Wild Hearts was unveiled last week as a collaboration between Koei Tecmo and Electronic Arts, as a new entry into the hunter genre, dominated right now by the giant Monster Hunter franchise. Wild Hearts is taking a slightly different tact, distinguishing itself with a Japanese-inspired visual style and mythology and unique instant crafting mechanics. I was able to go hands on with the opening stage of the game, to get a feel for just what separates Wild Hearts from the pack and why fans of the genre should get excited.
Wild Hearts immediately evokes other Japanese tales involving giant monsters, notably Princess Mononoke with its creatures that combine both real animals and elements of their environment, becoming a fusion of the two that almost appear to be moving mountains or forests. There’s other elements too, recurring spirit-like folk who rattle when they’re close by and can be collected as assistants. The whole thing is quite beautiful, from fields of tall grass, to a battle underneath a giant cherry blossom tree. There’s also the ruins of past conflicts too, from decayed villages and structures, to the overgrown remains of hunters who have come before you.
Speaking of your hunter, you’re able to craft your own backstory for them in the game’s tutorial stages from a few options as you speak to a mysterious stranger, which also allows you to customise your hunter’s appearance and even choose their pronouns. No matter what you go with, you’ll be coming out with someone who looks pretty samurai-like, which more or less fits the profile of a wayward hunter who has come to this special island of Azuma for their own reasons.
The monsters you’re here to fight come in all shapes and sizes, including regular fodder like smaller lizard types, but your main target are the giant boss-type enemies which populate the map. These monsters are known as Kemono, and the slice of gameplay I played through featured two main ones, a large crawling monstrosity with a caboose full of sap, and a enormous boar known as a Kingtusk.
Encounters with these giant creatures usually take across stages, with the monster escaping after you’ve scraped off enough of their HP, allowing you time to heal yourself and track them down for the next part of the fight. Your hunter has a standard array of attacks with their katana, a light and heavier attack, as well as a flurry of attacks to unleash when the enemy is staggered. The katana can also transform into a more powered-up whip like weapon, if you’ve built up enough energy to use it during the battle. As fights with larger enemies drag on, weak spots will begin to show and glow with energy, which you can attack to collect karakuri thread.
Karakuri is a major mechanic that is essentially the crafting system. The idea is that there are various levels of karakuri that can be crafted more easily or quickly depending on the situation. For instance, mid-battle you can craft crates which you can use to block enemy attacks or jump from to deal devastating drop attacks, or craft springs to dodge attacks more effectively and move around the battlefield. In less hectic situations, you can build zip lines to traverse the world, or reach previously unreachable areas. You can even use them to pass over unsuspecting Kemono and get a surprise drop on them. There’s also karakuri that allow you to set up camp, create a drying rack for food, or a watchtower to identify the location of nearby Kemono.
Both the Karakuri and unique look of the Kemono work together to give Wild Hearts a distinct and charming character. The fights with giant Kemono, even at this early stage, clearly require planning and forethought, and using karakuri to your advantage tactically is clearly a key component of gameplay. While I wasn’t able to get online myself, you’ll also be able to call on other hunters to help take down some of the tougher Kemono too.
It’s interesting that it’s taken two huge publishers to collaborate together to enter the hunter game arena, and it’s even more interesting that Wild Hearts doesn’t really feel like that – it’s a creative journey inspired by Japanese history and culture, that feels refreshingly open to play. Wild Hearts is out on 17 February 2023 for PS5, PC and Xbox Series X|S.