See the video version of this review at the end of this page!
For the better part of the past three years, when not furthering his education or working odd jobs to make rent, Max Mraz was independently toiling away on Ocean’s Heart. The game is a delightful adventure that apes The Legend of Zelda‘s (TLoZ) classic form unabashedly, with art direction inspired by Minish Cap in particular. When making a faithful homage to such an established classic, it’s hard to avoid being derivative. There’s a certain magic in almost every entry in TLoZ that makes the journey a delight as you solve dungeons, battle various foes, and unlock more gear for exploration. Somehow, Max has done this with great aplomb while at the same time walking his own path within the confines of the genre.
Opening on a sparsely populated little island called Limestone, Tilia awakens to another day in her family’s inn and tavern. A mundane task from her father, Mallow, sets her out into the town where she meets up with her close friend, Hazel. Upon returning from her task (which introduces the game’s basic mechanics), she discovers her humble town ransacked and Hazel kidnapped by pirates. As a Volunteer Navy member, her father dutifully sets out after them, promising to return with Tilia’s friend in short order. Unfortunately, the months go by and Tilia realizes something must have gone amiss. It’s time to take matters into her own hands. As a Volunteer Navyperson-in-training herself, she certainly has the necessary skills, but it’s a big world out there, as she soon discovers.
Like The Wind Waker before it, Ocean’s Heart focuses on family first, endearing you to the hero and raising the stakes. As Tilia journeys about the world, gathering clues about her father and Hazel’s whereabouts, it never really becomes anything more than that for her. It’s refreshing that the scope is kept so personal until later in the game when the reality of the bigger picture confronts her. While justified, her qualms seem somewhat petty, but she stands by her feelings as she marches forward. Her character is relatively one-note throughout most of the game: a slightly sardonic and fierce young woman who delights in cracking skulls in the name of justice. By late game, though, it is clear she acquires more confidence in her abilities as she goes on. The dialogue throughout is often plucky and toes the line between funny and serious as appropriate. A few typos aside, it’s well written, with a great deal of character in each interaction Tilia has.
Throughout the adventure, various NPCs pop up into your path, and it behooves you to chat with as many of them as you can. Many make idle chitchat to fill out the colour of the world, but a decent number provide tips and rumours to help you uncover the myriad secrets dotting the isles. What’s more, setting Ocean’s Heart apart from its inspiration, many citizens have quests to offer you, helping to build the world and your coffers. None of the sidequests are mandatory; players could make a speedy trip through Tilia’s adventure without them. While they are all some form of fetch quest or involve a fight at some point, they are generally well-woven little creative distractions, and some not as apparent as they seem. The implementation of the entire sidequest system is smooth, all things told, and gives you more of a great play experience.
This homage handles just like you’d expect, with Tilia rolling about the countryside (literally sometimes) and slashing enemies that stand in her way. The gameplay is simple but not to be taken lightly. Like in TLoZ, any dungeon requires some degree of puzzle-solving to overcome, and the main dungeons do have a central gimmick tying into that. But there are plenty of side dungeons to discover that don’t require a particular item, so you never feel like you’re without something to do if you haven’t progressed to a certain point. While there are many little dungeons peppered throughout the world, they never feel long enough. Even the final dungeon can be easily overcome in maybe ten minutes, depending on your gear upgrades. Small gripe aside, much of the map’s open-world nature never fades, as there is so much to find in each area, and anything blocked by a necessary item is usually intended as endgame content or story.
Ocean’s Heart differs somewhat from its source material as you upgrade your equipment, perhaps similar to Breath of the Wild, without durability or different sets. You basically have the same gear throughout the game, with slight exceptions: blacksmiths can bolster your sword and bow, while your armour gets incrementally upgraded when you glean it in dungeons or purchase it from the odd vendor (and it amusingly just happens to be a bit better than what you already own.) Finally, your hit points, as indicated by the telltale collection of hearts, can be upgraded after defeating some bosses and finding secret areas. While they’re not as frustrating to find as the numerous heart pieces in most TLoZ games, there are still many to hunt. Finally, Ocean’s Heart has a crafting system to help curtail your spending at shops. Much of the flora and fauna drop materials you can bring to a craft table and combine into helpful potions or items to assault your foes. The system offers the right level of complexity for you to invest in it, but you can also leave it entirely and not miss anything crucial. The drip-feed of simple upgrades is a satisfying shakeup to the classic formula, but each one is still an exciting opportunity to further explore the world.
Early on, you have access to a fair number of locations, but you’ll find more formidable enemies and potentially suffer more damage if you’re not careful. It’s always possible to defeat them with some skill and patience, but it gets easier as you invest in your equipment. Frankly, the game’s combat did start to feel a touch too easy after investing in the upgrade process. Aggressive button mashing and a devil-may-care attitude can overcome most bosses. That said, a hidden shrine exists that allows players a more significant challenge by taking on curses, though to what end is unclear.
While Ocean’s Heart feels like a Zelda game in almost every way, it doesn’t control as tightly. Tilia can move in any direction as she scurries about, but you roll and attack in the four primary directions. So, when you attempt to roll out of danger at an upward angle, there’s a fifty percent chance of rolling into your foe instead or having an attack fire uselessly in the opposite direction. The most frequent cause of death early on was inadvertently falling off docks into water or accidentally bumping into foes instead of actual combat damage. The game does have curatives you can buy in stores or forage for, but they’re initially hard to come by, so tread carefully. After a bit of a curve, you’ll likely get the hang of it, though gameplay never feels as smooth as the rest of the game looks. Navigating the game’s menu is a bit clunky as well, with no quick way to swap between pages. Since the options are on one of the pages, you can sometimes get stuck in the volume sliders instead of switching pages, which can be a nuisance. Again, small gripes, but worth noting.
As mentioned, this game isn’t shy about where it gets its good looks. Building from Minish Cap‘s framework, Max Mraz has crafted a beautiful world, seemingly inspired by a Scandinavian setting that its more muted colour palette compliments wonderfully. The environments are well constructed and diverse enough in their elevations and paths that you can easily get lost in exploring each nook and cranny. But that’s half the fun. Small details and diverse flora and set pieces make the various locations much more lively. This life is especially evident in some of the larger cities, as citizens march about on their daily activities or sit about the various parks, bars, and cafés. Ocean’s Heart also hosts a sizeable bestiary compared to the Zelda average, with multiple attack types to keep you on your toes. From start to finish, the game visually delights. With each new location you access, taking in new sights is nearly as exciting as the potential adventures to be found therein.
The soundtrack is lovely as well, suitably capturing the character of each town you visit and each area you explore. The cultural inspirations are evident but lend themselves well to diversifying the feel of the world and the soundtrack itself, so it never feels stale. It suitably blends into the background of the action but makes for decent listening on its own. The sound effects are solid, but some sound a bit muted, reducing their audible impact in action. Overall, though, the game sounds great, especially considering this is mostly a one-person show.
The labour of love involved in Ocean’s Heart is evident in every detail Max Mraz injected into the game. Again, the influences from TLoZ are apparent, but they’re borrowed for the right reasons and implemented expertly. It may not handle as well as a polished Nintendo product, but the learning curve is shallow, and you’ll be enjoying the moment-to-moment gameplay more than enough in no time. The game is so easy to get lost in as you want to see what’s just ahead in the next frame. Tilia’s journey is personal and compelling enough to carry you along with it. Speedrunners will likely delight in ripping through this game, while others will enjoy a leisurely adventure as they poke into every inch of the world plumbing for secrets. A magical adventure tinged with nostalgia can be hard to find these days, but Ocean’s Heart delivers a stellar, fun experience that may leave you craving more.