Can you unravel the mysteries of a lost realm and save the wilderness?
We are slowly drawing to the close of 2021, and this year has seen some massive AAA games released on all platforms. This has also been an excellent year for indie games - Death's Door (review here: Death’s Door Review - Nintendo Switch/PC/Steam), Sable, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, The Ascent and Axiom Verge 2 are some of the notable titles that deserve your attention.
Another indie that released earlier this year in May for PC is The Wild at Heart. Qualbert didn't have a chance to review the game back then, but it has now been released on PS4 and Switch.
The dictionary defines 'heart' as: "a hollow muscular organ that pumps the blood through the circulatory system by rhythmic contraction and dilation." It also defines 'heart' as "the centre of a person's thoughts and emotions (especially love, compassion, or loyalty)."
The awesome people at Moonlight Kids were kind enough to give us the opportunity to provide our sentiments on this title. So does The Wild at Heart evoke the tender compassion of a loving embrace, or is it a rough, feral and desolate experience?
The Wild at Heart is a story about two children - Wake (aged 12) and his friend Kirby (aged 10). We are not provided a huge amount of backstory, but things at Wake's house don't seem to be going well following the apparent death of his mother. Wake feels alone and unsupported by his father, and believes he has no choice but to leave to find happiness. He has made plans with Kirby that they will run away from their homes together. However, on the fateful night that they choose to seek a better life before Wake meets up with Kirby he comes across a strange creature, and a mysterious hole in a tree. Like Wonderland's Alice, he makes the strange choice to dive into the weird hole...
On the other side he meets Grey Coat, the leader of the Greenshields - the wardens of the forest. This eclectic group of people need Wake's help to rid the forest of the evil 'Never'. A lifetime of fighting the 'Never' has taken its toll on this group and they are losing touch with reality and their memories are fading to the point that they can't even remember their names. Wake can't manage the dangerous task of fighting the 'Never' alone, so he is told to recruit the strange little creatures known as Spritelings to assist him.
The narrative of The Wild at Heart is relatively simple, but there are a few little twists here that make playing the game through to the end worthwhile to experience how all the loose ends are tied up. Despite the look of where the story is headed in the early stages of the game, this isn't full of clichés. As a relatively short game it can be taken in over a few medium-length sessions and it never overstays its welcome or feels like it is being needlessly padded out.
What is the 'Never'? Who is controlling it/them? Can Wake and Kirby save Greenshields and free the forest?
The gameplay in The Wild at Heart combines features of many popular titles, and never really tries anything fully unique or new (beyond the integration of multiple elements). At the very start of the game Wake equips his invention known as the 'Gustbuster', this device is a souped up vacuum that is used by wake to gather items and turn windmills - and feels very similar to the Poltergust in Luigi's Mansion (though you can't suck up enemies directly). There is also a small crafting element here that we have definitely seen all over the place in gaming where multiple relatively useless items can be combined to make something that is actually useful in Wake's quest. That being said, the most glaringly obvious game comparison here is the Pikmin series. There are 5 different types of Spritelings that can be gathered through Wake's journey and these are used identically to how Pikmin are in their titles. Spritelings are thrown directly at enemies to attack them and are also used as your muscle to lift and carry heavy items across the map.
There are a small number different enemy types and some of these enemies also have variants that are best attacked by one of the five Spriteling types. Early on in the game when your maximum capacity for Spritelings is low, you choice of which types to bring, and how many of each type, can significantly impact your chance of victory. Later on though, you can win almost any battle by sheer weight of numbers.
Each Spriteling also has one or more effects on the environment that must be used to traverse the map. In this sense there is also a bit of a 'Metroidvania' feel to the game where various sections of the map can only be unlocked once the next Spriteling type has been found.
Once Kirby eventually joins the party, a couple of new skills are granted that allow Kirby to move to places where Wake cannot. You must smartly make use of each character's skills and often the solution to progress requires the separation of the two children and often throwing specific Spritelings between them as well.
