I love the Zelda series. Really love it. I remember receiving Links Awakening one Xmas day and playing it so long that day that I could hear the theme tune hours after taking out the earphones. I discovered every secret, every collectible and every strategy all on my own through constant play. I then bought Link between Worlds for my SNES almost straight afterwards and did the same with that. My first preorder for a day one purchase, and the first game I was majorly hyped for before its release, was Ocarina of Time. I 100% completed Breath of the Wild and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel. I would definitely consider myself a major fan of the franchise.
And I'm obviously not the only one. The series is celebrated for its gameplay with many arguments over which entry is the best.
Which brings me to today's review...
The inspiration for Oceans Heart is pretty obvious from the onset and it wears this influence upfront for all to see. It's a love letter to the old school 2D Zelda titles, honouring the series in a pretty noticeable and recognisable way, but also introducing enough charm and fun of its own to have it feeling like a loving homage rather than a rip-off or clone.
Story wise we begin with our heroine, Tilia, waking up on her home island. She is most interested in learning sword play from her volunteer navy member father, and would train all day if she could, but reluctantly begins the chores needed to keep the family Inn running. Tasked with heading up to her father's secret stash to bring down his special booze, she makes her way through the hidden tunnel system only to be interrupted by what seems to be an earthquake. Rushing rapidly to the surface however she finds her small village under attack by pirates. As they fire cannons into the village, chaos ensues, and one of Tilias friends is kidnapped by the sea faring invaders. Tilias father, in his role as a Volunteer Navy member, has a responsibility to rescue this captured villager and sets off to hunt down the fearsome pirate crew....
And isn't heard from again.
Months pass, and Tilia becomes more and more obsessed with going after her father, fearing he too has been captured.
Eventually she can take it no longer, and after strapping on her trusty sword, she books passage to the nearest port city where she can begin her mission of finding her friend and father.
The narrative that unfolds from then on is well written and full of fun lines, little jokes and rather humorous world building. Alongside the main "find your missing friend and father" storyline are a large number of side stories, ranging from the extremely basic (kill all the monsters eating my carrots!) to the much more interesting (like an investigation into a corrupt businessman and his bigotry). It really helps build the world and I found myself enjoying talking to everyone I met, not just for the chance of a clue to a treasure or side quest, but simply because the writing was well done with a humourous slant throughout.
It's also a very pretty game. Bright colourful sprite work abounds and all the different locations look great. Plants, flowers, trees and foliage are liberally spread through the beginning areas giving a real beautiful forest aesthetic. Towns and seaside's, caves and temples all look great too with the overall style and feel being genuinely top tier, worthy of being mistaken for Nintendo’s own work on its Zelda games.
Gameplay wise things will be instantly familiar, in many ways, to anyone who has played the 2D Zelda games like Link between Worlds, Link to the Past, Links Awakening or similar. It's a top down action adventure. Throughout your adventure you'll acquire a number of cool little tools, gadgets and magic abilities that grant you access to previously inaccessible areas and give new ways to deal with enemies. Grass and plants are everywhere and you can find goodies by cutting them down with your sword. Pots are numerous and spread everywhere and are, of course, able to be smashed till your hearts content. Collecting Heart Containers will give you more health. Tilia even holds newly acquired items above her head in a victory pose, just like Link does.
So like I said at the beginning, it's pretty obvious where the game takes its inspiration from. As a lover of the Zelda games, I found this great as I can never get enough of the franchise and was delighted to see something that paid homage to the series.
It does have elements all of its own though, and these elevate the experience from a clone to something with more of its own identity. Most obvious of these is how little hand holding takes place. So many games now will give you a big "go here" arrow with every mission, ensuring you don't need to do anything but head towards it, but Oceans Heart is different. It does feature a log book, where every main and side quest is recorded along with the information you've uncovered so far but that's it. You have to work out where to go and how to get there. Generally you're told it's West or East from a certain landmark and you then have to explore to find the next location. Reading signposts can help but with many branching paths and hidden side locations to explore, setting out into the unknown has a sense of adventure that is missing in many games now. Hidden cave mouths, chasms and towers are scattered throughout the world, so heading off the beaten path is something you should definitely do. Often I would be seeking a path to one location but would end up stumbling upon somewhere totally different instead. Coming away with some optional powerup, item or magic spell is truly rewarding and makes exploration something to look forward too.
