When players talk about 'game feel', they're often referencing scoring in FIFA, or a headshot in Call of Duty – two methodical actions at the top-tier scale of the AAA video game. Wild Hearts taught me there's another level to game feel: bonking a towering monster on the head with an enormous wooden mallet.
That is Wild Hearts in its most distilled form. You run around a map hunting monsters called Kemono, slicing them up close with blades and bombarding them with wooden constructions called Karakuri. This is a far cry from Dynasty Warriors and Hyrule Warriors, the projects of yesteryear from hack-and-slash veteran developers Omega Force.
Release date: February 17, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
Developer: Omega Force
The action is a lot more refined than ripping through monsters with aplomb. You'll need to carefully deduce the elemental type of a monster before embarking on a hunt, choosing your weapons accordingly, and studying the attack patterns of a Kemono before delving headlong into the fray. Wild Hearts trades out mindless action against hordes of foes, typical to many of Omega Force's previous games, for a more studied, prolonged fight with one humongous beast at a time.
The battles against Kemono are fast and furious. The act of ducking and dodging around outstretched wings and hooves, cutting into monsters in a split second before backing off again is utterly enthralling, an adrenaline-pumping experience that'll have you in a vice-like grip until the entire battle is said and done.
Of monsters and men
Wild Hearts' beasts are a fusion of creatures and wildlife – a pig the size of a mansion now sprouts jutting vines across the battlefield, while a raven has swollen to immense proportions, absorbing poisonous ink in the process. You'll need to stop and familiarize yourself with a monster and its attacks if you want to succeed, and the process helps each monster stand out in your mind long after you're done fighting them.
Matching the ferocious monsters step for step is an eclectic set of weapons. Wild Hearts throws up a bladed umbrella, a giant hammer, bladed claws, a shape-shifting staff, and boisterous hand cannon to name but a few weapons you can trash the Kemono with, and they're all brilliantly creative. Each offers a bounty of differing play styles to pair with the monsters they're taking down.
If you're up against a rapid Kemono like the poisonous raven-like Fumebeak, a huge hammer makes little sense, so the quicker bladed umbrella is a natural fit, letting you take the fight airborne. I can't praise Wild Hearts' weapon design enough – there might be merely nine weapon types in the hunting game, but each one is an absolute riot to use and master, the use of just two buttons for attacks leaving little standing between yourself and pure fun.
Aiding these weapons are the Karakuri, Wild Hearts' standout feature. These wooden contraptions are what separate Omega Force's experience from its contemporaries like Monster Hunter. The system itself is simple enough: you're given a fixed number of pieces to build with, like boxes, springs, and torches, and from this bursts forth well over a dozen Karakuri contraptions. Their utility differs greatly, from giant hammers that smite monsters, to bombs that detonate after just a few seconds.
The Karakuri are a masterful invention. You're periodically handed instructions for building new Karakuri contraptions, using the pieces at set points through Wild Hearts' campaign, so you're never overwhelmed by the sheer number and flexibility of the tools. Two springs and a torch equals a bomb, for example, and six boxes form an impenetrable wall – excellent for toppling charging Kemono.
These contraptions are mercifully simple to activate and put together. Karakuri building blocks are all bound to the left bumper on a controller, meaning everything to do with the devices stems from one button. You won't get caught in the middle of combat suddenly panicking and bringing up the Karakuri menu by mistake – it's always a deliberate decision hard-wired to one specific part of the controller, and by extension, your arsenal.
Tricky camera techniques
Wild Hearts multiplayer offers co-op between three players total, so you’re able to invite a maximum of two allies on any given hunt. Given how dependant your progression is on acquiring new materials to craft new gear, there’s a fantastic amount of replayability to be had in Wild Hearts with your friends.
Wild Hearts' combat is smooth and feels sublime in real time, with one unfortunate exception – the camera. The Kemono are, by nature, towering creatures, ungodly forces of nature the size of a bus, and they frequently dominate the screen when you're going toe-to-toe with them in close quarters. The camera doesn't pan back to take in all of a Kemono, meaning it's very easy to miss cues for attacks in these instances. It's an unfortunate damper on an otherwise fantastic experience.
When you've tidied up a hunt though, Wild Hearts presents an intriguing spin on progression. Weapons and armor are paramount in Wild Hearts, as you'll need to craft better gear to keep pace with the increasing Kemono threat. Armor pieces can either aid you in the 'Human Path,' empowering your Karakuri abilities, or the 'Kemono Path,' which betters your prowess against the beasts. It's not an overpowering design direction, but gives a new thoughtful dimension to the armor grind from other hunting games like Monster Hunter.
There's no way around it: Wild Hearts is Omega Force's take on Monster Hunter. To avoid referencing Wild Hearts in the context of Monster Hunter, and the wider hunting genre, would be doing it a disservice, because at last Monster Hunter has serious competition in Wild Hearts. Omega Force has clearly learned from its experience developing the Toukiden games and brought its immense hunting knowledge to bear, coupled with an obvious study of Monster Hunter's trailblazing success over the last four years. Wild Hearts is a worthy competitor to Capcom's crown.
Pitfalls of the genre
One area in which Wild Hearts deftly avoids a major misstep for the Monster Hunter series is in its themes of colonization. Monster Hunter World and Monster Hunter Rise each stubbed their toe in this respect, positioning intrepid explorers going out of their way to bring a world to heel through any means necessary, consequences be damned. Wild Hearts actually does away with all of this by positing its characters as a forgotten, abandoned group in a decaying town, under siege by monsters instead of actively seeking them out.
Wild Hearts forgoes all-out annihilation against its surrounding world, and it's better off for it. By charging its human characters with survival instead of expansion into the unknown, Omega Force's hunting game makes its cast immediately more likable and empathetic. You'll come to know the citizens in the town of Minato rather well over the dozens of hours Wild Hearts' core campaign runs for, engaging in side quests like tracking down missing persons and items for them, but when you meet characters who aren't dead set on colonization and mastering the world around them, you've already got a strong base with which to build on.
Wild Hearts is a roaring success for Omega Force. The Kemono are awe-inspiring fusions of land and creatures, imposing monstrosities that leave a lasting impression long after you're done with them. The same can be said for Wild Hearts' combat system, weapons, and Karakuri, each one a fantastic and creative aspect that puts player creativity first and foremost without being overwhelming. Wild Hearts' camera might be trying at times, but it's hardly enough to put a damper on the entire adventure.
Wild Hearts was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher.