It could’ve been so easy to write off Wild Hearts as nothing more than a Monster Hunter clone: you are, after all, a hunter who dons unique weapon archetypes and cleaves their way through large monsters (and lackluster stories) in semi-open worlds that yield highly interactive and sometimes destructible environments, ultimately fashioning weaponry and armor based on parts of the monster you get after the hunt . Wild Hearts begins to diverge pretty significantly hereafter though, transforming into something that, while familiar, does manage to take some confident swings that thankfully connect and make it all the better.
But first, the basics. Wild Hearts’ wouldn’t feel complete after all if it didn’t have a robust character creator and familiar weapon types that inspire different ways to play. To the former, I was able to make an incredibly hideous character thanks to the help of some visiting baby cousins, which went a long way to show the system’s depth before I erased him and settled on a guy who wouldn’t be such an eyesore. On the latter front, though I toyed around with and found the merit in weapons such as the katana and later on the karakuri staff, my heart belongs to the wagasa, a bladed umbrella with an intoxicating parry that occasionally let me float down to the ground like Mary Poppins. A full party of three hunters playing to various strengths will obviously make great use of a mixture of these, and almost none of them feel truly unviable in the long run. You upgrade these in much the same way you always have and your armor works the same way, though there are eventually armor modification paths that present themself and add an extra set of bonuses on top of the typical boost to defense. The greatest thing I can say here is that this boilerplate stuff that should feel right does and allows the rest of the game to experiment to the degree it does.
The most immediate shakeup to the standard monster hunting formula in Wild Hearts, and what ultimately makes the biggest difference in its world, is the karakuri, a fantastical addition to your toolset that blends aspects of mysticism and the advancement of technology into one. Karakuri, which aesthetically appear like early wooden machines held together and made operational by aetheric string, soon become a magical multitool for players to use when navigating Wild Hearts’ various environments, decorating their hubs and base camps, and of course hunting the Kemono, this game’s elemental monstrosities. Being able to conjure crates with springboards or torches that set your weapon on fire in a pinch doesn’t feel natural to begin with, but it’s grown to become a remarkable extension of my abilities more than 20 hours in. It helps that many of the game’s environments, as well as the natural progression of the story, allow the player to explore the full potential of karakuri at a pace that makes sense then.
For example, Wild Hearts’ opening is largely based around becoming familiar with the most basic applications of karakuri: the crate. Their uses are twofold: on one hand, they help you scale walls and on the other, they springboard you up into the air to do a plunging attack. At the same time, you are charged with establishing a base camp with what the game refers to as dragon karakuri, a branch of it that’s simply more permanent. Dragon karakuri are more likely to remain in your world (and rebuild themselves if they are ever destroyed), while your basic crate is likely to be destroyed in battle and need replacement. Within the hour, you’ll have a firm understanding of what these things accomplish and where to deploy them, even if it doesn’t feel too intuitive to begin with. Over the course of the game’s hunts, certain Kemono will use moves that will “awaken” the knowledge in the player character to combine these simple karakuri into fusions that represent a huge leap forward—i.e., two columns of three crates each will form a bulwark wall that’ll stop a charging enemy in its tracks and let you stagger and punish it. These awakenings are drip fed over the course of several hours, allowing you enough time to become used to conjuring one fusion before another comes down the pipe. All the while, you’re likely also formalizing the structure of the dragon karakuri in your persistent world, making rope courses out of ziplines that act as shortcuts to dart around the map quickly.
If it all sounds a bit involved, well, it is, but Wild Hearts gets that and smartly places constraints that are friendlier than they are limiting. For example, you can only have four basic karakuri (crates, torches, a dedicated springboard, etc.) equipped at once, limiting how many of the game’s fusion karakuri you can make at any given time. This means that loadouts become especially important, as well as coordination with cooperative partners, of which you can have up to two. My friend and I split up the possibilities between the both of us to better cover all our bases, which almost felt like becoming specialists in certain karakuri fusions. And to keep track of how to make them, as they can be a bit elaborate, holding the karakuri button (on Xbox, this wound up being my left bumper) brought up a list in the top right corner, as if they were combo strings to put together. It especially became important to plan with a cooperator because karakuri is also limited and you have to know where to find sources of it in the world around you. As another smart constraint, dragon karakuri function as part of an economy tied to these things in the world called dragon pits, which have to be unblocked with materials you can scavenge in the environments and through hunts, meaning you can’t just pack your world to the brim. There has to be a logical reasoning to your expansion. It all comes together to make what could be an awkward mechanic feel intuitive enough to pick up and be proficient at. Dozens of hours later, making complicated karakuri feels natural as I hunt down my next Kemono target.
Speaking of which, I love the Kemono. Mostly distorted versions of existing animals, such as an ape made of craggy molten rocks, the Kemono of Wild Hearts are vibrant and stylish, like the Deathstalker that dons most of its cover art. I only wish there were a greater degree of variety in Wild Hearts’ Kemono; most of the creatures you fight are land-based for example, but I hope they introduce more aerial monsters and maybe even aquatic creatures, and there’s definitely room for further elements to be added in the future. While hunting Kemono is mostly the same as it is in other games of the genre, I am particularly struck by their design and how they interact with the world around them. Similar to us and our karakuri, these monsters draw on an energy that has brought them to a place where they are arbiters of change in their ecosystems. One particular plot beat sees a single monster essentially induce climate change on a singular island as a display of strength. Some Kemono have similar but smaller impacts in battle, such as rats that slam their tails into the ground, causing grass to grow around the crater, and as you break off pieces of these creatures, you not only open wounds from which you can siphon an excess of karakuri thread, but their broken pieces sometimes become part of the world itself. A dreadclaw (think of a chicken made entirely of earth and branches with a hell of a kick) will lose its tail only for it to become a bramble of twigs, which not only stylishly links them to the world but solves a readability problem other games have had.
Wild Hearts actually fixes countless issues I’ve had with Monster Hunter, despite my adoration of the series in recent years. Mostly, it fixes its complications. As I’ve already mentioned, it doles out evolutions of the main mechanic so that players never feel overwhelmed. This steady approach bleeds into countless aspects of the game such as armor and Kemono variants. There are significantly fewer menus and vendors in Wild Hearts, which just makes the game easier to understand. Its hub world is big and deep but never sprawling. Multiplayer in particular is streamlined to the point where you wonder how the hell it could ever have gone so wrong for other games. Even the game’s biomes are rich in texture without adding incomprehensible layers that take far too long to make sense of before moving to the next. Wild Hearts is simpler without forsaking actual complexity and makes clear that the two aren’t as mutually exclusive as one might’ve been led to believe.
Wild Hearts is a great success that takes the template laid out by its competition and strikes out on its own with the addition of an invaluable new tool in the form of the karakuri. That magical string not only holds the game together, but lets it stand tall at the end of the day. Sure, you can boil it down to Monster Hunter meets Fortnite, but also if you stop and think about that for a second, that idea kind of rules, and so does Wild Hearts. All the while, it makes smart tweaks and skews heavier into style rather than simulation, allowing Wild Hearts to step out of the shadow of giants and carve out a space for its own.
Wild Hears is developed by Koei Tecmo and published by EA. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It is also available on PS5 and PC.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.