Upon the conclusion of Sayonara Wild Hearts, a musical adventure from the development team Simogo, all I’m left with is a single word: damn. The whole experience has cracked me absolutely upside the head, and I’m astonished that I was able to play the whole thing in one sitting. Even when it comes to some of the most magical of rhythm games (Lost in Harmony, Deemo), I need to take breaks to help flex my fingers and get the kinks out of my neck. But, with Sayonara Wild Hearts, the diversity of the musical styles, the exchange of the gameplay between levels, and the abstract but beautiful story, I was able to digest the entire soundtrack, from Heartbreaks I through V, without needing to take a break and, more importantly, not wanting to. It’s a wild ride, and I hope that, whether on Switch or on the newly launched Apple Arcade, people get a chance to sit down and see what the fuss is about.
Let’s back up for a moment. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a musical odyssey about a young woman who has suffered the strongest, deepest of heartbreaks, so much so that the very balance of the universe has been upset. Thankfully, there is a small fragment of love and passion left, and it takes the form of a beautiful, diamond butterfly, and skims through the cosmos until it finds the young woman and dives into her heart, awakening the woman’s alter ego: The Fool. The Fool, a representative of the tarot cards that plays a heavy hand in story shaping, must go out and defeat the evils that have taken a hold of the harmony of the universe and hidden it in their hearts. These beings will not give up such beauty and power easily, and so The Fool must deal with four distinct factions before having the ultimate showdown with their leader, Little Death. Yet, with every encounter, there’s a certain level of love and power within, from the seductive atmosphere of the Dancing Devils to the aloof, almost disconnected inquest of love that Hermit 64 poises. It’s a wild ride: a pity no one brought their helmets.
Certainly more than just a button masher with a funky beat, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a real trip of a game in terms of gameplay. Each chapter involves several levels that seem to morph and change with each incarnation. Primarily, the thread for every stage is to zip through and reach the end without taking damage, which is a much harder concept than you’d imagine. The Fool changes how she moves with almost every mission she partakes, making a perfect first run impossible, at least from my perspective. You start off moving on set lanes, moving slightly left or right to pick up hearts (for points) and to dodge obstacles. Soon, though, you’ll be on a motorcycle, trying to hit ramps to avoid walls and get the maximum amount of points. Then you’ll be literally flying through the sky with the whole screen as your playfield, both trying to grab items and avoid flying projectiles and suddenly-appearing barriers. At times, you’ll need to hit the A button in time with the music, and the A symbolizes a variety of actions. Dodge underneath a motorcycle, jump over a mechanized wolf, swing your sword to parry and attack, and, finally, unleash a massive punch to defeat the gang leaders of each area.
From a purely gameplay angle, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a theoretically easy game to pick up and understand, and it’s not one that gives you a tutorial or really anything more than a slightly easier first level to figure out what you need to do.The design is, at times, quite challenging, not for success but for achieving a higher score. The rankings for each stage are bronze, silver and gold, and I was only able to get gold on ONE level my first play through. That’s because, while the road to survival is already hazardous, the one to getting top points is often insane and requires a high predilection to memorization in order to get the important point multipliers. In more than a couple of instances (particularly when running with the Howling Moons), there were some pickups that seemed to be almost totally inaccessible the first time I blazed by them, and the way to obtain them without instantly dying only became clear when I went back through a second and third time. Additionally, the jump to gold is usually a wide margin, so the dedicated are looking to spend days, not hours, in order to get crowns and unlock the additional mode of gameplay that I honestly was unable to achieve. Still, the layouts weren’t unintuitive or obtuse: what I needed to do was to live, to win, to make it through to the other side were always crystal clear, whether I was shooting down flying skulls or swimming through the pixel visage of someone’s 8-bit fantasy.
The gameplay, in its variety, also challenges you to be a contender in so many different situations that you almost feel like you might be playing multiple games. First I’m chasing characters down from a 3rd person perspective. Then I have to change to a very, very close, over-the-shoulder third person that makes me slightly dizzy, but it works out and I’m able to dodge around trees and still make it out alright. Then there’s tracks that are changing with every snap of the beat, asking you to wake up your short-term memory skills because you WILL crash into a massive air conditioning unit. And then…am I inside a Virtual Boy title? It’s a gorgeous thing to behold, to be sure, but the fact remains is that you can’t sit on your haunches and just get good at a particular style. While some games may have had two or three different kinds of stages repeated with different music and different backgrounds, Sayonara Wild Hearts is different each and every stage, and it grabs you by the collar and screams in your face to pay attention, to appreciate what’s happening here, and, goddammit, did I ever.
The presentation of Sayonara Wild Hearts is, unequivocally, beautiful, almost painfully so. The art styling of Simogo lends itself to both the musical stylings of each of the five bosses as well as the inference and inflection upon the Fool’s condition. From neon-drenched buildings that twist and turn through the darkness (and with the gravity-reversing panels) to the hollow celestial pathways that lead to the next of the Evils, I was visually drinking, savoring every drop of this game. When the twin Stereo Lovers split the roadways with their massive swords, or when I had to captain my ship across the dangerous Ocean of Death, it was a rapturous feeling, and it balanced out the very angular presentation that, under different circumstances, could be seriously off putting for other games. Even the color palette did its part to amplify the oddities and the moments of surprise, especially when the camera would pan to show moments of power and almost sexiness from The Fool. When the screen exploded with the massive KO announcement after I took down the first of the Dancing Devils, it nearly set my heart aflame, and the power of that feeling didn’t diminish through the final, forceful blow to take down Little Death’s last form.
The music, naturally, is a wide, delicious buffet of sounds, though I don’t know if I would, as the game has, described it as pop. The term pop tends to land more on something that’s massively full of catchy lyrics and repetitive, simple ideas, and there’s nothing simple at work here, not by a longshot. Sayonara Wild Hearts uses different thematics for every one of the heart breaks, though there are some common elements that resurface again and again. You’ve got the ambient, tone-setting piece, a driving track to get you into the thick of it all, and, finally, a vocally-accompanied song to burn down the world and bring you that much closer to salvation and restoration. Forest Dub, for example, is on a different planet from Reverie, but they both do an excellent job of showing you the perversion of passion that these particular evils have. Of course, we develop favorite songs, and The World We Knew and Wild Hearts Never Die are, far and away, my top choices. At the current time, there isn’t a way that I can see to just listen to the music, but maybe that’s for the best: the tracks are tied directly to the gameplay, and I’m not sure if I would listen to Hate Skulls as much as I do if I wasn’t actively shooting down demonic entities at the same time. Then again, perhaps we could see that in an update…?
This was a beautiful trip of a game, one that I loved sharing with my daughters and experiencing myself. A tale of acceptance and inner peace combined with love and rebirth all set against some banging tracks and some fast-frantic gameplay. I don’t know if I’ll ever be skillful enough to see what unlocks with Gold Rank on every single level, but I’m going to give it my best shot whenever I’m wondering what it is I can play for a couple of minutes. Sayonara Wild Hearts is an artistic masterpiece and a genuine gaming gemstone, and it shines brightly and clearly no matter where you play it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sayonara Wild Hearts Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
Gorgeous, reckless, unapologetic and divine, Sayonara Wild Hearts will still have you coming back long after you’ve said goodbye.