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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks... 4.5/5
Eiyuden Chronicle: Risi... 3/5
Psychonauts 2 4.5/5
Castle in the Clouds DX 4/5
Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
Thronebreaker: The Witc... 3/5
Battletoads (2020) 1.5/5
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Biomutant 4/5
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Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5

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Ocean's Heart   PC (Steam) 

Honest Beard Review    4/5 stars

“Ocean’s Heart” (“OH”) is the inaugural release by one-man Ohio-based Indie polymath, Max Mraz, published by Lithuanian mobile publisher, Nordcurrent. Mraz started work on the game in 2017, out of a simple desire to create a ‘Legend of Zelda’ homage. Four years later, “OH” was released on Steam in January of 2021, before being ported to the Switch’s Nintendo Network a year later. I had heard of neither Mraz or “OH” prior to the Steam discovery queue presenting the game to me during one of 2021’s sales, though I didn’t actually bite at MSRP or the sale during which I discovered it, instead waiting for the Winter 2022 sale and a Steam gift card given to me by MeltedJoystick’s CTO, Nick.

As a huge ‘Zelda’ fan who considers “A Link to the Past” to be not only the absolute pinnacle of the series, but the pinnacle of Action/Adventure games as a genre, I’m always on the look-out for homages and fangames that attempt to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time. Unfortunately, I’m usually disappointed, but with the Very Positive to Overwhelmingly Positive user ratings on Steam at the time of purchase, I figured “OH” might be a real winner. However, while it is impressive for a one-man project, it just doesn’t quite manage to recapture the magic of Nintendo’s Golden Age.

Presentation
Mraz was inspired to create a ‘Zelda’ homage primarily due to his contact with an open-source game engine specifically designed to facilitate the making of ‘Zelda’-like Action/Adventure games. Known as the Solarus Engine, the project started out as a ‘Zelda’ fangame, but eventually turned into an entire API and framework. That isn’t to say that Mraz had most of the heavy lifting done for him – far from it – as the Solarus Engine is as bare-bones as it gets, with Mraz creating all of the pixel-art assets, composing the music, and coding item and monster behaviors from scratch.

In spite of being based on an open-source engine, “OH’s” presentation is its strongest suit, with lovingly-rendered sprites and large, detailed environments. Really the only thing lacking in the visual department is the fact that most enemies aren’t particularly well animated, coming off as a bit stiff and making their behaviors an movements difficult to predict in combat.

Audio is excellent, with a plethora of unique MIDI-style tracks to accompany the game’s action and a range of well-designed sound effects that bring the world to life.

Technically, “OH” is pretty solid, and Mraz has proven himself responsive when it comes to fixing bugs as they are reported by users. The game features Xinput controller support out of the box, but, unfortunately, doesn’t show Xinput button prompts in the user interface. Likewise, while it is fully possible to rebind the control mappings as the player wishes, the default bindings leave something to be desired, with some nonsensical choices (the left bumper to open the menu?) that make it seem like Mraz might not have played all that many ‘Zelda’-style Action/Adventure games. Big issues, though, are nonexistent.

Story
“OH” tells the tale of a girl named Tilia who lives in a small port town with her father and sister, where they run the local tavern. Tilia’s father is also a member of the Volunteer Navy, and is training our heroine to follow in his footsteps. On a mundane day like any other, the peace is shattered when pirates raid Tilia’s village and kidnap the local herbalist. Tilia’s father sets off in pursuit, telling his daughters to hold down the fort until he returns.

A year later, Tilia’s father still hasn’t returned, nor sent word. Tilia, thus, decides to set out after him to find out what happened, taking the hourglass symbol borne on the sails of the pirates that attacked her village as her only clue. Along the way, she will meet a wide variety of mildly amusing characters and uncover bits and pieces of the history of her world.

It turns out that a pirate, named Blackbeard (original), has stumbled upon this same thread of world lore, and is seeking out an artifact – the titular Ocean’s Heart – which caused a great flood who-knows-how-long ago, and Tilia’s father and the rescued herbalist have decided to put a stop to his plans. Meanwhile, the entire Pirate Council is united under Blackbeard’s leadership, single-mindedly pursuing his goals while the Volunteer Navy… seems to consist solely of Tilia and her dad.

