One of the best parts of reviewing games is when you come across a title that has had little fanfare, allowing it to hit you out of left-field when it turns out to be great. The Wild at Heart had piqued my interest with its early trailers, but I hadn’t heard too much about it since then. It certainly looks distinctive, with an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Double Fine and mechanics that bring together some of Nintendo’s most innovative games, but most importantly, it brings it all together with a real feeling of, yes, heart.
You begin the game as 12-year-old Wake, running away from home due to another argument with his neglectful father. Gathering up your most prized possessions and disappearing into the forest, the tone is certainly far more melancholy than the cartoony graphics might suggest. This backstory is skilfully revealed throughout the game with a number of dream sequences and flashbacks and, without spoilers, it’s enough to say that it packs a pretty emotional punch.
You are meant to meet up with your friend Kirby (in what seems to be a nod to Nintendo’s classic platformer) in the woods, but in true fairy tale fashion, the darkness descends and you find yourself in a mysterious part of the forest where everything is not quite real. The forest is under attack from the Never, a sinister darkness that feeds on memories and threatens to destroy everything, and it soon becomes apparent that you have to fight it to save the woods.
The forest environment is really nicely depicted, with a detailed and distinctive cartoony style that has a real sense of individual character. At times it reminded me of the similarly themed Knights and Bikes or Costume Quest, both great games from which you can take influence. All of the characters are well designed with charming quirks and names to match. You first meet a shaman figure called Grey Coat, with other NPCs including Trash Heap, Toothpick and the unfortunately monikered Litterbox, so named because she asks you to find her missing cats.
The first half of the game sees you explore the forest to find all of these characters and reunite them in the central hub, a process that introduces you to both the mechanics and the layout of the forest. As you locate the characters, though, you’ll come across many impassable areas which will require you to return later with new abilities. This Metroidvania design makes the most of a manageably-sized forest and encourages you to track back and open up areas as you go (although you can go back and collect all hidden items after the credits).
Upon finding the central hub of the game, The Grove, you unlock the ability to befriend Spritelings, little forest dwellers with more than a dash of Pikmin to their design. This is one of the two main Nintendo influences in the game’s design, with the other being your backpack vacuum cleaner relocated right out of Luigi’s Mansion. This vacuum can be used to clear trash and obstacles (although it needs to be upgraded for the latter) as well as pull in your Spritelings when they get stuck. This mechanic works really well for the most part and is a great help when the sometimes fiddly aiming for throwing the Spritelings goes astray. You also eventually manage to meet up with Kirby, who brings along a magical lantern that works similarly to the vacuum, but is effective for different switches and objects.
Once reunited with Kirby the game takes on a more puzzle-based approach as you must use Wake and Kirby’s unique abilities alongside the Spritelings to work your way around the forest and collect the many objects you need to save the forest from the Never.
Alongside your trusty items, you’ll use the skills and abilities of the trusty Spritelings. As with Pikmin these come in a variety of colours that you’ll unlock as the game progresses. First off you’ll find standard ones that are strong against poison and can activate bloom switches when thrown towards them, and you’ll later make friends with fire, ice, bramble, and lunar varieties and many puzzles will require you to make use of a balanced range of these little creatures. You can make your team of Spritelings suit whatever obstacles you might find and this adds a nice dose of strategy and planning. Whilst exploring I tended to keep a balanced team, but then specialised to suit particular enemies and obstacles.