Wild Hearts will look familiar to a certain class of player: the one that’s spent hours upon hours hunting the great beasts of the Monster Hunter series. And then, your character turns a little whirlygig strapped to their arm and manifests a crate out of thin air. That’s when Wild Hearts looks familiar to a different class of player: the ones who remember to thank the Battle Bus driver. EA and Omega Force have banked on the idea of spicing up the the well-worn paths of the monster-hunting genre with a spot of on-the-spot construction reminiscent of Fortnite. The good news is that their gamble has paid off, at least in my estimation.
Wild Hearts is set in Azuma, a tucked-away corner of a fantasy world inspired by feudal Japan. Far away from the samurai warlords that battle for dominance, the people of Azuma are losing their fight against a much more ancient foe. The Kemono, massive animals brimming with elemental power, moved in, driving the humans back to the remaining fortified settlement of Minato. It’s into this desperate situation that your character, a Kemono hunter of mysterious lineage, walks. Gaining the power to manipulate Karakuri, a lost technology, you set out to aid Minato and its people by driving the Kemono back into quiescence.
The game has a surprisingly involved story mode, with numerous dialog sequences and a fairly involved sense of community in Minato. Players on the hunt for Kemono can even gather up smaller beasts to bring into the city as pets. The pets even serve a purpose by regularly furnishing you with small amounts of resources, making them more than a mere cosmetic consideration. You’ll also meet multiple NPCs, each with their own sense of character and some involvement in the overarching narrative. Wild Hearts won’t be pulling a dedicated JRPG off the storytelling throne, but it’s nice to be given more context for your actions than simply hunting monsters for its own sake.
The additional story is also helpful, as the setting of Azuma presents itself in a novel way compared to its peers. Where the Kemono of Wild Hearts use their elemental fury to change the landscape around them, you do so with the power of the Karakuri. During a hunt, your “basic” Karakuri, like crates and springs, function like gadgets and usually don’t last past a given fight. (However, they will litter your battlefields as you carry out more hunts.) However, your Dragon Karakuri, unlocked through an upgrade tree and by activating “Dragon Pits” scattered throughout the map, function like permanent additions of infrastructure. You’ll use Hunting Towers to locate points of interest and Kemono hangout spots. Flying Vine launchers add convenient zip lines you can use to bypass terrain challenges. Wind Vortexes produce updrafts that you can ride with a special glider to travel even farther. All this building you can do outside your hunts underlines one of the concepts of Wild Hearts, which involves “taming” an untamed land.
Even the Kemono themselves reflect this sense of unbridled, primal power. Most of the Kemono designs are drawn from a design sensibility that boils down to “take a regular animal, make it huge, then fuse it with the environment.” The Ragetail, your first hunting target, looks for all the world like a massive rat that’s slowly being consumed by a monstrous flower garden. Flowers grow from its eye socket, while its tail drags around a massive seed pod. When enraged, the Ragetail blooms with anger, scattering petals and becoming even more dangerous. The ape-like Lavaback spouts molten rock from formations on its hide, and its apoplexy feels like a volcano erupting. In other words, hunting down the Kemono feels going up against the forces of nature itself.
Thankfully, you’ve got humankind’s most distinctive skill on your side: Advanced Tool use. The Karakuri gadgets you can manifest from thin air bear the distinctive aesthetic of wooden clockwork. This sensibility trickles into the eight weapon types you have at your disposal. Each plays in a different manner, but all the playstyles and gimmicks emphasize a sense of transformation and complexity. Even a weapon as simple as a massive hammer works with a series of tricks that allow a hunter to extend its reach and add impact to its swings. Monster Hunter veterans will likely see parallels to some of their favorites in the various Wild Hearts weapons. The hand cannon, with its slow movement and emphasis on heat management, comes across like the heavy bowgun, while the parry-centric play style of the Bladed Wagasa (essentially a clockwork umbrella) is a dead ringer for the Long Sword. The shifting form of the Karakuri Staff reminds me of my beloved Charge Blade, with its emphasis of dishing out big combo-ending hits with a massive blade. The most unique weapon in the arsenal is the Claw Blade, which combines a short-range dagger-like sword with a tether that allows extensive aerial maneuvering that combines the flashiest aspects of the Dual Blades and Insect Glaive.
Overall, the weapons in Wild Hearts don’t quite feel as deep or precise in their tuning as in Monster Hunter. This both good and bad. To me, it’s good, because there’s less pressure to practice and master the move set. For the most part, learning a weapon in Wild Hearts is about equipping it, taking a few swings at a training bear to remember the buttons, and then going out and whaling on a Kemono until muscle memory sets in. Flashy attacks are relatively easy to access, and you don’t have to worry about some of the fiddlier upkeep, like sharpening. The flipside of this streamlining is that there’s also less motivation to spend time learning your weapon’s intricacies.
Some of that missing complexity has instead been moved into the Karakuri system. In addition to the basic items and Dragon Karakuri, Fusion Karakuri need to be unlocked by seeing “inspiration” in various hunts. Once unlocked, Fusion Karakuri become useful gadgets, like being able to summon a wall to blunt a Kemono’s charge. The additional complexity of building a Fusion Karakuri (it needs to be assembled by placing basic Karakuri in a specific pattern) adds some welcome dimensions to what would otherwise be a rote combat experience. In its way, Wild Hearts has moved some of the skill ceiling Monster Hunter fans enjoy out of mastering one’s gear and into mastering the environment (by effectively placing Karakuri to maximize the effects of your weapon).
I can’t say for sure whether that shift in design philosophy will give Wild Hearts the same enduring appeal as its closest competitor. But in the moment, at least, Omega Force crafted a worthy and entertaining alternative that forges a distinct identity of its own.
Wild Hearts will be available on the PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X on February 17, 2023.