SAYONARA WILD HEARTS opens with a young woman curled up in bed, suffering from a broken heart. About a third of the way through, she acquires a motorcycle with machine gun turrets and fights an army wolf-mecha in a neon forest. That latter scenario is par for the course in this brief pop-opera, a roughly 90-minute jaunt that is constantly redefining the word “ostentatious.” SAYONARA WILD HEARTS is never one thing for long, but it is always guaranteed to be equal parts unexpected and electrifying.
Mobile dev Simogo’s first foray into console gaming is an extravagant spectacle, yet simple enough to play that its two-button control scheme still works on smartphones (it’s a marquee title on the newly-launched Apple Arcade). Essentially Poptimist WARIOWARE, SAYONARA WILD HEARTS has you chasing targets—namely, other lady bikers—through disparate stages set to each of the songs on composer Daniel Olsén’s album of the same name. Drawing from a range of pop influences, the soundtrack slaps on its own, drifting seamlessly between amped-up anthems and melancholic instrumentals over its runtime. The fact that it plays while your character rides an enchanted sword like a skateboard makes it even better.
There isn’t much in the way of plot or characters to speak of, but the sheer variety of gameplay types ensures there is never a dull moment. There are homages to REZ, OUT RUN, and a dozen other arcade and mobile titles, meaning that WILD HEARTS can feel like a platformer, shooter, or racing game at any one time. This makes categorizing the game a difficult prospect, one that I’m not going to bother attempting at all, as I believe reviewing WILD HEARTS with the criteria typically reserved for video games would miss the point of the experience completely.
This isn’t to dismiss WILD HEARTS’ gameplay; on the contrary, it’s a fun, if not particularly challenging, treat. Yet it’s not the action, but rather its depiction, that drives WILD HEARTS. This sentiment can be a damning accusation when evaluating games, particularly when sharp graphics belie boring (or broken) mechanics. In this case, it has more to do with the fact that the gameplay of WILD HEARTS was built around the album, servicing the music rather than simply using it as sonic window-dressing. Essentially, SAYONARA WILD HEARTS the game exists to deepen your appreciation for SAYONARA WILD HEARTS the album, not the other way around.
This is NOT what I meant by “Cut to the Feeling”
Which brings me back to why I don’t believe in reviewing WILD HEARTS as a game. Yes, WILD HEARTS is a video game; it is acquired through gaming platforms, draws from a wide range of arcade titles, and places a player at the controls. Even so, playing the game isn’t the vital component here. Clearing the game is easy enough that it practically beats itself (and it literally will, if you ask it to), and yet, I still felt the same rush of euphoria beating it that came with brutally difficult titles like CELESTE and BLOODBORNE. This can be largely chalked up to the visuals and audio, elements that you don’t need a controller to enjoy.
WILD HEARTS has arrived in a year that’s been very good to visual albums, a trend that has certainly sparked my enthusiasm for the concept. God bless Thom Yorke, but I don’t think I could ever have listened to something as heady as ANIMA on my own. Paired with Paul Thomas Anderson’s companion film on Netflix, however, and suddenly the cerebrally atmospheric album becomes far more palatable to my lizard brain. Likewise, I never thought I’d willingly listen to a Sturgill Simpson album, but with the bonkers anime accompanying the release of SOUND & FURY (also on Netflix), here I am calling myself a fan.
INTERSTELLAR (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan)
In that same vein, you don’t even need to like video games, or know how to play them, in order to enjoy WILD HEARTS; it certainly doesn’t hurt if you enjoyed any of the classics it emulates, but it helps far more here to be a fan of Carly Rae Jepsen than to have a high score in SPACE HARRIER. More than a game or an album, WILD HEARTS is a mood, a wave of good vibes that washes over you as one dazzling set piece dissolves into another.
There are games that juggle genres with finesse (here’s to you, NIER: AUTOMATA), but I can say with confidence that I’ve never played a game that has experimented with medium in such a way as SAYONARA WILD HEARTS. At once a game for poptimists and an album for gamers, SAYONARA WILD HEARTS is a unique marriage of ideas that lives in a category of its own design.