When Koei Tecmo and Electronic Arts announced Wild Hearts as a cooperative giant monster bopper, I wondered immediately how much it would be able to set itself apart from Monster Hunter. I wondered if its Karakuri gadgetry would amount to much more than a gimmick and if that gimmick would be fun. Many hours later, my questions have been answered. Wild Hearts does more than bring its own flavor to the monster hunting genre. It presents a gorgeous and vibrant world full of fascinating creatures mixing beast and nature together in various ways, and the tools you use to chase them take the game from a Monster Hunter knockoff to an amazing game that can stand on its own in this field.
Nature and beast intertwined
Wild Hearts takes us to the land of Azuma where mankind must contend with magical forces that allow for the existence of creatures known as Kemono. These are beings warped to intertwine the elements of nature into the bodies of otherwise normal animals. At their smallest, you might see one that looks like a rabbit with a fruit bush growing off its back or a snake that glides through the air on wispy wings.
However, there are also enormous Kemono and the impact of these creatures is a driving force behind the entire story of Wild Hearts. Their very presence alters the environment around them. A giant ice wolf can turn a verdant field into an ice and snow-caked wasteland. A rat with a flower growing through its body will swing its tail through the earth and conjure a full-grown cherry blossom tree. These beasts are as magnificent as they are dangerous, and that last part is where you come in.
Players take on the role of a hunter that specializes in fighting Kemono. However, you are quickly roped into the plights of the nearby village of Minato. That village acts as your hub and a home to a number of NPCs. Minato’s denizens are mostly vehicles to move the plot forward or get you equipped. There are some among them that are less than memorable or obnoxious to say the least. For instance, the stewardess of the village constantly laments on how powerless she is as you help her. Meanwhile, the accessory maker, Yataro is a broody sulk that spends most of the game being grumpy about everything.
They’re not all bad, though. I enjoyed the company of the drunken samurai Ujishige and the ever chipper blacksmith Natsume. I never minded taking quests from them or interacting with them after most hunts. I’m not used to caring about NPCs in a genre where at best they’re usually forgettable. Most of them look very cool, too, and with effort your character will as well. Wild Hearts has one of the best character creators I’ve ever seen with an incredible array of options. I actually built a hairstyle from multiple parts to make my character look completely different from any templates. It’s full of tweaks that let you do that.
The world of Azuma is nearly just as much of a character, as well. Its areas feature a gorgeous variety of terrain, including all sorts of fields, coasts, and mountainsides hiding destroyed pirate ships, broken temples, and ruined castles overtaken by the rampaging Kemono and their natural elements. Each map is a delight to explore, and the Kemono changing them as you battle is a sight to behold. Both exploration and battle are aided by a beautiful and adaptive orchestral soundtrack. It swells as you get into the depths of the fight and I always felt like it did a great job of accentuating the most intense parts of my struggles against the Kemono.
Tools of the hunter
In order to bring down the Kemono, you’re going to have to become a master of both a weapon class of your choosing and the Karakuri. Wild Hearts has a good assortment of weapon classes, each with gimmicks that are fun to learn. The Nodachi feels simple in the way that you basically swing for exclusively big, slow hits, but it also has a multitude of momentum-based attacks that move you; good for staying close or getting away from Kemono. It also has an attack where you sheathe the blade and build up a meter, unleashing a devastating blow at full-charge. Knowing when you’ll have the time and space to deploy this swing is an exciting part of the learning curve that led to much tragedy and triumph.
Likewise, other weapons have their own unique methodologies behind them. During co-op hunts, my colleagues used the Bladed Wagasa a lot (a bladed umbrella). It has a parry that allows players to negate monster attacks and charge up their attack power if they time it right. There are also three weapon classes that unlock quite a few hours into the game. I found myself worrying if it’d be worth it to switch, but each weapon is so interesting to learn both on its own and in combination with Karakuri that I quickly found myself attempting to specialize in a second category of gear for the sheer fun of it.
