If there’s one thing that nature adores more than consistently evolving things into crabs, it’s a cycle. We see it in the seasons of the year, as the fecundity of spring and summer inevitably bends to the slow withering of autumn and winter. We see it in the lives of herbivores, who feed on the plants they’ll fertilise with their bodies after death. And of course, we see it in humanity. In our recognition of patterns, our desire to recreate and innovate upon them, and the cyclical nature of inspiration and innovation that builds upon what came before. Wild Hearts is a game about cycles, and it’s a fantastic example of how a well-established formula can still be, spun into something unexpected, brilliant and new.
Wild Hearts takes the familiar cycle of the monster-hunting RPG gameplay loop – find an extremely cool giant monster, kill that monster through astonishing cinematic violence, turn it into a new hat to wear while killing its friends – and recreates it faithfully, but also finds plenty of room to do some interesting new things.
The most faithful recreation of this formula can be seen in the ‘Kemono’, the monsters that serve as the primary adversaries and the centerpiece of the experience. Almost all the Kemono are recognizable animal species that have been recreated with the raw components of nature. A giant stone ape filled with lava, a colossal wild boar chiseled from ice and snow, a rat with a very bad fungal infection and a flower glued to its ass – the Kemono are all primordial beings that dominate the landscape, and serve as nature’s agents in the struggle between humanity and the natural world.
And it really is a struggle. Wild Hearts makes a point of showcasing the devastating impact that such enormous beasts can have on the humans who live alongside them, in a way that the traditionally comedic tones of other hunting games like Dauntless or Monster Hunter don’t fully encapsulate, even when they touch on the concept.
Read: ‘Wild Hearts’ directors on life and death in the monster hunter trade
Many of its quests involve finding the corpse of a local townsperson fallen prey to a Kemono, or putting a stop to a natural disaster happening right before your eyes at the ‘hands’ of one of these primordial beasts. Monster Hunter might tell us that Fatalis annihilated the kingdom of Schrade in a single night, but we don’t get to actually see it. In Wild Hearts, you watch it happen.
The Kemono aren’t intentionally antagonistic, they’re as malicious as an earthquake or a tsunami – that is to say, devastating to humanity when our paths cross, but beautiful to observe from a safe distance. Unfortunately for the people inhabiting the world of Wild Hearts, safe distance is a pretty non-existent concept.
Thankfully, you, as the Hunter, are there to single-handedly solve the problems of Minato, the town-and-hub of Wild Hearts. To do this, you leverage an arsenal of weapons that range from relatively sensible (like the Nodachi, a weighty two-handed sword) to wildly impractical (like the Bladed Wagasa, a lethal umbrella designed for parrying). The weapons on offer all feel delightfully brutal, and there’s a healthy range of simple and effective choices, along with more complex, skill-demanding options.
Oddly, the weapons aren’t necessarily the stars of the show. Instead, that honour falls to the ‘Karakuri’ – mechanical contraptions that you learn to construct and operate on the fly, mid-hunt. The integration of the ‘Karakuri’ into the hunting experience is nearly seamless, as hunts become a mix of traditional combat and a resource-management loop in which you spend ‘threads’ in order to build things like giant single-use hammers that bludgeon your foe, or a harpoon launcher that brings down flying Kemono.
Sometimes, you don’t have time or the need for a complex fusion Karakuri, and you just make a spring to bounce yourself out of an incoming hit, or a pile of crates to launch yourself for a mid-air strike. In combat, the Karakuri feel like a natural fit for this style of gameplay, and it’s clear the weapons and Kemono have been designed to demand the incorporation of the Karakuri into your moveset.
Where Wild Hearts runs into some fundamental issues is in its tutorials. In a GamesHub interview with game co-directors Kotaro Hirata and Takuto Edagawa, the pair discussed how they approached teaching the player in a very different manner to the traditional, detail-oriented tutorials found in Japanese games, with a new focus on learning through experience. It’s a great idea in theory, but in practice, I found there were multiple, fairly important core gameplay mechanics that I simply didn’t know existed for the majority of my playthrough – it really would have helped if there had been an in-game glossary or weapon-specific tutorial set beyond the cursory ones included.
It must also be acknowledged, that at the time of review, a great many people have reported that Wild Hearts has exhibited horrible technical performance issues, especially on PC. The version I played through the EA launcher had virtually no issues, but I seem to be one of the few exceptions. The developers have acknowledged these problems and have promised that a patch to solve them is coming, but it’s something that must be considered.
Regardless, Wild Hearts is brilliant in so many ways – as an innovation on the monster hunting genre, in its beautiful mythologically-inspired feudal Japanese setting, and in just how good it feels to play moment-to-moment.
Perhaps most of all, it succeeds in realising the ideology at its core, through gameplay. Adaptation and growth is the cycle at the heart of Wild Hearts. As your Hunter places each Karakuri, they embody the innovation of humanity adapting to the natural world. In every clash with the Kemono, humanity meets the ferocity of nature head-on, to survive and prosper.
Wild Hearts has undeniably proven its right to survive, and carved out a place in the high echelons of the monster-hunting genre.
4 Stars: ★★★★
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
Developer: Koei Tecmo, Omega Force
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 16 February 2023
The PC (EA Launcher) version of Wild Hearts was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.