Has there ever been a game where you play as a monster hunter? Of course. Omega Force, mostly known for their Warriors games, is now setting out the bait again to see if they can catch something. Monster Hunter, practically synonymous with the monster-hunting subgenre, is the king of its ecosystem. But with Wild Hearts, Omega Force and EA hope some innovations and a gorgeous feudal Japan-inspired world will prove there’s enough room for both.
Much like other monster-hunting games, Wild Hearts has you follow a familiar pattern of tracking down monsters the size of a house (called kemono), killing them (or dying in the attempt), and using their parts to craft better weapons and armor so you can do it all again. The difference here is your character is a master of utilizing special devices called karakuri that aid you in performing powerful attacks on the beasts. While you have a variety of standard weapons, each with its own quirks, the karakuri are vital to taking kemono down.
You spend the bulk of your time in Wild Hearts hunting and fighting kemono, so thankfully, the combat is dynamic and exhilarating. The kemono are massive balls of kinetic energy, and their attacks sure do smart. Like in Dark Souls, you’d better learn to dodge, as it’s your only defense aside from a few defense-oriented karakuri. Think of some of the epic bosses you’ve conquered, imagine an entire game fighting one after the other, and that’s what Wild Hearts presents. It’s the proverbial magnificent dance between life and death, sophisticated human and untamed nature, as you and the beasts go back and forth dodging and countering each other’s attacks. As the fight continues, you wear the monster down, forcing it to pull out even more devastating moves in desperation. There’s an intense amount of detail that goes into these battles. When you’re out exploring, you’re out in the wild, so naturally, you cross paths with other animals. While they are good for obtaining common materials, they don’t pose any real threat. The kemono are literally and figuratively the meat of the Wild Hearts experience.
Karakuri let you perform unique actions on the fly, like launching through the air for mobility and stronger attacks or distracting enemies with fireworks. While Omega Force built a magnificent world and majestic monsters to fight within it, they emphasized the karakuri. You start with basic devices, like crates to climb and springs to propel you. As you progress, you learn how to combine those items into more powerful tools, sometimes revealed during major battles, adding extra excitement to those moments. While karakuri separate Wild Hearts from the rest of the monster-hunting pack, my impressions are mixed. As you proceed through the game and learn more, it can be interesting to see how new devices perform against kemono both old and new. But certain devices are only effective against certain kemono and less against others. As such, the system feels more gimmicky than dynamic, and it doesn’t take much experimenting to learn how effective each karakuri is in given situations.
You can also produce permanent structures, called dragon karakuri, that provide more permanent benefits while on expeditions. Some help you traverse the area more conveniently, like zip lines that blast you across the map in a hurry and the roller, a human-sized wheel that appropriately lets you roll across the wilderness. Building a makeshift transportation system is more fun to mess around with than the devices used in battle.
The kemono are giant wonders of nature, resembling animals from the real world, such as boars, groundhogs, and chickens, that curiously appear to have fused with their environment, with plants or rocks growing out of their bodies. Their environments are similarly wondrous, massive landscapes that beg for exploration. Deep woods curiously bleed into beaches, and rows of frozen blades of tsunami waves blast out of empty, dilapidated buildings. Half the journey of a hunt is going on your safari through the wild, learning your way around, and stumbling on hidden awe-inducing sights. There’s nothing quite like chasing down a wounded kemono as night shifts to day through a forest bathed in the multicolored light of a sunrise. The openness of Wild Hearts’ world makes for a uniquely memorable and thrilling atmosphere. As the seasons come and go, these areas take on different characteristics. The seasons are anything but traditional because, as you learn, the kemono alter the environment around them, sometimes in real-time, as you fight them. For the humans attempting to survive in the Azuma region, that spells danger.