The Karakuri are a blast as well. They range in their uses between camp setups, map traversal, and combat. For instance, Tents are Karakuri that allow you to spawn at various places on the map or fast travel to them at will. However, you can’t just place it all cattywampus. You unlock resources for permanent Karakuri by finding Dragon Pits that add to a pool of elemental resources for the map you’re on. Using a tent drains a lot of resources unless you’re at a special place, so carefully choosing where you want to be able to get to quickly becomes hugely important. Thankfully, you can destroy them if you feel you haven’t placed them effectively, getting those resources back. Likewise, you can create ziplines, catapults, and other traversal shortcuts through maps that play a huge role in helping you stay on your objectives with ease. Moreover, once you place a Karakuri like a Tent or a Flying Vine zipline, many of them stay there until you remove them.
There are also tons of combat applications for Karakuri. In the midst of combat, you’ll occasionally be given a slow-motion prompt to deploy one or more small gadgets. Generally, these provide you with unique attacks to strike at the weaknesses of Kemono. An early instance includes a charging boar Kemono. When you see it scrape its feet, the game prompts you to construct a wall that stuns it so you can deliver punishment. Not only are these incredibly cool “eureka” moments, they push you to watch the attack animations of other Kemono and see if you can punish them with a similar Karakuri. You can win by just using your weapons alone, but using Karakuri effectively in conjunction with your regular attacks is where Wild Hearts truly shines.
I also love how streamlined the game is in comparison to its inspiration. Wild Hearts still has a lot of eccentricity to master, but it does away with a lot of annoyances found in other games of this genre. For instance, you can collect ingredients to eat in Wild Hearts and gain stat boosts like increased health and critical hit chance, but the effects don’t go away until you either finish a mission or hunt or leave the map. That means even if you die and get wiped, your food effects will remain active. You can even easily wipe your food effects and eat new food to get the stat boosts you want.
Likewise, multiplayer was a breeze to set up. My colleagues and I created sessions easily, crossplay was effortless, and you can also roll the dice and invite random players on many of the hunts and missions throughout the game when you need help. Ultimately, I love that Wild Hearts did away with a lot of contrivances to allow players to enjoy it without too much confusion or complication, all while keeping the challenge pretty well intact.
Wild Hearts isn’t a perfect experience. Beautiful as the game is, sometimes it got too busy and I saw framerate drops. Likewise, if you actually enjoy the complexity of Monster Hunter, you may find Wild Hearts a little lacking in some options. For one, there is no gear to capture a Kemono in Wild Hearts. You can only hunt to kill. Also, there are some reskins of monsters that are used a little too quickly, but they do have very different combat styles, so that’s not the worst. It’s just a shame that for such a cool starting variety of certain creatures, we get some variants of certain Kemono early on.
Live and grow through the hunt
I loved Wild Hearts from the moment that a giant flower-infested rat spawned an entire towering cherry blossom tree in the middle of our epic first fight, and my love only grew as I experienced its weapons, gadgets, environments, music, and other creatures. More importantly, the Karakuri is more than a gimmick. It provides an incredible assortment of tools inside and outside of combat that make it a signature staple of Wild Hearts gameplay. When I felt like I mastered everything a weapon could do, it was the Karakuri and the variety of ways I could combine them with my gear that kept me invested in learning and experimenting. I love Monster Hunter, and Wild Hearts isn’t perfect, but it improves and diversifies on that formula in ways I don’t think any fan of this genre should overlook. I want to keep being in this world and I can’t wait to see how Koei Tecmo continues to expand upon it.
This review is based on a PlayStation 5 digital copy supplied by the publisher. Wild Hearts comes out on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S on February 16, 2023.
- Beautiful world and creatures
- Solid variety of weapon classes
- Karakuri blend well into all parts of the game
- Captivating adaptive soundtrack
- Some decent NPCs
- Easy to approach and control
- Easy multiplayer and crossplay setup
- Some Kemono are reskins
- Occasional framerate drops in overly busy scenes
- May be overly simplified in some areas
- Several weapon classes must be unlocked