The Wild at Heart is charming, heartfelt, and makes me feel a little dumb sometimes. Coming across a charred blockade glowing with red embers, I chuck one of my Pikmin-like spirit creatures in an attempt to clear the path. The spriteling bounces off the rabble and looks at me, confused. I try throwing five of them at my obstacle, but still no luck. I examine my surroundings for another way around, but nothing looks useful.
After roaming around the world looking for another progression route, I return to the blocked road and realize there's a little leaf next to an adjacent river. What if I throw a spriteling at the leaf? Oh, that blossomed and formed a bridge that lets me cross the river and get to the other side of the path beyond the obstacle. Duh, I mutter to myself before moving on.
There are a lot of moments like that in The Wild at Heart, an utterly engrossing indie title from Moonlight Kids and Humble Games with big shades of Pikmin, but not without its own distinct personality.
You play as a child named Wake and, eventually, his best friend Kirby, a couple of kids who ran away from crappy situations at home to find a better life. As it turns out, what lies just outside home is a portal to another dimension where you'll come across all sorts of weird and supernatural beings; some good, some evil. Your job is reunite the good ones to keep the bad ones from destroying the forest and escaping into your real-life world.
I won't spoil what's going in Wake and Kirby's lives, but do prepare yourself for a surprisingly poignant story with some heavy themes of substance abuse and parental neglect. Contrastly, also prepare to laugh a lot, because The Wild at Heart is peppered with plenty of genuinely funny dialogue and riffing between characters.
Just one more puzzle
Anyway, back to the puzzles, because that's mostly what you'll be doing in The Wild at Heart. That is, figuring out how to get past this or that obstacle. Sometimes, it's a situation like I described above, where the solution is staring you in the face incognito. Other times, there's something you don't have yet that's required to solve the puzzle. In those instances, it can be a little frustrating trying to decipher whether you're just missing the key element or you need to go off and do something else before you can progress through the area. In rare cases, there are objectives that require items you need to craft, but the game doesn't tell you what you need or how to craft it. In those cases, I'd suggest looking up a walkthrough or guessing until you get it right.
It's also that puzzle design that makes The Wild at Heart disarmingly hard to put down. There were a few late nights where I promised myself I'd stop playing after getting past a certain part, but then I'd get to that point and obtain something that made it possible to go back and complete an earlier puzzle. So then I'd go back and complete that puzzle, and in doing-so unlock another area or mechanic and get caught up in a vicious cycle. It's kind of like putting together an actual tabletop puzzle; the more you put into place, the more the bigger picture comes into view, and the more you want to keep going. You can jump to different sections of the map at will, and sometimes that brings other areas into focus.
The dark is bad
Come nightfall, The Wild at Heart changes from a whimsical puzzler with some metroidvania-style level design to a full-on horror game. "The dark is bad," you're told early on, and you'd best heed that warning. The world turns dim, the impressively effective music takes on a chilling tone, and Nevergazers - horrifying sentient voids - stalk you relentlessly until daybreak. You can run back to your camp for safety, but often short of one or two spritelings.
That's another thing, your perfect little spirit buddies getting snatched up and carried away never stops being traumatizing. Even worse is when they just die. The game says they never really die, but it sure looks like they die when their tiny little souls float away from their bodies and disappear. I accidentally killed so many of them just walking past acidic sludge, which for some reason doesn't hurt me. Other times they're killed by giant frogs, blobs, and insects. Spritelings can also get lost out on your adventures, and you have to decide at camp whether to "dismiss" them or go out and find them. Luckily, you can hatch them from seeds that are super easy to find, so don't beat yourself up too much for abandoning the little fellas.
The Wild at Heart is a brutal, unforgiving world, but it's so full of charm and intrigue that you'll never want to leave. The art style and music are uniquely beautiful, the story is weighty but powerful, and most importantly the puzzles and level design are consistently rewarding. Give The Wild at Heart a try - just try not to get too attached to your spritelings.
Wild at Heart is out now on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and you can grab it on Xbox Game Pass.