As you explore, you come across remnants of settlements, beaten down by the elements and overgrown by nature. Though there may have been a hot real estate market at some point, that time has long passed. Wild Hearts’ story occurs in Minato, a small frontier town set on a cliffside in Azuma that serves as your base. Minato has come on hard times as of late: The kemono are altering the environment and destroying the town. So it’s fortuitous that you, a hunter, have decided to take up residence in the village. The villagers are happy to put you to work and get you to bail them out of their predicament by hunting down kemono for fun and profit.
Many colorful characters populate Minato. Though none of them join you on your adventures, at least not in any practical manner, they’re endearing enough that they’re worth saving. It’s humorous how much they fawn over the hunter, elevating you to superhero-like status. But they’re likable enough to be a story hook in between hunts. Though you take on the role of a typical customizable silent protagonist, your character is not lacking in personality. Every revelation about them elevates the mystery surrounding them. The story isn’t exactly an award-winner, but it’s quietly compelling enough in its own way.
It’s a different kind of survival tale, as it involves an entire town’s struggle to exist in a harsh environment rather than just a specific group of characters. There are hints that everything about Minato may not be entirely on the level. Kōgyoku, the shady shopkeeper, and Tamakazura, the glib bathhouse operator, were my most intriguing characters for their elusive demeanor. Both seemed to be hiding something. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect much of a payoff because the end comes abruptly. Sometimes, mysterious circumstances must remain mysterious, I suppose. One of the final bosses, however, though I won’t spoil anything, is an absolute stunner and a technological wonder that the developers should be incredibly proud of.
Perhaps the biggest mark against Wild Hearts is that it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself within its niche subgenre. It’s far from the only monster-hunting game out there; Monster Hunter has inspired a swathe of similar attempts. Though others have succeeded and failed to varying degrees, they all fall into the mold of the original in many ways, and none have matched up to Monster Hunter’s excellence. Wild Hearts streamlines some of the minutiae out of the prep work compared to other games, getting you to the action with less hassle and providing a more accessible experience. Its difficulty isn’t at Souls-like levels, but Wild Hearts still offers plenty of challenges. While crafting better gear can help in tough battles, at the end of the day, your success depends on you honing your skill. But you don’t need to carefully and meticulously curate a pack of tools you carry around, and crafting items is simplified without sacrificing depth.
On the other hand, adding karakuri is a forced attempt at complexity. You need to manifest a handful of small devices at once to build a bigger one, and you essentially need to memorize button combos to do so, which sometimes results in goofy errors if you’re interrupted in some way. The controls, in general, are not nearly as spot-on and clean as they are in the more refined Monster Hunter series, and the light parkour elements can make your character feel as floaty as in Assassin’s Creed‘s poorer entries. Karakuri is the most substantive element setting Wild Hearts apart from Monster Hunter. Otherwise, this game doesn’t offer much new or different by way of monster hunting. That also doesn’t keep it from being a solid effort anyway, and for those who would like a little more of a story to dig into, Wild Hearts might still be the preferred way to go.
Wild Hearts also offers excellent sounds to punctuate its glorious visuals. The soundscape is infused with elements of traditional Japanese music, rousing enough to call anyone to join the hunt. The voice acting is solid for the most part, though a couple of actors go a little overboard on hamminess without much apparent reason. The sounds of battle dig into your gut, with the typical clashing of metal on flesh and the terrible yet relieving shriek that signifies you’ve finished off your prey.
Wild Hearts is another great monster-hunting title that suffers the most from comparisons to the well-established Monster Hunter series. The developers have promised that DLC is on the way in the coming months with more kemono and karakuri, and it’s all going to be free with no paid updates in the plans (not yet, at least), so there’ll be more to bring you back to Azuma. Even after finishing the main game, there’s plenty left over in the endgame to challenge hunters hungry for more. It’s an impressive effort, with a world that continually beckons hunters to return. Gear up, for the hunt is on!
This review was originally published on February 13th as a non-scored review in progress. In addition to final scores, we have updated some details above, mainly involving the story.