Their massive success over the years has made it difficult to call indie games niche, but they are certainly still playing catch-up to their AAA counterparts. Still, titles like Stardew Valley, Hades, Minecraft, have managed to thrive despite coming from smaller developers. What generally stood out about them was either their vibrant worlds, charming characters, or fun gameplay.
Ocean’s Heart, a top-down action-RPG developed by Max Mraz and published by Nordcurrent, has a lot of those same qualities, and while I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started playing it, I can now say that the journey was worth it.
Where’s Wal- I mean Dad?!
Ocean’s Heart’s story revolves around Tilia, a young woman in search of her father. Now, the premise may not seem particularly unique, but the way the story lets you approach it is.
The game opens with a peek into Tilia’s old life in a small town. She passes her days collecting herbs with her friend Hazel, helping her dad and sister run their tavern, and training to become a volunteer navy guard. One day, a pirate ship flying a white hourglass flag invades her village to pillage some nearby ruins, and end up making off with Tilia’s friend Hazel instead. Her dad is their particular island’s volunteer navy guard and therefore takes it upon himself to rescue Hazel, telling Tilia that he will return in a week’s time. Something clearly goes awry, as he does not return by the deadline and, six months later, our blonde protagonist decides to give chase.
As I mentioned earlier, the delivery of Ocean Heart’s plot is unique. I say this because the game’s world is VAST and full of interesting side-quests/characters. When you get sick of looking for your father (you can literally stop at any time), you can explore hidden dungeons for additional health hearts or crafting supplies, assist the games’ villagers with their requests, or simply visit the various locations around you for a change of pace.
Now, you may be thinking, “Sidequests? That’s what you found unique about the story?” But actually, yes. It’s not that the concept of sidequests is unique, but rather how Ocean’s Heart handles them.
There is no sense of urgency to continue the main plot, and the game itself puts a lot of emphasis on how much you can detour from your primary objective. Much of the things you can do are not tied to story progression, so you don’t need to focus on that in order to have a great time. In fact, there were a few instances in which I spent hours doing nothing but running around completing villager requests, exploring my surroundings, and foraging for crafting materials.
Being able to take these breaks made a fairly common story feel much more fun. I started the game curious about what happened to Tilia’s father but eventually became more and more immersed in what was going on in the world around me, and its lore. The NPCs never failed to make me laugh (especially the dude named “Man Who Takes His Carrots Seriously”) and it was rare for me to not talk to every single person in the town I was in before deciding on what to do next.
It’s also worth noting that Tilia herself is extremely funny, and her exchanges with some of the NPCs are definitely worth experiencing.
Ocean’s Heart is very reminiscent of the early Zelda games, although it unfortunately does not play as smoothly. The battle system itself is pretty straight forward. You swing your sword and equip various items (bombs, potions, etc) to take on the world’s enemies.
Things become a lot more fun, though, once Tilia begins to gain new abilities. You go from simply swinging a sword around to shooting arrows, blasting enemies with magic, and even obliterating them with a ball and chain. Crafting is also an important part of Tilia’s arsenal, as it can provide additional power-ups to survive tough monsters and help keep your HP full, especially in the early game. Having such a high level of versatility made planning out how to deal with specific enemies a lot of fun!
To be honest, my main gripe with the gameplay is the controls. I found myself frustrated with how clunky they were on more than one occasion. It was very difficult to execute precise movements or target things properly without rolling away from them or clicking on something else entirely. This is because the “interact” and dodge-roll buttons are the same, so I often cartwheeled myself into a wall when I tried to inspect an item or hurled myself into the ocean if I didn’t press on my joystick lightly enough. Fun fact: Tilia can cast magic spells and wants to be a navy guard but cannot swim. Go figure.
Now, I don’t know if it’s because I played through the game using a PS4 controller, although I did give it a try with my mouse and keyboard and there was no difference. I will never understand why developers choose to overlap buttons, especially on PC games, but I did not like it in Ocean’s Heart and it actively ruined the experience for me.
In terms of difficulty, this did not feel like a hard game. I did die a lot, but it wasn’t because it was difficult (I was struggling with the controls), and even when some parts did get tough, I wasn’t all that bothered since I was allowed to save and continue when I failed.
Ocean’s Heart’s lively, detailed environment is presented using vibrant pixel art. I have to admit I am a big fan of it despite how simplistic it is when compared to more modern games. The world felt alive in most maps, and the characters were unique enough that I could tell them apart. It actually left me impressed, because I went from traversing a forest to exploring a mountain in a matter of hours and noticed a bunch of subtle differences in the environment.
There were also hidden puzzles that unlocked all sorts of unique places to explore. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when I found a switch by the foot of a buddha statue that led me into a dungeon. The dungeon had badly drawn pixel markings on the walls which gave it character and made me feel like I was really inside some ancient ruins. These sorts of things breathed life into the world of Ocean’s Heart, despite the game being graphically simple.
The music on the other hand was a bit more disappointing. The scores were nice and they did change as you progressed or when you entered certain spaces, but it quickly became repetitive and I found myself just putting on my own music after a while.
GIRL WHO TAKES HER REVIEWS SERIOUSLY:
Ocean’s Heart is a love letter to its genre, and I feel like it’s one that does it justice. I really enjoyed this game and all it had to offer. The main story, as well as the side-quests, keep you interested and immersed in the world you’re exploring, the visuals are full of color and charm, and the gameplay, while basic, is elevated by constant puzzle-solving and exploration, making it harder to get bored. If you have it in you to ignore the clunky controls (which I did) then you will find a lot to enjoy about this game.
Review copy provided by Nordcurrent for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Nordcurrent.