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Codename: Ocean Keeper Makes a Splash

Dive into an all new underwater rogue-like title with G.URL!

My quest towards genre expansion through review continues, and this time I was led straight into an up and coming game titled Codename: Ocean Keeper. Although the developers over at RetroStyle Games possess quite an extensive portfolio of projects, this new title seemingly marks a shift in direction for them. Their website classifies them as a “game art outsourcing company.” Admittedly, in the past they’ve worked on art for the sort of app store pay to play games you might see a Danny Gonzalez video about.

A selection of games from RetroStyle Games portfolio

That being said, even their graphics for Merge Hotel showcase strong artistic capability and stylistic flare.
Aside from their work on these outsider titles, RetroStyle Games has been the sole developer of quite a few of their own app store games. However, they are now, seemingly for the first time, branching out towards more console and PC oriented titles with two titles of their own under active development. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the beta of their most anticipated title (Codename: Ocean Keeper).

Ocean Keeper launches you down into the depths of the sea in a submarine-like mech and right off the bat, it looks and sounds great! It’s got this droning eerie music and constant underwater bubbling sound in the back that completely tenses up whenever enemies start to approach, changing to a more urgent and futuristic score. There’s a great underwater texture overtop of the environment and all these coral reefs and shipwrecks to pass by as you explore.

Gameplay from Codename: Ocean Keeper

A brief tutorial introduces you to the gameplay loop. You must scour the ocean floor for caves, and leave the mech to go inside of them to harvest materials using a digger tool. There’s an interesting gravity mechanic inside of the caves that complicates this goal, as it takes time to drill the materials and, once you have them, they weigh you down and slow your journey back to the mech. You use these materials to upgrade various facets of your mech and digger. You have a minute in between rounds to gather as many materials as possible before a horde of aquatic monsters swarm and attempt to overwhelm your mech. This is the basic gameplay of the game, and it is directly inspired by the recent success of Vampire Survivors (which I interviewed in my last article and highly encourage you to check out).

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I will try to refrain from comparing the two excessively since Vampire Survivors was cited as a huge inspiration for Ocean Keeper from the beginning of its development anyways, but the parallels do provide a solid framework for expectation. Ocean Keeper feels a lot less free flowing than Vampire Survivors. The player is thrust into action in Vampire Survivors, they must strategize on the fly and you can never really stop moving. Ocean Keeper is slower and it feels like your objective is always changing. Where the time mechanics present in Vampire Survivors measure the length of the player’s survival, the time mechanics in Ocean Keeper feel far more restrictive and more like a countdown towards the player’s doom.

The rogue-like protagonist of Codename: Ocean Keeper

The upgrade screen pops up in Vampire Survivors during the gameplay as you level up, and it doesn’t feel as though it stops the action. The options are more random or luck-based, and there are even power ups you can stumble upon organically. In Ocean Keeper you must hit the tab key to launch the upgrade menu, and you more or less purchase them with the materials you found. This would all be well and good, as the goal of Ocean Keeper should not be to become Vampire Survivors, and I do think RetroStyle Games did a great job balancing the inspiration enough to where it does not come across as a copy.

Rather, I compare the games to highlight the larger issue I feel looms over Ocean Keeper; it feels rather claustrophobic altogether. In some ways, that’s how it should feel. Games like Iron Lung, through a very different gameplay experience albeit, translate the same underwater confined sub-mechanic into a vessel for horror. The similar aquatic environment of Ocean Keeper does, at times, work to create a sense of pressure. The clunky slowness of moving across the ocean floor in the mech, the confined space in the caves, and the accumulation of weight as you gather resources all make thematic sense to me.

The atmosphere really adds to the dread of it all, but what I feel the game is lacking is the risk and reward of a survival game like this. I get this sense that after all of the build up you’re given none of the pay-off. It doesn’t need to be as loose and fast as Vampire Survivors, but it should reward the player for their efforts. There’s so much gratification when you advance or survive longer in Vampire Survivors, and the player gets a real sense that their upgrade choices will affect the game proper. However, doing the same thing in Ocean Keeper can feel lethargic. I love an appropriate level of challenge in a game, but the gathering of resources in Ocean Keeper felt a bit too much like a chore. Then, even when I was able to get a good amount of materials, the base upgrades felt too lackluster to change my experience of the gameplay loop. There are upgrades available that would undoubtedly spice things up, but I could never gather enough resources to buy them.

Gameplay from Codename: Ocean Keeper

As a result, the countdown in-between rounds starts to feel less like a fun mechanic to add onto the challenge and more like a suffocating reminder that you’re probably not going to be able to get what you need in time. I could typically survive for the first few rounds, and tried to upgrade my digger to see if I could speed up the process and power up enough to survive longer, but I couldn’t. I think that there simply were not enough resources available in the caves to justify the slow player speed alongside the countdown. It would’ve perhaps landed for me if you were digging for the powerups themselves, rather than the materials needed to buy them, or if there were enemy drops that sped up the process.

However, the lack of more instant reward or upgrade can often make the game feel stagnant and insurmountable. I think, too, that this is a game that would benefit from some lore. Vampire Survivors doesn’t explain a whole lot, but it works for that game because of how fast-paced it is. Ocean Keeper truly does have such an ominous and interesting atmosphere that I think the slower gameplay could be enhanced for the player if there was a purpose to exploration other than the sole gathering of materials. I could see how adding an element where you uncover the lore of this environment, whatever it may be, could bridge the gap between the gameplay and the goal of survival because, unfortunately, the two feel in opposition to one another as it stands.

Gameplay from Codename: Ocean Keeper

Overall, Ocean Keeper is a game with a lot of potential. It’s entirely possible that someone else may play this demo and enjoy the way it plays as it is, but this was just my personal experience. I found myself yearning for more to happen. Some spontaneity! I didn’t want to know exactly when the monsters were gonna come. I wanted to find my own power ups in the world naturally by exploring instead of simply buying them from a menu. I wanted some narrative supplements to flesh out this interesting atmosphere they’ve established. That being said, it’s also important to keep in mind that the game is still in beta, and there’s still room for these things to happen. Regardless, I know I’ll be following this title closely as it continues to develop because I’m fascinated to see the final result, especially if it turns out that they expand on some of these elements.

Keep an eye out for Ocean Keeper!

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Annika McCabe

Annika McCabe, or Anni (“on-ee”) as she is more commonly known, is a recent graduate from Westminster College with her Bachelor’s in Arts. She’s been published in SCRAWL ‘23 & ‘24 for her creative essays and poems. She has always loved gaming, with Nintendo in particular taking a special place in her heart. Her favorite video game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, it was also the first game she ever beat. Her main passion is writing, but she adores any opportunity to include her other interests in her work. Instagram / LinkedIn