Ocean’s Heart, a top-down 2D action RPG from developer Max Mraz and publisher Nordcurrent Games, wears its inspirations on its sleeve. It owes a lot to its predecessors, especially the Zelda series. While its ideas may not be new, Ocean’s Heart executes them with an endearing charm.
Set Sail for Adventure
Tilia lives in the peaceful village of Limestone where she helps her father and older sister run the local tavern. Tilia dreams of mastering swordplay and slaying monsters, and her father, a member of a local militia called the Volunteer Navy, teaches her when he can. Still, her life is more dirty dishes than daring deeds. That is until pirates strike and kidnap her best friend. Tilia’s father rushes off in pursuit, and when he doesn’t return, Tilia sets off after him on a globetrotting adventure across an archipelago full of danger, dungeons, and loot.
Ocean’s Heart is a straightforward tale of MacGuffins and heroic deeds, but it’s fun because it learns into silliness and whimsy. The first town you travel to is run by a cartel of lifting-obsessed guards call the Barbell Brutes. You might earn some extra coin by guarding an opulent portrait of the mayor’s dog. Even in a world full of monsters and danger, NPCs are optimistic, eager to shrug off their setbacks and give things another go. All the silliness does make big climaxes fall a bit flat, but I didn’t mind too much since it made the journey so charming.
If you’ve played any of the top-down 2D Zelda games like Link’s Awakening or The Minish Cap, you’ll feel right at home with Ocean’s Heart’s controls. Your basic actions are a sword slash and a roll that lets you cover ground quickly to approach or evade foes. There’s also the usual complement of arrows, bombs, magic, and various gadgets. You’ll need many of these to advance past certain obstacles, though some are entirely optional extras obtained from side quests. You can take down most enemies with your sword and bow, but a few have particular weaknesses, and using your other toys can be a fun way to change things up.
Ocean’s Heart has a solid variety of enemies, though some, like spinning burrowers and plants that pop out of the ground to pelt you with projectiles, were taken verbatim from Zelda. There’s a bit of jank to things too. Some enemy attacks are hard to dodge because they don’t have tells. Occasionally enemies spawn on top of you when you enter a screen. A few enemies have invincibility frames that are hard to read. Overall, combat is merely serviceable and one of the weaker elements of Ocean’s Heart.
If the gameplay of Ocean’s Heart is 2D Zelda, the difficulty curve is more Breath of the Wild. You have lots of latitude to explore, and early on it’s easy to run across a monster that can one-shot you while your sword barely scratches it. Upgrades come gradually, both in the form of ore that can upgrade your weapons and armor and the usual max life boosts, and once you’ve grabbed a few of each the game isn’t particularly challenging. This is mainly because you can carry a massive amount of healing items. By the late game, I was walking around with hundreds of hearts worth of healing, and I hadn’t even been going out of my way to stockpile. Like in Breath of the Wild, as long as you don’t die in one hit you can pop into the menu, top off your hearts with some food, and get back to hacking away at your foes as often as needed. Honestly, I didn’t mind Ocean’s Heart taking this approach. It let me focus on exploring and prevented the inconsistent aspects of combat from becoming overly frustrating.
Delving the Deeps
Exploration was my favorite part of Ocean’s Heart. It’s not an open world in the sense that some regions are gated behind ability unlocks, but even at the start, there’s plenty to discover. NPCs often chat about the local rumors, which might have some truth to them. Since there are no quest markers, these serve as helpful clues that guide you to points of interest. Ocean’s Heart is also good at encouraging you to explore with its map design. You’ll often see a cave or building in the corner of the screen out of obvious reach, and I felt challenged to figure out how to reach these. There are the standard cracked walls to bomb and secrets hidden behind destructible tiles too, but these tend to be small bonuses for those who keep a keen eye out. The rumors and tempting map features have the best rewards.
Ocean’s Heart also features a nice variety of side quests. Some are simple tasks that let you earn a bit of extra cash or materials. Others are substantial multi-stage undertakings that span much of your playthrough and reward you with new abilities or upgrades. Some of the quests amount to the usual go somewhere and kill a monster, but others might require you to solve a puzzle by pushing blocks, track down an elusive NPC, or interpret a cryptic inscription. The simpler sidequests often lean into the silliness too, given by NPCs with colorful personalities or eccentric ideas.
The main questline of Ocean Heart takes you through several longer dungeons, filled with the usual array and switches, traps, and locked doors. These felt surprisingly familiar, to the extent that I almost always knew intuitively where to find the key or switch I needed to advance. Again, if you’ve played 2D Zelda you’ll feel right at home. The dungeons are mostly well designed if a bit derivative, but I did encounter a few issues. Occasionally Tilia has to jump on platforms, and the controls for this can be finicky, making falls that send you back to the start of the screen annoying common. And in a couple of cases, I managed to do something that got me permanently stuck and had to reset the game, losing some of my progress.
Ocean’s Heart looks and sounds quite charming. The pixel art is full of bright, vibrant colors, and effects like falling leaves, rushing water, and smoke billowing from chimneys make the world feel dynamic and alive. The game also excels at using visuals to draw your attention to important details. Significant NPCs often have a distinctive look, and Tilia’s blue tunic always pops out from the background so you never lose track of her. Likewise, memorable architecture and landforms serve as natural landmarks as you travel across the islands.
The music has a playful charisma, and I found it kept growing on me the longer I played. Lively towns are set to bustling jaunts, while overworld regions have distinctive and intrepid lilts. Even when you delve into ancient ruins and the music becomes more mysterious and plaintive, it never stops conveying a sense of momentum. Ocean’s Heart wants you to feel excitement and optimism when exploring its world, and the music is part of that.
I do wish Ocean’s Heart had more in the way of customization and convenience features. Sword and roll are mapped to B and A on the Switch when I would have preferred Y and B. There’s no option to rebind the controls though. Likewise, a quickheal button or some way to cycle through equipment would have cut down on the tedium. As it stands, you spend a lot of time navigating menus, since you often need to heal or equip a particular item to pass some obstacle. Neither the shoulder buttons nor the D-pad is used for anything, and so could easily have served these purposes.
Ocean’s Heart is a charming adventure, even if none of its ideas are new. I would have liked a bit more polish and consistency in the mechanics, but Ocean’s Heart’s sense of discovery and whimsical fun was enough that I enjoyed my playthrough.
OCEAN’S HEART IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to the publisher Nordcurrent for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.