Ocean’s Heart is a game that overtly and deliberately puts its Legend of Zelda front and centre. It’s explicitly made for an audience who loves A Link to the Past and wants more of what made that game special. It’s a loving tribute to one of the most revered games of all time, but that doesn’t stop it from also finding its own identity among a crowded field.
Ocean’s Heart begins with Tilia, a young woman in training to join the Volunteer Navy, on a quest to recover a secret stash of booze for her family’s tavern. A simple and carefree adventure takes a dark turn when she returns to find a village on fire, in the process of being ransacked by pirates. As the pirates flee, with Tilia’s sister as their captive, her father gives chase, with the promise that he’ll be back before too long.
Six months later, he still hasn’t returned—prompting Tilia to set out on a rescue mission of her own. But such things are never so simple, and Tilia’s journey to track her father’s footsteps gets her involved in a pirate conspiracy to unearth the dangerous secrets of a flooded ancient kingdom.
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking setup, but it lays the foundation for what Ocean’s Heart does best: create a sense of adventure. Tilia’s search for her father, chasing whatever small leads she can find, takes her all over an expansive archipelago situated upon the ruins of that old kingdom, full of interesting sights, clever puzzles, and unique challenges. It brings her into contact with all sorts of curious people, most of whom have got themselves into some sort of sticky situation that they need Tilia’s help to get out of (“I wanted to make mead so I bought some beehives, only I accidentally bought wasp hives and now they’ve taken over my distillery!”). Though Tilia’s quest is a serious one, Ocean’s Heart takes a lighthearted approach to the whole thing, with plenty of opportunity for playful antics and humorous dialogue.
Tilia herself stands out most in this regard, as a hero who’s bold and brash but also a little naive, and always ready to beat up monsters and pirates in the name of justice. It’s here that Ocean’s Heart stands out most from its Legend of Zelda inspiration; rather than the latter’s famously silent protagonist, Tilia is someone who always has something to say and always has an entertaining way of saying it. Her good nature and head-first approach to solving whatever problems come her way make her someone who’s easy to get behind and cheer on.
Most of those problems come in exactly the form you’d expect from something so heavily inspired by Zelda: plenty of monsters to fight, dungeons to explore, items to help you overcome obstacles, and plenty of hidden treasures that encourage revisiting old areas as your arsenal grows. Ocean’s Heart doesn’t exactly have a huge world, but it’s rich and detailed in a way that makes exploration exciting and meaningful; passing through the same areas numerous times is inevitable, but there’s always something new to find—be that because you’ve got some new power or simply because it was well-hidden enough that you missed it the first time.
That’s classic Zelda, but Ocean’s Heart isn’t without its own ideas. The island setting makes water a constant presence, but Tilia can’t swim—falling into some water means losing a bit of health and respawning on land. She can, however, jump a reasonable distance (about two tiles), and puzzles revolving around figuring out the right, safe sequence of jumps to cross a body of water are a common feature of Ocean’s Heart‘s level design. While there are common Zelda-esque tools like bombs and a bow, they’re mixed with original items and spells that give Ocean’s Heart its own flavour even within a familiar format. That’s particularly impressive when you consider that the whole game is built on Solarus, and engine that grew out of and is still mostly used for Zelda fan-projects; Ocean’s Heart pushes what Solarus can do in terms of unique ideas, while staying true to the appeal of the genre.
Combat is the straightforward press-B-to-swing-your-sword variety, but kept interesting throughout with the regular introduction of new foes with unique quirks and your growing assortment of tools that open new strategic possibilities. Boss fights ramp things up with a wider assortment of attacks that require more deliberate strategies to avoid—there’s nothing that especially boundary-pushing, but it’s enough to keep the combat loop from growing stale and build upon the enemy types and level design ideas leading up to a given boss in a satisfying way.
Ocean’s Heart can seem a little unforgiving at first, when you have a limited pool of health and even the weakest enemies hit hard, all while you’re still getting a feel for Tilia’s movement and attack range. But things soon fall into place, and the game finds a good balance between being reasonably challenging but not brutal. A generous continue system means that, even if you do die, you don’t lose too much progress—you’ll respawn at the start of the current map, with any items you’d collected before you died still in hand. For better or worse, it’s a system you can cheese if you really want to, using death as a way to teleport to the start of an area or even to recover health, since you always respawn with one heart shy of your max. (I have no shame in saying that I abused this “feature” as much as I could, and enjoyed the game all the more for it.)
All this is dressed up in a gorgeous pixel art aesthetic that’s deliberately evocative of A Link to the Past, but still—to keep with the theme—finds its own identity within that. Ocean’s Heart draws heavily on water motifs and natural, earthy colours that help to sell its island theme in everything from its many port towns and fishing villages to the untamed wilds and mysterious ruins.
Ocean’s Heart is a game that clearly comes from a place of deep affection for the classic Legend of Zelda games, and it does a fine job of channeling those. But with its gorgeous setting and endearing hero, it also finds its own place within the space of “Zelda-likes”.
Ocean’s Heart is developed by Max Mraz and published by Nordcurrent. It’s available now for PC (reviewed).
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.