In-development game Ocean’s Heart is essentially pulling a Babe Ruth, calling a shot that any reasonable game developer might balk at. While there are hundreds of indies that are inspired by the classics, Ocean’s Heart goes one step further: it invites direct comparisons in a way that feels bold and brash. And not just direct comparisons to anything in the indie space, but to one of the most successful and influential franchises of all time: The Legend of Zelda series. But for all the ways that Ocean’s Heart feels familiar, it also has a unique quirky sense of humor and a soul of its own. Comparisons to a classic like Zelda might seem like a pirate’s swaggering boast, but Ocean’s Heart‘s first impression is one of confidence and charm.
Pure Nostalgia Injection
Anyone who has played a role-playing or adventure game from the Game Boy-era and onward will immediately feel a sense of nostalgia upon starting the demo for Ocean’s Heart. The Player character Tilia starts off in a small port town, full of ships and journeyman. The music is extremely evocative, calling to mind adventures from video games past. After some meta, tongue-in-cheek banter with a townsperson (“I’ll agree not to break the fourth wall if you don’t anymore”, says Tilia, after the NPC explains how the player can reach the demo area), some conversations with villagers, guards, and shopkeepers, Tilia boards a ship with a nebbish captain and is on her way.
The pair is instantly waylaid by a sea monster, and after going abovedeck to see what’s going on, the player gets their first taste of combat. Tilia can swing a cutlass, toss a boomerang, and fire arrows with impunity. Before long, the beast is beaten back. Unfortunately, the ship still wrecks. Tilia wakes up on a shore in a pose eerily similar to how Link wakes up on Koholint Island, and the real meat of the demo begins.
More Than Skin Deep
First things first: yes, Ocean’s Heart shares a lot of visual similarity with Link’s Awakening and many other 2D Legend of Zelda titles. The cave bats are reminiscent of Keese, and there are creatures that are so similar to Leevers that any Nintendo fan will do a double-take upon encountering them. There’s plenty of gameplay mechanics borrowed from the Zelda series, too. The map is tile-based, and exploration is extremely dependent on what items Tilia has available. During the course of the demo, Tilia will use bombs to break weak blocks, arrows to activate far-off switches, and the equivalent of a Power Bracelet to lift heavy objects. But these superficial similarities are lampshaded in a way that acknowledges the developers’ love of what came before. An empty bottle salesman hilariously details the way such a device could be used: why, a player could put almost anything in there, from potions to bugs!
Once players look past the pot-smashing and statue-pushing, Ocean’s Heart reveals its fresh ideas. Tilia has something that Link never had in his 2D adventure: a dodge roll that feels just as good as, if not better than, the one from 2105 indie gem Titan Souls. Enemies in Ocean’s Heart feel smarter and tougher than the typical 2D Zelda enemy, but Tilia has agility and strength on her side. There are a few minibosses and even a tough fight against a witch that feel challenging and modern. Even when taking a beating, Tilia can scarf a few apples or berries to keep her stamina up, because Ocean’s Heart also draws on some aspects of Breath of the Wild, too.
Even though Ocean’s Heart invites direct comparisons to established classics, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that that this game knows what it’s doing and finds its sea legs. The gameplay, at least in this hour-long demo, reflects plenty of modern sensibilities like frequent checkpoints and numerous combat options. Even in the face of riddles and challenges, there is always a sense of forward momentum. Ocean’s Heart has a unique sense of humor, and it helps that Tilia is far from a silent protagonist. She’s curious and strong, and though she’s up against the fearsome pirate Blackbeard, it’s clear she’s got the gumption to stand up to him. The visual design is heavily inspired by the Zelda aesthetic, but there is enough flair and detail in the environments to set this game apart.
Puzzles are intuitive, feeling both modern and old-school at the same time. Once Tilia wakes up after the shipwreck, experienced gamers will know to follow the cardinal rule of adventure games: talk to everyone in the nearby town, and someone will eventually spill the beans on what to do next. The clues from NPCs in this island demo are just vague enough to provide a sense of mystery yet clear enough to figure out where to go next. Curiosity is a must for an adventure game, and players will feel rewarded for poking at every corner of the map available to them. There’s a particularly powerful magic spell that makes minibosses and the final fight much easier, and it’s to Ocean’s Heart‘s credit that the location of the spell is never explicitly spelled out. Relying on instinct and context clues is always rewarding in this demo and if the finished product sticks to the formula established here, Ocean’s Heart will more than satisfy Zelda fans.
For a game without a release date, Ocean’s Heart seems to be in fantastic shape. It looks incredible, like a forgotten 16-bit RPG from the mid-90s suddenly became available. Developer Max Mraz, who created the viral Bloodborne tribute Yarntown, has a wealth of experience creating Zelda-likes and puts that experience to perfect use here. Ocean’s Heart knows what it is, and for anyone who wants a shot of nostalgia without playing something they’ve experienced a thousand times before would do well to follow the journey of this upcoming game.