Generally, “OH” doesn’t have a particularly interesting or novel story. Likewise, most of the supporting characters are bland and forgettable – with the exception of the pirate fence named Honest Beard, because who could forget a name like that?! There’s a lot of in-game dialog as well as an in-game quest journal that are well-done and ensure that the player always has the right idea of where to go in pursuit of the main story thread and numerous side-story threads. However, the dialog itself often falls into Millennial- or Zoomer-style sardonic quippiness, with Tilia herself reminding me uncomfortably of Sony’s Aloy in how full of herself she can be at times.

“OH” took me about 12 hours to complete, doing every side-quest and finding every hidden item. I, honestly, would have liked it to have been a bit longer, as the story could have used more time to really explore the world’s backstory and lore, and I wasn’t anywhere close to bored with it when it ended.

Gameplay
“OH” is a ‘Zelda’-style Action/Adventure game that is, effectively, a love letter to “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” Unfortunately, it’s a love letter with many misspelled words and questionable punctuation.

You’ve got your basics: A top-down camera, a sword, a variety of tools scattered throughout the world that enable the player to take Tilia to new places or solve previously-unsolvable puzzles, and a heart-based life system that can be increased by finding specific power-ups.

But then there are things inspired by other games and a certain latter-day ‘Zelda’ game. Instead of finding money and health-replenishing items under every bush or from every slain foe, “OH” uses a “Breath of the Wild” inspired healing system, where the player can gather berries and apples, purchase bread, or brew/purchase potions that can be consumed from the inventory at will. Money, aside from coins dropped by pirates or stashes found in specific treasure chests, must be earned by gathering crafting materials from the world and selling them (provided you don’t want to use them to brew potions… which can’t be sold, oddly enough).

The ‘roll’ introduced in 3D ‘Zelda’ games is present, and uncomfortably-merged with the ‘dodge-roll’ from From Software’s hideous games. Movement in “OH” feels slow and sluggish, and there’s no equivalent to Pegasus Boots to let Tilia run. Instead, she must roll around like a tumblin’ tumbleweed in order to speed up, but this also leads to many situations where she will roll right into a monster as it pops out from under a bush or out of the ground. Rolling does grant i-frames – that annoying From Software mechanic that requires unintuitively rolling into and through danger instead of away from it, which can make combat feel somewhat off. Likewise, while most enemies are knocked away when struck by Tilia’s sword, some enemies do the reverse and knock her away from them, which is cumbersome. Enemy attack animations tend to be small and hard to interpret, with numerous enemies possessing what appears to be a short-range swipe that hits a larger area than expected. Bosses are few and far between, with most of them being simple pattern memorizations, but with a few standing out as particularly tough to read – but not actually difficult due to the plethora of healing items and consumables Tilia can carry.

Death doesn’t really carry much of a penalty, at least, which is nice. However, in an attempt to appeal to the Souls Trolls who like dodge-rolling and i-frames, Mraz decided to include a ‘Hard Mode,’ which can be activated or de-activated by visiting a specific early-game location and ringing a cursed bell. I didn’t touch it, and don’t really care about missing the associated achievements.

In addition to the ‘Zelda’ basics, “OH” also features a fairly robust upgrade system that allows Tilia to deal more damage with her weapons and resist more damage when struck. Scattered through the world are Coral Ore and Armor Upgrades. Armor Upgrades do what it says on the label – with some of them locked away behind blacksmith purchases – while Coral Ore is all-blacksmith, all the time. Taking 50 coins and a piece of Coral Ore to a blacksmith allows the player to improve Tilia’s Sword or Bow (after finding the latter, quite a ways into the game), and the difference between the starting sword and a fully-forged one is incredible.

Aside from the somewhat iffy combat, the thing that will prevent “OH” from sticking with me is the overall lack of dungeons. Yes, there are a few, and there are a number of small puzzle-caves that hide extra items and health power-ups, but… I just finished the game over the course of a week, and the only dungeon I can even remember is the final dungeon.

Overall
If it wasn’t the product of the efforts of a single person, “Ocean’s Heart” would probably be worth a 3/5. As a solo-project, however, I want to cut it some slack. It looks great, sounds great, and wears its inspirations on its sleeve. However, some of those inspirations it could do without, leading to a less-than-memorable narrative and a dearth of truly iconic ‘Zelda’-style dungeons.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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