One of my favourite franchises in gaming has to be Capcom’s Monster Hunter. Having dipped my toes in the PSP days, tasted multiplayer hunting during the Wii era, and finally found my sticking point with the same game on another platform with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, I’ve poured hundreds of hours into each mainline game to come after, reviewing each one for various different outlets. So getting the chance to take on another game that yearns for its crown is a curious time indeed. Koei Tecmo is hoping for Wild Hearts to be its next Dynasty Warriors - a flagship series. It’s a good start, but I don’t think I’m wholly convinced just yet.
Wild Hearts is an action-RPG centred around you going sword-to-claw against ‘Kemono’ beasts that have no right to be as big as they are. Whether you’re pounding them with a maul, filling them with arrow holes, or somehow parrying their attacks with a paper parasol, you’re trained to read the tell-tale signs of their incoming attacks and adjust your strategy accordingly, pulling your punches to safely chip down their invisible HP over an extended period of time. There’s no three-hit boss rule here. You’ll need hundreds. But the classic rule of gaming applies to yourself. Three strikes and you’re out. Unless you happen to fall from a great (unclear) height. You’ll die, but it doesn’t count as death. I’m not sure why.
After around a dozen hours of trying out every weapon and fighting each monster up to the drop-kicking Lavaback and its bizarrely stretchy arms around three times each on two different platforms, I have some thoughts. That’s not a whole lot in these kinds of games, but it’s all the time it takes to work out if a title is right for you. Wild Hearts, in its current state, isn’t looking likely to pull me away from my preferred hunting game right now. It’s a good enough backup, and potentially a great alternative for those who just can’t seem to stick with the old tried and true, but I can’t help but feel there’s something missing. Some charm. Charm, and some odd technical oddities.
In Karakuri we want to trust
A major part of hunting in Wild Hearts stems from the Karakuri building system. By spinning the weave you collect from around the hunting grounds, you craft creative little boxes to fulfil certain roles. Outside of building a lovely little camp wherever you please, they’re great little battle contraptions, too. You’ll start with simple boxes to launch from and springs to quickly dodge attacks. Over time, you learn to build them in specific patterns to create defensive walls, damage-mitigating posts, and even a comical hammer straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon that lets you swat diving monsters out of the air for an infinitely satisfying squish.
It’s a stellar system that only shows more potential with each contraption it introduces, but its versatility is held back by a comparatively uninventive execution method. You’re expected to use these at a moment's notice to do things like repel strong attacks, but I often found myself fighting the grid-based system in those tense few seconds, resulting in situations where it would have been safer just to roll out of harm’s way than rely on a core, and otherwise very smart, mechanic.
Clutching a button combination to bring up the Karakuri menu, trying to recall the specific order of crafts, and their placements, and then lining them up perfectly with a slim two-second window to counter a powerful monster’s potentially fatal move is a tall order. You’ll certainly get better at doing the dance over time, but with very little room for mistakes, there’s bound to be a lot of agonizing trial and error as you learn things the hard way.
If you couldn’t stomach the dense combat scenarios of the competition and thought Wild Hearts would be a little easier to get into, complex Karakuri crafting might convince you otherwise. And with generous invincibility frames (iframes) with every roll or slide, the pros against Karakuri combinations often outweigh the cons. Though there’s also something to be said about them not being wholly necessary for a successful run.
Soulslike or Hunterlike?
Therein lies a peculiar predicament of my time with Wild Hearts. The Karakuri system is great fun in practice. Launching yourself off a stack of boxes results in powerful attacks that are easy to pull off, but it consistently made me aware of how unusual the hitboxes are in this tight, combat-focused title.
You can dive from a box and land a powerful strike while being virtually nowhere near the target. There were even multiple instances of enemy attacks completely missing me when I was convinced I was staring death in the face, and far too many of them seemingly shot my character off in the completely wrong direction on contact. It almost feels like network latency, but they happen like clockwork on a single-player run. They aren’t necessarily game-breaking situations, but how am I meant to feel confident in my in-the-moment decision-making when I can never be sure of the outcome? If you’re a Souls fan, you’ll probably enjoy all the rolling around. But if you hoped to rely on the wooden marvels, expect to get some splinters.
There were multiple times I had to fight the camera after a hit, times I’d accidentally climb something I’d certainly fallen off before, and plenty of instances of clipping through elements of the open world. Again, nothing that ever stopped me from finishing off a lengthy bout against a beast, but there are enough little issues scattered throughout the experience to have Wild Hearts feeling a little under-polished in its launch state.
The game world is large, and I can see the appeal of littering it with Karakuri contraptions to catapult you and your co-op partners around the place, but the necessary sandbox approach of the world design has it feeling a little too empty and lifeless out of the gate. The world feels a tad basic, the music rarely played added to the experience, and the current technical shortfalls of the Xbox Series S version compared to the Series X or PS5 meant I was far less likely to continue things on a second machine in the house when someone else wanted the TV.
But one neat aspect of the open-world design is that you’re largely free to go about things at your own pace and without jarring interruptions and load screens. There’s a hub world in Minato, but there’s rarely a need to head back after every single battle. Unless you’re just trying to rush to the end game, you’ll instinctively head off the beaten track when you drop a monster.
You’re afforded a chance to get to grips with things on your own terms. Once you’ve exhausted one large area and you’re feeling ready for a new challenge, you just head back to town and start the next story quest, trudging off to fight a new flagship monster before, again, racing off to scout out the rest of the land on your own little expedition, tacking the slightly smaller threats whose materials make the equipment you’ll probably have enjoyed in the bigger battle beforehand.
Damn nature, you’re dead
There’s a story playing out in the background that helps give a little bit of direction when you’re ready to face a new challenge, but the stark difference between translation and localisation can be jarring enough to have you mashing the buttons to skip what’s going on. It’s rarely important with these games, anyway. They’re always finding roundabout ways to justify your meddling with nature when we’re largely around just to enjoy the challenge of throwing hands against its version of King Kong with wings. However, the death knell for it stems from the interchangeable Japanese in the script that ends up sounding like it’s written by your average anime fan, That and the obtusely worded UI elements that often don’t mean much if you haven’t already played a similar game.
When everything works as intended, punishing a giant raccoon for whatever indiscretion the land of Minoto decided it’s guilty of feels fantastic. Volleying arrows from the ground, watching a monster slam into a man-made wall, launching bombs from above, and setting up a spring to jolt away from an earth-shattering attack can really spur you into tackling beast after beast. They’re lengthy fights, but while I anticipated exhaustion after struggling with multiple clunky systems at a time, I was always reeling from the thrill and ready to scout out the next. Most of the time, I wasn’t even aiming for monsters that would advance the story. I was quite happy without the extra rewards that would have come from grabbing a quest for the monster I set my sights on, but the consideration never crossed my mind. Rather than heading out to a camp (or just making another) to select a quest, I just zeroed in on the closest Kemono on my map. I just wanted to keep testing myself (and the game.) And that has to mean something for a game that otherwise frustrated me.
On paper, Wild Hearts looks like a great alternative either for those who struggle to enjoy Capcom’s own storied hunting franchise or the veteran thrill-seekers out there looking for more. In practice, it’s a well-rounded first attempt that’s only slightly rough around the edges. It’s ambitious, creative, and filled to the brim with potential both in updates and sequels, but a general lack of polish and a relatively uninspired world has it feeling like more of a stop-gap to the next big thing than a serious contender right now.