send Horn to the forge to create weapons to fight the Pygons.
As you defeat Pygons you free the deer, squirrels, and birds trapped inside (which might also make Horn a descendent of Sonic the Hedgehog). Some of the major bosses will actually contain humans, like Horn’s aunt or the village elder. The game lays out the story in two forms: there are long cut scenes that explain the base elements of the plot, but players looking for more detail can read through the journal entries that give tons of background details. The journal entries of the first town’s founder are particularly funny, as they are peppered with commentary by his snarky nephew.
There is actually a fair amount of humor in Horn; he has a sidekick of sorts that allows for some funny exchanges. Gourd is the first Pygon Horn finds, and Horn ends up wearing Gourd’s still-living head on his belt. Gourd is always insulting Horn or humans, and their interchanges are amusing. Gourd does a lot to make the Pygons feel like more than soulless automatons. Though he’s always with Horn, Gourd is the main voice of the enemy.
Horn wears its influences on its sleeve; the game is heavily influenced by Infinity Blade and Legend of Zelda. The combat will be instantly recognizable to Infinity Blade fans, as you slash to swing your sword and there are arrows on either side. Instead of dodging, these arrows have Horn roll to one side or another to avoid an attack. This actually makes combat a fair bit more dynamic than Infinity Blade. There are quick time events, which are always a jump and slash attack. It’s a cool animation, but it could have used some polish to make it feel less repetitive. There are a few two-stage battles that knock the enemy into another area at the end of some of the missions, but unfortunately this mechanic was used sparingly, since using this mechanic more would have made the battles feel like they were more integrated with the world.
The exploration takes its cues from Legend of Zelda. Horn runs around based on where you touch in the world. You can jump small gaps, but larger gaps set up a sequence where you have to quickly tap the other side and swipe up to have Horn catch himself and climb up. Ledges have a similar sequence, all of which have the tutorial animations in case you’ve forgotten. The game really uses touch well, really, really well.
There’s a mechanic where Horn uses an arrow on his wrist to aim around. This becomes a big puzzle mechanic early on, in addition to allowing you to shoot down flying enemies for supplies. This is another nice touch interface. You can drag and aim with one finger, and pull back an indicator with another to fire. Though it’s nothing fancy, it does show that the entire game is designed around touch rather than trying to emulate console controls.
The game cribs musical magic from Zelda as well. Horn has a magical horn that allows him to learn magical songs that allow him to change the environment around him. You only have to actually play the songs once, after that they are triggered by finding little megaphones scattered throughout the level that trigger a certain song.
The gameplay isn’t without bugs. There isn’t anything show stopping, but there were several times I had to reload the app because Horn got stuck in a weird spot in the terrain. There are other times where the pathing doesn’t seem to work correctly either; you’ll need to ensure that you’re not asking Horn to walk around anything, since he really only walks in straight lines.
The world of Horn is set long after the Pygons have taken over and let the entire world become overgrown. The levels are all based around themes, so there tends to be overlap in their design, but level to level there is enough to look at from one scene to the next. Each town has two sublevels with three missions. These missions create a lot of variety by giving you alternate paths. This means that though you’re seeing the same overgrown barn from two or three different angles, each time it may have different hidden items to search for. The sand temples have a unique feel all their own with more twists and hidden caverns than the first level. The levels are given a lot of care and design, which contributes to the polish of the game.
The enemy design is probably the most generic thing about this game, as there are only a few variations. There are five basic types of Pygons: four legged animal types, big round goons, tall spindly enemies that flip around, a spinning type with blades for hands, and the giant colossuses at the end of each level. (There are a few other kinds of Pygons that are really more part of the level, so they’re emitted here.) Colors and weak points change as you advance through the levels. The enemies are designed very well, but there could have been more variety. The later levels debut some variations on the themes, but it never feels like entirely new enemies.
Horn, the main character, is one of the best parts of the game’s design, as the modeling is clearly expressive. When you get to the first colossus battle, you can see hesitation on the Horn’s face while still in the game engine. This gives the game emotional resonance, and helps the player really connect with the character. It’s a crucial moment that reminds you that Horn is just a kid, and that he isn’t some grizzled veteran. It’s something that you don’t see done in many games, and Horn nails it perfectly.
Games like Horn show exactly how far iOS gaming has come, driven by Retina displays and powerful processors. The Unreal Engine is likely one of the game’s biggest assets, allowing it to output some fantastic visuals. However, that wouldn’t do much to elevate Horn beyond the realm of an Infinity Blade clone. What really makes this a great games is the care that went into crafting a character the player can graft themselves onto. There are long stretches where you’re simply crawling through ruins and solving puzzles, which like Zelda or Shadow of the Colossus, gives the player a lot of time simply being the character, rather than being pushed in and out of the story. It’s pretty classic game design, and shows the kind of quality you can get in the App Store. This is worth the $6.99 it’s selling for.