A Vacuum......and a lamp. Weapons of champions!
The Wild at Heart is a puzzle game at its core and some of the specific answers do require more than a little thought. I never felt stuck though and the game did progress at a very comfortable pace. The only exception to this is the game's day/night cycle. Again like Pikmin, the children can only complete their required tasks during the day - because at night is when the Never take over the forest - these things basically cause insta-death and cannot be defeated until very late in the game. By making your way back to the central hub location, or one of the safe camp-sites throughout the map, you can quickly elect to sleep through to the morning and continue your progression. However, if you are stuck out in the wilderness you may need to wait near a light-source for safety through the night - which takes a very long time. You can try to make a run for it to the nearest camp, but it is pretty much a 50/50 shot that the Never won't spawn in front of you and stop you in your tracks. 'Dying' in the game doesn't waste too much time, but it can be a little frustrating, as can waiting for your Spritelings to carry something where it needs to go (which can be very slow). A simple and effective fast-travel system does help a lot with getting you where you need to go quickly without too much backtracking.
Unlike the gameplay which at times borders on derivative, the visuals of The Wild at Heart really stand out as something unique. A quick way to describe the game would be a cross between the 'South Park' cut-out animation style and the aesthetic of Adventure Time. I can certainly see this style not being everybody's cup of tea, but it allows the animators to focus on very small effects that really give the game a lot of its warmth and feeling. The expressions of Wake, Kirby and the Spritelings are delightful and the various areas of the forest and the denizens therein feel alive (if not at times a little sparsely populated). Some of the larger creatures (both friend and foe) are excellently designed and give the game much of its unique feel.
From a gameplay perspective the art-style presents the player with a clear idea of what can be interacted with, and what is important to remember for later (in the Metroidvania style).
My favourite element of the Wild at Heart is the haunting soundtrack that plays consistently throughout the game. Beautiful yet sombre piano melodies highlight the loneliness of Wake, and the sadness of what the Never are doing to the forest. Slight changes to the tune over the day-night cycle also give you audio hints as to when it is safe to move to a new section of the map or when it is time to make your way back to a safe camp site (though there is also a helpful daytime indicator on the screen at all times).
From a functional perspective the game is tight with no major issues noted. I encountered no game-breaking bugs or crashes of any kind. The worst thing that happened to me was having a couple of Spritelings get caught in the map where they could not be retrieved, though they can be recalled back at particular points on the map, or just let-go and replaced with new Spritelings just as easily. I did also encounter a weird audio bug where the sound cut out in my Samsung sound-bar on a few occasions - though I'm pretty sure it was a sound-bar issue and not something that would occur through TV speakers or headphones (though I wasn't able to test that).
Overall, an A grade presentation from a small development team is really encouraging to see, and I hope they continue to be unique moving forward.
I enjoyed my time with The Wild at Heart. Though it is a relatively short single-player adventure clocking in between 12-20 hours (depending on how much of a completionist or trophy hunter you are), it is an entertaining experience all the way through. There are a couple of enemies and gameplay elements that when encountered the first time will likely cause a 'death' - which can be a little frustrating. However, once enemy patterns are learned and your collection of Spritelings is high you can instead focus your energy on the smart puzzles, endearing characters, excellent presentation and slightly tragic yet wholesome story.
So, why should you play it?
You are after a great family friendly game suitable for all ages
Movies along the lines of The Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland and The Dark Crystal are right up your alley
A short and sweet palate cleanser is needed after a long slog through an RPG, or a bloodthirsty marathon in an online shooter
But, why shouldn't you play it?
Cute or childish games aren't really your thing.
You are frustrated when required to play to a game's cycle (day/night) rather than having the freedom to just keep on truckin'
A review code on PlayStation 4 was provided for the purpose of this review. Review gameplay was completed on a PlayStation 5.
Leigh 'SirLemsip' Zemski
Leigh is a game reviewer and columnist from Melbourne. His favourite genres are JRPGs, rhythm games, third person action games and old-school shoot 'em ups. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com