It’s hard for me to say too much about Sayonara Wild Hearts, because the experience I had going in was one of pure discovery, and I want that same eager foray into this neon world for everyone. If you’re even mildly curious, I recommend simply getting it now. Your curiosity will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience, like the first time you listened to one of your favorite albums all the way through. Carve out an hour of your day, grab some headphones, and simply experience this game from start to finish the way it was meant to be discovered. Still not convinced? Maybe I can help with that.
What is Sayonara Wild Hearts? That’s the same question I had going into it. I mean, I’d seen lots of positive coverage about the game, whether it was snappy headlines, excited tweets, or those neon purple screenshots of a girl riding a motorcycle. And like listening to a good album, it takes a moment to really “get it.” The first time through is full of pleasant surprises, each track offering some new twist or element of intrigue. Depth is found in repeated playthroughs. And each listener is meant to find their own meaning in the album as a whole.
I’ve seen Sayonara Wild Hearts described as a playable pop album, and while it’s an apt description, it serves to be a little more blunt than the nuance of the game deserves. Is it a rhythm game? Well sure, in a somewhat basic sense of the term. Music serves as the central core of the experience, backed by inspired visuals that fill every moment with driving emotion, but it’s more freeform than the likes of something in the vein of the traditional rhythm genre. Rez Infinite also immediately comes to mind, and while we’re getting a little bit closer, even Rez doesn’t quite pin down exactly what Sayonara Wild Hearts is.
See, in Sayonara Wild Hearts, the music doesn’t quite dictate the gameplay, but neither does the gameplay create the music. They are both intertwined, certainly. The whole of the experience is a symphonic blend of visuals, sounds, and simple, fast-paced action that is somehow frenetic and calming at the same time. But each part of that orchestra stands out on its own too. The music doesn’t take a hit when you perform poorly, missing collectibles here and there. Even failure in gameplay is designed to quickly restart at a very close checkpoint with barely a blink of an eye. There’s always a sense of forward momentum, and you won’t want to stop until the entire album is finished.
It helps that all 23 levels can be completed in under an hour, and that each “track” offers something fresh and new to undertake. The first level puts a heartbroken girl on a longboard, collecting hearts as she cruises among the stars. This runner-meets-rhythm game quickly turns from just grabbing collectibles on the rainbow road to full on battles against a cadre of “Wild Hearts,” each group with their own clever mechanics and twists on the gameplay that was established before. And through it all, you’ll never need more than the directional pad and the X (Cross) button.
More Than Music
I mentioned before that it isn’t entirely a rhythm game, but that’s not quite true either. Many of the collectible hearts may not line up perfectly with the beat of the music, but the movement in order to make it through the level and grab all of those collectibles certainly does. Like any good rhythm game, getting caught up in the flow of each track will help you perform better and take on some of Sayonara Wild Hearts‘ more difficult challenges. It’s almost as if the music, though not required to make it through, acts as a guideline. One particular level presents an interesting challenge as obstacles appear and disappear with regularity. I tried memorization, but failed time and time again. Then I realized that the variation was not random. There was a flow. When I settled into feeling the game instead of thinking about it, I immediately cleared that section without batting an eye.
That said, no part of Sayonara Wild Hearts is all that difficult to complete. That’s by design. While there are certain fail states from running into obstacles, the focus around the music means that the game never wants you away from the driving rhythms for long. The game is extremely quick to get you back on track, and most of my failures were flukes rather than anything I would describe as genuine difficulty. I’ve seen some criticism of this, knocking Sayonara Wild Hearts for a lack of depth in interactivity, but I don’t think we should equate simplicity with shallowness. Aside from the great music, brilliant visuals, and fast-paced arcade gameplay, there are plenty of challenging reasons to give this album another listen.
The score chase is the most obvious reason to revisit the story of the brokenhearted Fool, and getting Gold rank in each level will be no easy feat. In fact, it’s where one of my super tiny gripes with Sayonara Wild Hearts comes in. The controls lack a precision, which in turn makes getting perfectly lined up to grab collectibles more of a task than it should be in some cases. I wish that there was slightly more of a magnetism instead of having to make sure that you are precisely lined up for a row of collectibles that could mean the difference between silver and gold. Floaty movements mean there’s a little bit more overshooting or undershooting of lines of collectibles than there should be. Perhaps more time will better acquaint me with how The Fool reacts to controller inputs. And trust me. I’ll be putting in more time.
Return of the Concept Album
When I completed the game for the first time, it unlocked the Album Arcade mode, which plays the entire game as a single track, with your full score carrying through from beginning to end (try to get 1 million for Gold!). It’s how I feel the game is truly meant to be played, especially since I went from one level to the next and the next without so much as a break on my first playthrough anyway. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a concept album that tells a story, not just through the music, but in the visuals and gameplay as well. There’s another secret mode only unlocked for the truly hardcore that achieve Gold in every track. And then there are the Zodiac puzzles, which make up the game’s Trophy list.
The Zodiac puzzles are a twofold challenge. First, you must figure out the cryptic clues, and then you have to execute the challenge. While it’s only a matter of time before the clues themselves are decoded and put into online guides, these challenges ask you to play the game in specific ways that certainly increase the depth and difficulty of Sayonara Wild Hearts. The first clue, stating something about “standing not on a podium on the highway of stars,” led me realize that I needed to avoid getting any medal rank in the game’s first level. This meant not just ignoring the collectibles, but actively avoiding them in order to score below the Bronze threshold. There are 23 more challenges, similarly cryptic, and likely of varying difficulty to achieve.
I have to address the game’s availability on Apple Arcade, and defend its release as a console title as well. While I don’t have iOS (I’m an Android diehard), I simply cannot imagine muting this experience down to mobile. It’s larger than life visuals deserve their place on a nice big 4K TV, and the music must be heard through a nice sound system or a set of great headphones. The simple and quick arcade gameplay does lend itself well to mobile and tablets, but having the game on your console is like seeing a movie at the theater versus renting it at home. There’s a presence and energy that I can’t imagine coming across in quite the same way on a tiny screen in your hands. Don’t think of this as a mobile title that was ported to console. Think of it as an incredible console experience that was somehow compacted into a mobile platform.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a unique blend of music, visuals, and interactivity, allowing players to experience a stunning concept album in a way that connects them with the music and themes on a deeper level. Each player will derive their own meaning from the music, visuals, and gameplay, latching onto certain elements that resonate with them most. Like any great album, I’ve returned to Sayonara Wild Hearts on multiple occasions, either to play the game in full, challenge myself on a few select tracks, or even just listen to the soundtrack on Spotify. It’s an experience unlike many others; magical, memorable, and full of heart.
Sayonara Wild Hearts review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.