Sayonara Wild Hearts Review — An Enchanting Visual Album Full of Hits
Short, sweet, and simple, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a package of positivity, with music and visuals that will sure to win anyone over.
Once everyone begins talking about Sayonara Wild Hearts in their own gaming social spaces, each person will undoubtedly be comparing it to different pieces of media that they like. It could be another video game, a favorite movie they have, or more likely, a music album that they adore. Regardless of what points of comparison people make, they’ll all be right in some way, whether Simogo intended the similarities or not. What’s important is that this “pop album game” will surely remind players of something that they personally love, which goes to show how strong this experience can resonate with players.
When I saw it at PAX East earlier this year, word of mouth on the floor had compared it to Sailor Moon, but having never seen that anime, I instead drew comparisons to Elite Beat Agents, Tron, and Tetris Effect. But perhaps it also helps to describe what Sayonara is the polar opposite of—back then, I thought of the film Heavy Metal, which contained similar stories of ordinary outsiders chosen to save another world. While that 1981 animated film was crude, cruel, and cynical, Sayonara is bright, optimistic, and wholesome. A colleague of mine helped me to realize that Sayonara Wild Hearts may, in fact, be the antithesis to Thumper, an intense “rhythm violence” game. If “Happy Thumper” sounds more your speed, this game could be for you.
Well, assuming you also love pop music.
Our story begins with an ordinary woman who has recently experienced heartbreak, thrown out of her regular routine and implied to be suffering from depression. As told by a special celebrity star narrator, she is pulled into a strange and magical universe based on tarot cards, with gangs of women that represent the Major Arcana having cursed this universe and created discord. Representing “The Fool” tarot card, the player character goes on a journey to ward off these evil-doers, all while inspirational pop music plays. Lovers of tarot readings, astrology, the occult, and the cosmic are sure to love this premise.
The core gameplay is simple, but not at all a leisurely walk in the park. The player will mostly be riding vehicles, whether it be a skateboard, a motorcycle, a car, or perhaps a flying giant tarot card. You’ll be moving forward automatically while moving the Fool left and right, collecting three tiers of hearts—small hearts, large heart rings, and hearts on square cards, each giving the player more points than the previous one. At the end of each level, which could be between a minute to five minutes, you will either have ranked bronze, silver, or gold depending on how many hearts you’ve collected. Fail states are possible, usually from hitting obstacles, but checkpoints are quick and you’re brought back into the action after not even a split second.
Sayonara Wild Hearts peppers variety into levels fairly quickly, though—you’ll constantly be doing quick time events, which is where part of the Elite Beat Agents comparison comes from. Some levels have shooting segments, with the Fool’s bike automatically firing ahead, or with the player aiming with the control stick for the Fool to automatically shoot. The gang girl bosses provide some fun gimmicks, like a highway that shifts dimensions and changes to the beat, or one who traps you in a VR headset. Whatever the case, the challenge begins to start when the player must juggle some combination of these gameplay styles of controlling movement, reacting to QTEs, and shooting obstacles, all while collecting hearts.
Despite some later challenges, I found Sayonara Wild Hearts easier to handle when I approached it more like a rhythm game and less like an endless runner. Remember that boss level I mentioned with the dimension-shifting highway? That was the first point where I found myself stuck in the game (the narrator offered me to skip the level, which while I respectfully declined, appreciated that accessible route), but once I figured out the solution, I felt like I had figured the entire game.
I was approaching the level more like Celeste and less like Guitar Hero—I told myself to not focus too much on minute and deliberate movements for my bike to avoid obstacles, and instead sway my bike back and forth to the beat of the song. The results were nothing short of graceful and glamorous.
— Chris Compendio (@Compenderizer) September 20, 2019
Based on that, it shouldn’t be surprising to you that I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat through Spotify ever since completing Sayonara. It’s mostly comprised of poppy and fun instrumentals, with “boss” levels punctuated with songs containing vocals and lyrics. I’ve had so many friends in the lead up to this game’s release recommend me Carly Rae Jepsen, Lorde, CHVRCHES, and other similar acts, and this soundtrack is right at home with them (all of those recommendations are on a massive Spotify playlist of mine, by the way).
Honestly, I’m now a bit surprised that musicians haven’t utilized the medium of video games for visual albums. With artists like Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe deploying their music through film (my personal favorite being Interstella 5555 based on Daft Punk’s “Discovery”), perhaps Sayonara could mark a beginning for artists to create interactive visual albums. And the vibrant visuals on this album game perfectly mesh with the positive vibes of the music, with neon pinks, purples, and blues. Finding each boss and motorcycle gang was thoroughly entertaining, with each having their fun and unique over-the-top visual gimmicks.
It took me around two hours to complete the full story, making Sayonara to be a nice, compact experience. That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to do afterward—one extra mode that allows players to go through all levels uninterrupted is unlockable by completing every level in the main game, while another mode is unlockable by getting gold ranks in every level. And no, of course I haven’t been able to unlock that yet.
I rarely go back to short games, but I feel more incentivized to go back and replay many of the levels to get those gold ranks (I only got one gold rank, and three more from replaying the first couple of levels). It gets to the point where replaying the levels for a higher score is less about learning and increasing your own skill, and more about memorizing where those square heart cards are—still, it’s hard to complain when it’s a good excuse to listen to that music and watch those fantastic visuals yet again. Additionally, achievements are in the form of Zodiac Riddles, with each zodiac sign having two different accomplishments that are described rather vaguely—as hard as it is to get these achievements, it might be just as hard to figure out exactly what they want you to do.
My only warning to some people is that when I say this game is fast, that means it’s really fast. The frame rate is smooth and the graphics are crisp, but with everything happening so quickly, with the player zooming past everything, there is a lot of visual input to take in. While I personally didn’t have a problem with it, it is entirely possible that some may find the game to be visually overstimulating. It recalled for me the first time I ever saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen: a visual treat, but in the back of my head, I kept thinking about how that movie would probably hurt my parents’ eyeballs.
I have to go back to the Tetris Effect comparison because I feel the need to make an important distinction between that and Sayonara. Both have lovely sound and sights and they speak a very similar language in permeating positivity—where the two diverge is where the inspiration is targeted. Tetris Effect is a humanist experience that celebrates the might of the collective human spirit and how far we’ve come as a people, while Sayonara Wild Hearts is about how the individual can pick themselves back up despite personal struggles. It is a message that can reach anyone, no matter what you’ve gone through.
It recalls other games that focus on fighting your own inner demons—Celeste or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, being a couple of examples. Not to knock on those games (I love Celeste in its own way, and honestly haven’t gotten to Hellblade yet), but the shorter and more abstract Sayonara may be more palatable to a wider audience. This game has brevity and subtlety as major advantages. And for myself and for a number of peers and friends I’ve talked to who have finished the game, it came at just the right time in our lives.
But as more people discover the wonders of Sayonara Wild Hearts, I look forward to having those conversations about it with them. I want to hear what the game reminded them of, as I imagine I’ll hear different answers from different people. Every game can be compared to other games, but Sayonara covers a wider spectrum across different forms of media. Regardless of what pieces of media people may compare it to, I bet all of those pieces are ones that made them feel happy inside. And one day in the future, something else will come up to lift our spirits, and I’ll say, “you know, this really reminds me of Sayonara Wild Hearts.”
Wild Hearts Never Die, folks.