Sayonara Wild Hearts Review
Pop music bliss
Recently, I had a friend drive five hours to see me. To help pass the time I made them a playlist for the trip. When I asked her about the playlist she smiled and said, "I was surprised to hear Christina Aguilera." She isn't alone; my affection for pop music isn't the most obvious thing about me, but from N*Sync to Taylor Swift, I'm a fan. So when indie developer Simogo claimed their new game, Sayonara Wild Hearts, was a "pop album video game," I was interested.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game that is obsessed with its music, which is almost all original. The developers, who worked with Jonathan Eng and Linnea Olsson, acknowledged drawing inspiration from artists like Sia, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charlie XCX, and Taylor Swift, but also more electronic sounds like CHVRCHES. Personally, while playing the game I was reminded of Passion Pit and Ellie Goulding. There are six full songs in the game and three to four instrumental tracks between each song - it roughly runs the length of a full album but feels a bit like an extended EP.
At about an hour to complete, it's slightly on the short side for a video game, but makes up for that by being compulsively replayable as you can try to improve your scores on some of the catchy tracks. Regardless of length, Sayonara Wild Hearts is breathtaking. A stylish exploration of forgiveness and heartbreak that is furiously paced and deviously clever. Even if pop music isn't your thing, I think there's enough style and polish to the game that it warrants checking out.
You play as a masked biker called The Fool, the alternate-world persona of a woman who begins a journey to heal from her recent heartbreak. In dealing with her pain, The Fool battles with nemesis biker gangs and villains like the Dancing Devils, Stereo Lovers, and Little Death. The game is broken up by the different antagonists and you'll usually play a few instrumental levels as these different characters are introduced, before engaging in a climactic battle set to the vocal tracks.
The tone and themes are strong, but the game moves so fast and plays things so vague that you'd be forgiven for thinking the levels are little more than stand-alone motifs. I enjoyed the brief story, but I can see how it might turn off those who are looking for something more substantial. The story is certainly used more to set the mood than propel the action, becoming little more than flavor text as you jump between tracks, and it's perhaps when the game is the weakest aspect.
Still, Sayonara Wild Hearts ramps up its difficulty with each villain, and every vocal track is a show stopper as Simogo keeps upping the ante. The penultimate track, "Inside" is an absolute blast and sets up an emotional finale that is truly something to behold.
Most levels are variations of motorcycle races; some of the earliest tracks are on city streets, but later levels are set in woodlands, and then cross into the bizarre and surreal. You must maneuver The Fool on the track to collect floating hearts to gain points and dodge obstacles. As you face different enemies in the game, you'll have to learn different mechanics. One enemy takes you into a strange, digital world and another changes the layout of the level to the beat. The change in mechanics is welcomed, keeping the gameplay fresh and challenging as you progress. Occasionally, you'll also have a rhythm element mixed with quicktime events as you hit buttons during action sequences. It's challenging, but not punishing. When you fail, the game restarts you back just a few seconds earlier, meaning that little progress is ever lost. The emphasis is on keeping things moving and assuming you'll finish the song.
I've talked a lot about how Sayonara Wild Hearts sounds, but it's worth calling out how much fun the music is. Dark and electric, this is the edgy soundtrack of a break-up, its beats gleefully skipping along under the breathy feminine vocals. The music stands perfectly well on its own, and that would be impressive enough, but what really is excellent is how it compliments not only the visuals but the gameplay. Simogo probably could have licensed some indie-pop acts for Sayonara Wild Hearts, but it would have felt less personal. With some help, the team has come up with something that feels singular to this experience. The music, visuals, and gameplay all fit together so perfectly it's almost impossible to imagine what came first because they all feel birthed from the same bizarrely brilliant idea.
The visuals are truly a spectacle on their own. Drenched in purple and pink, Sayonara Wild Hearts feels like someone took the Lisa Frank color palette and slathered it onto an anime. The biker motif is fun, but the game is constantly spitting out strange and eerie locales for The Fool to traverse. There's the oppressive black of the forest, the ever-shifting colors of a winding urban highway, and desolate desert roads. Every level of the game is as strange as it is wonderful. But the settings are only the start; Simogo has also cooked up fun visual action beats to sync to the music. There's one particular level where you're leaping off the highway, running on buildings, and hitting direction-changing fans that's just visually stunning. Again, if you're imagining the nonsensical, physics-defying action of an anime, you're on the right track.
The game runs well on the base PlayStation 4, though it's not a particularly ambitious effort. The levels are short, but they load quickly, and I had no problems with framerate or input, which is important in a game that moves so quickly. It's a solid effort and there are no technical concerns.
There will be many who will want to compare this game to Rez or Harmonix's Amplitude, but that feels hollow. This game is so stylish and enthralling, it is unmatched in the genre. My only complaint is that there isn't more of Sayonara Wild Hearts to jam to. I hope that Simogo releases an extended cut of the game or some songs as DLC because this game is an absolute delight. I can't recommend Sayonara Wild Hearts enough. Even if you don't like pop music, even if you don't like music games, this is an ostentatious joy ride, I couldn't help but love it. And I believe many others will have as much fun as I did.