An interesting question when it comes to evaluating games is how much style is needed to overcome a lack of substance. As long as a title has a unique enough personality, I’m likely to overlook simple gameplay mechanics. Games such as Gris and GNOG are perfect examples of what I would consider to be acceptable. I now have another example to add to that list, though. Sayonara Wild Hearts may not be the deepest experience out there, but it’s certainly a trip.
In the simplest of terms, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a rhythm-ish game. Across what is essentially a whole album’s worth of music, you’ll be gliding around collecting hearts and grooving to the beat. It’s like if Thumper and Rez did the fusion dance. You’re constantly moving, so you need to always keep your eyes on the road ahead of you — not only to collect everything for a high score, but also to avoid the countless obstacles littering your path. Oh, and on top of all of that, you’ll occasionally have timed button presses to deal with as well. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on at pretty much every moment of the game.
While it mutates and morphs over the course of the campaign, Sayonara Wild Hearts remains rather simple for its duration. Like an excellent pop album, it’s accessible to just about every audience out there and even has an extremely generous checkpoint system that will help you get past any tricky section. And if that still isn’t enough, you can even skip sections if you fail them enough. At least on the normal difficulty, you don’t even need to have a good sense of rhythm to succeed. I wouldn’t recommend it, but you can tune out the music and still make your way through the game. That kind of defeats the purpose, but it’s an option for those who want it (though I don’t know who would).
As easy as the game is, there are annoyances to be found. For something that often demands precision, the controls feel a little too loose. It’s way too easy to slide right past where you are aiming, even if you only lightly tap on the analog stick. It’s not really an issue during your first run through the story, but if you’re trying to boost old scores, it definitely becomes a problem.
Not unlike a great album, developer Simogo’s neon-soaked adventure gets in and out quickly, with the story taking around two hours to run through — the length of a double-album, more or less. If you’re someone who values time over quality, then you may come away from this feeling slighted. It would be easy to slam it over the brief length, but I’m not sure adding more tracks would have been smart to do — as it stands, the pacing is borderline perfect. None of the tracks run too long, and each segment wraps up right when it needs to. If you’re really hard up for replay value, you can also just play through each track again in order to gold medal them.
There are several acts within this album structure, however, and each one has you confronting different figures from The Fool’s past. There’s Little Death, who is the ringleader of the whole thing, Dancing Devils, Howling Moons Stereo Lovers and Hermit 64. At least I think that’s what’s going on here. There’s not a lot to sift through in terms of narrative, outside of some bits of narration, which is delivered by Queen Latifah of all people. It’s a story about the heartbreak a young woman goes through, and how it disrupts the balance of the universe. There’s a metaphor in there, but the story plays second fiddle to style.
The reason, of course, to play Sayonara Wild Hearts, though, is the absolutely killer soundtrack. Composed by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, with significant contributions from Linnea Olsson, the electro-pop tunes are diabolically catchy. Just try listening to “Mine” or “Parallel Universes” and not getting those beats stuck in your head. The songs here can stand toe-to-toe with just about any other original game soundtrack out there, and they are also worth listening to on their own. In fact, I’m literally listening to the soundtrack as I write this review. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I got my hands on the game.
Sayonara Wild Hearts‘ ace style is bolstered by its wonderful visuals. A world of bright colors and eye-popping neon, the game oozes flair. The character designs are memorable and gorgeous, and every level feels unique from the other. Considering how fast the action can unfold, it’s quite a feat to have so much visual goodness stick in your mind for as long as the images here do. It would have been easy for Simogo to skimp on the details, but the studio clearly had a visual goal they wanted to nail here. In this humble reviewer’s mind, they knocked it out of the park in this regard.
The dynamic personality and memorable music of Sayonara Wild Hearts make it one of the most unique experiences to release in some time. Even in a genre as varied as rhythm games, there’s nothing quite like what Simogo have created. It’s a neon-hued rush of adrenaline that will keep your eyes locked in and your feet tapping to the beat. It would have been nice if the controls were tightened up just a little bit, but that’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. There may not be a ton of depth here, but man, oh man, does the beauty of it all make up for that.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Annapurna Interactive.
Visually marvelous and musically infectious, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a unique experience unlike almost anything else out there. It may not be for everyone, but for a certain audience, it's going to be dynamite.