I’ve never hidden my love of traditional Zelda games and have been lucky enough to review some really great takes on the classic formula such as Oceanhorn 2 and A Knight’s Quest. These standout titles were clearly influenced by Link’s 3D adventures from the N64 and GameCube, but my personal favourite will always be Link to the Past from the SNES and so I was super excited to take a look at Ocean’s Heart from indie developer Max Mraz. Looking like a retro-styled fusion of A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker, this was one game that looked as if it would be nautical and nice.
At first glance, you can see exactly what you are getting with Ocean’s Heart. The heart containers and magic meter in the top left corner, the contextual button items on the top right and an inventory screen that just screams Hyrule. It would be a shame to focus just on the game’s influences though, as the actual pixel art work is really good in its own right.
The various islands you visit have distinct designs and contain a surprisingly large range of different enemies that include clear homages and more original examples. Colour is used well, with the bright backgrounds ensuring that everything is clean and clear. This also makes the occasional darker moment feel more dynamic and is one of the most effective lessons learned from the SNES Zelda. The world isn’t one seamless environment, but instead has individual areas linked by flip-screen reveals in traditional fashion. I did find the camera a little odd at times with strange skips that seemed to be deliberate and an annoying screen shake function that is fortunately optional.
Ocean’s Heart’s soundtrack is pretty strong as well, although the tunes are more atmospheric than memorable. There were a couple of areas with unexpectedly ominous music alongside the usual upbeat ones. Sound effects add in some meaty explosions and sword swings as well as some nice weather effects, but as is to be expected given the game’s traditional stylings, there is no voice acting outside the trailer above.
The story of Ocean’s Heart is nice enough without ever feeling particularly original. It does, however, take a welcome step in providing a female protagonist (although her gender doesn’t have any real bearing on the game itself), with Tilia leaving her home town of Limestone in order to search for her father in the aftermath of a devastating pirate attack. The knowing nods to A Link to the Past can be seen early on as you receive your first weapon and are taught how to explore the lands and look for hidden areas. The gradual unlocking of abilities and items is also pure Zelda, with a boomerang, bombs, bow, and magic spells to find. There are new additions, such as the slow but powerful flail, but on the whole this is in the vein of a loving tribute rather than an attempt to forge a new path.
Rather than having a light and dark world, Ocean’s Heart offers up a more conventional notion of space. Travelling by foot around the various parts of the archipelago will uncover ports that serve as fast travel points and ensure that you don’t have to traipse through some more challenging areas again and again. It’s a nice touch and fits well with the nautical theme, although you will find yourself farming crafting items from the enemies between quests so won’t always rely upon sea travel.
Crafting is pretty rudimentary, but does offer up a reason to fight the various enemies and look for particular plants. The end result of this is making the gameworld feel more alive. Money and hearts aren’t dropped in combat, but you can instead sell crafting items, find money in chests or as quest rewards, and health is then refilled by edible plants or potions.
The first few hours of Ocean’s Heart do feel a little over-reliant on its Zelda influences, partly through deliberate nods and partly due to the fundamental design and gameplay mechanics. Once it gets going, though, it does start to forge an identity of its own and ends up being a really enjoyable addition to the genre. Many NPCs have suitably meta comments that deliberately draw attention to the game’s status as a tribute and this helps to make the whole project feel more heart-felt.
Dungeon design and exploration are both very good with the usual reliance on new items to make progress, and there weren’t many overly obscure or fiddly sections. There are even optional boss fights to be found by following subquests that take a more RPG approach with a handy journal to remind you of what needs to be done. One of these really showed the game’s individual tone as you had to crash a dog’s birthday party to try and reveal the identity of a notorious art thief. It was a shame, though, that many of the storyline bosses are pretty unmemorable.