I’ve seen the future, and the future is Sayonara Wild Hearts. A couple of levels in there is, quite literally, a moment where I said the words “f**k me”. Calling this an interactive on rails score attack rhythm action game concept album is a little wordier than my expletives, but there have been very few games beyond the works of Tetsuya Mizuguchi where music and aesthetic have combined to such dizzying effect.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pure adoration of electro-pop and video games as much as it is any one thing. Each of its twenty-plus levels is a music track framed by the battle to restore a young woman’s broken heart. Within you ride motorcycles, collect love hearts, fight giant cybernetic wolves and take part in futuristic sword fights that shame George Lucas’ wildest fever dreams, all wrapped up in the arcana of the tarot.
It’s a musical arcade experience; part Outrun, part Space Harrier, part Rez, part Tetris Effect, and that’s just a handful of the influences that Wild Hearts wears on its sleeve. To play it feels like Sony, Sega and Nintendo gave up on their petty squabbling of the 90s and came together with their most talented developers to produce an uber-game that’s all about love, companionship, letting go of the past and sparking hope for the future.
The fact that Simogo are a small indie development team from Sweden, centred around the duo of Simon Flesser and Magnus “Gordon” Gardebäck, is remarkable and what they’ve achieved with Sayonara Wild Hearts is exceptional. It’s a pop-culture gem with a message of positivity and hope when all hope has been lost, framed by enigmatic neon-tinged visuals and set to a banging soundtrack.
While plenty of modern indie games are tying their flags to the synthwave zeitgeist, Sayonara Wild Hearts’ electro pop takes the ultra-catchy hooks of CHVRCHES and blends them with the atmospheric tones of M83 and the effortless cool of FM-84. Crucially, it’s exceptional. With vocals from singer-songwriter Linnea Olsson and instrumental sections that shift from hard-hitting house to ambient electro it’s an album for the ages, and one that is perfectly on-point.
Some of the tracks are too short though. As someone with an addictive personality, I don’t really know whether you can have too much of a good thing, but some of the tracks in Sayonara Wild Hearts actually made me sad when they finished after ninety seconds. There were occasions where I prayed for them to keep going just that bit longer, and the moments where they did carry on just as I thought they were coming to a close filled me with elation.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is perfectly weighted to stop you overdosing though. Brief interludes lead to longer sections, and I’ve begrudgingly came to accept that repeating mechanics and extending songs would have damaged the way that it feels as a game, as an album and an experience.
Your interaction is mostly directional, with the pleasingly tuned controls switching naturally between skateboarding and running through to motorcycle riding and flying as you aim for the neon hearts strewn in your path. Beyond that it’s a single contextual button that with the correct timing sees you leap over obstacles, dodge enemy blows or smash those Wild Hearts into pieces.
Plainly, it’s not that challenging until the later stages, and I’d expect that everyone will be able to experience it in its entirety. In some instances Sayonara Wild Hearts could virtually play itself, but then you’d have no chance of achieving a high score or a decent grade, which remains the primary gameplay driver. Crashing into something stalls the track and rewinds a few seconds so you can tackle it again. One too many failures and the game will offer to get you past that section, but purists will be glad that you can tell it never to ask you ever again if you don’t want it to.
This game doesn’t have the ‘one more go’ drive behind it where you push through frustration to achieve something, it’s more akin to hearing your favourite track on Spotify and immediately hitting repeat as the final chord is still ringing. Tellingly, I immediately started playing the whole thing again the moment I reached the end, and I can see myself coming back to it time and time again. What makes an amazing soundtrack even better? If Sayonara Wild Hearts is anything to go by, it’s being able to interact with it via laser beams, mecha wolves and drifting cars.
It’s not so much heart-pounding, as heart-swelling action, and it’s a hugely uplifting experience, despite the melancholic narrative set-up. It’s a rare thing in gaming to find something as gloriously life-affirming, and I’m already praying that Simogo feel up to a difficult second album. We need that right now.