Upgrading your weapons and armour is in here too. Instead of finding new equipment with better stats, you instead find special crystals that can be given to a blacksmith (along with some cash) to upgrade your equipment to its next level. You can choose what to upgrade as well, if you find yourself being hurt a lot then putting points towards armour might be the choice for you. Enemies taking a while to kill? Choosing your Sword or the Bow (when you get it) is perhaps a better choice. It means you don't get an inventory cluttered with old crappy items and keeps things streamlined.
There's also a crafting system that, while not particularly deep, gives a reason to collect all the flowers herbs and stuff you find upon your adventures. Where this primarily comes in, and is especially useful, is in creating powerful healing items from the less effective beginning ones. Berries for instance heal only half a heart, which is fine at first, but quickly becomes ineffective by early mid game. Mix together a few bits and pieces though, and you have high level healing potion instead. There's other things to make too, potions and items of various types, and finding a new ingredient might mean something cool can be made.
Combat is, for the most part, familiar and that's no bad thing as it provides a foundation you'll know well but does build to become a little more interesting than you'd expect. At first it's rather bog standard, you have a sword button, a dodge button, and two buttons that you can assign items, gadgets and spells too. The beginning enemies can easily be beaten by spamming a few sword slashes, with maybe a dodge roll at most needed to stay out of trouble. Quickly though things begin to get a little more intense. Enemy variety is huge here, with each location having its own unique creatures and monsters to overcome. They quickly need specific items to deal with effectively and chopping and changing items to find the best strategy becomes a necessity. This applies even more so to the bosses, which are each very well designed and fun to fight, requiring use of different items and techniques if you're to ultimately defeat them. It felt for me that many opponents required some thought, and became more challenging than the norm, with the greater range of enemy types being something I particularly enjoyed.
It does bring me to the only flaw that I noticed in my time with Oceans Heart though, even if it is just a small one that might not be noticed or even accepted by other people. It's the controls. They feel a little...rigid? Stiff? Yeah a little too tight. Movement doesn't flow like it should with diagonal movement in particular feeling less smooth than the vertical or horizontal. Rolling to dodge also felt off slightly, not as smooth or controllable as it is in some more recent top down titles like Enter the Gungeon or Children of Morta. There was also a stickiness when swinging the sword that made changing direction a minor problem occasionally, at least for me. When spamming attacks in one direction, say up the screen, you couldn't then change direction quickly, to face left for instance, while constantly pressing the button. You had to stop attacking, change the way you're facing, then begin attacking again. I don't know if it was just me but my muscle memory or gaming instincts fought against this constantly and it took a little while to get over it. Now it's probably an intentional design choice to include these "flaws" as the 16bit era games that this title is referencing definitely played like this. It was before twin-stick controls, back when games were all Dpad controlled, so moving smoother on the vertical/horizontal were part of the control mechanism. I would have liked them feeling a little more modern, just as a personal choice, but how much this will bother you, or even if you'll notice it, will be entirely different from person to person. Regardless it's a miniscule niggle, something I'm including just as due diligence for this review.
Ultimately, if you're a fan or like The Legend of Zelda you'll probably really enjoy Oceans Heart. It relies heavy on Nintendo’s series for its gameplay elements with everything from the combat, dungeons, items and puzzles all showing its influence up front and centre. It does have its own little things, like crafting, but nothing that feels like it's unique or new. Everything is done well however, be it the pixel art, the story, the puzzles, the exploration or whatever, you'll definitely find it a fun and enjoyable experience. Go on expecting a unique and new experience and you might be a little disappointed, if you want a classic feeling and well executed Zelda style adventure though? You can't go wrong with Oceans Heart. If you need your fix before Botw2 comes, it's worth picking up!
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 8/10
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