It took about fifteen years for the Japanese popularity of Monster Hunter to spread to the rest of the world. In that time, numerous competitors have emerged. There are hunting games in a late capitalist hellscape, a post-apocalyptic sc-ifi world, and one in a dark fairy tale.
Toukiden by Tecmo Koei was perhaps the closest thing to Monster Hunter in both gameplay and quality. Unfortunately, with the open world of Toukiden 2 a little too ambitious for the budget it was working with. Now the studio is trying again with a new IP and all the money EA as publisher can throw at it. That works. Wild Hearts is not only everything Toukiden 2 should have been – in some ways, it’s even way ahead of its biggest inspiration.
The danger of the Kemono
As you might expect from a hunting game, in Wild Hearts you hunt monsters. In this case, they are called Kemono and are actually existing beasts, but monstrously large and with a vegetable twist. We’re talking about out-sized rats, cats and other fauna intertwined with the flora around them. Planting has not only influenced the Kemono: the Kemono, in turn, manipulate the nature around them. In an instant, they transform their surroundings into a field of flowers, a snowy landscape or even a volcanic plain. Thus, like the monsters in Monster Hunter, the Kemono pose an ecological danger. At least, the danger applies mostly to humans. Like the average Ghibli film, Wild Hearts wonders (at first): do humans have the right to resist this, and isn’t human technology just as harmful?
Unfortunately, the superficial, but fairly present, plot quickly drops that theme. As a Kemono hunter, you set out to defeat the monsters in order to protect the town of Minato. To help you do this, you use mysterious wooden constructions called karakuri. At first this provides excitement, but soon all of Minato is converted. Even you as a roaming hunter have little choice to resist: you are literally fused with a piece of karakuri. That dichotomy does return here and there, but ultimately expresses itself only in a single equipment system. Namely, you have “human” and “kemono” variants of your gear, which are meant to reflect your beliefs in this area and each gives access to different abilities. That’s where it stops. A shame, because this friction would have been quite interesting to explore further.
The world feels vivid, believable and terrifying.
So in the elaboration of its plot, Wild Hearts is not exactly a Princess Mononoke. In its ancient Japanese, native aesthetic, on the other hand, it did look very much like this film. The world feels vivid, believable and terrifying. Nature clearly prevails, and its sublime, magical aspect is beautifully represented visually here. The giant game areas change as the story progresses and other Kemono take over. For example, an initially sunny beach freezes over into chilly ice landscape. Technically, it doesn’t necessarily feel current gen, and things like hideous snow effects are definitely a bummer. It clearly builds on what Nioh established last generation. Still, the graphics manage to convince from the first moment – purely on the basis of that artistic direction.
When you encounter a Kemono in these beautiful areas, the game plays almost identically to a Monster Hunter. You dodge attacks, look for an opening and try to inflict as much damage as possible in it. Kemono each have their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For example, one is susceptible to fire attacks with a sharp weapon against its tail, where you are better off slapping the other with a blunt ice weapon in front of its maw. Some monster parts can be broken or chopped off, providing additional materials to craft equipment from. After a certain amount of time or amount of damage, the monster will flee and lick its wounds, after which you chase it to deliver the final blow. So far, little new under the sun.
The weaponry at your disposal is also partly familiar. There is a bow and arrow, a hammer, and a “nodachi” that functions more or less as Monster Hunters greatsword. However, most of the weapons do have an interesting gimmick. The equivalent of dual blades let you fly around the enemy as if you were in Attack on Titan, the katana turns into a whip after a certain number of hits like Renji’s sword from Bleach, and the bow shoots the enemy full of bombs that you then detonate with a finisher.
The balance here is not quite perfect. Some weapons do oversimplify and others go unnecessarily far in their gimmick. For example, if you play the karakuri staff well, it randomly changes shape every combo resulting in a different moveset every time. Monster Hunter also has a number of more complex, transforming weapons, but this really takes the cake. The complexity is arbitrary, especially when compared to an equally effective but relatively simple weapon like the hand cannon.
Your weapon is only part of your arsenal in Wild Hearts. As mentioned earlier, you also have access to a set of karakuri. These constructions can take three forms. There are standard karakuri that allow you, for example, to put down a springboard for a special dodge with more range and invincibility frames, or a torch that gives you temporary access to fire attacks. Specific combinations of three to six of the basic karakuri form a “fusion karakuri. For example, six simple blocks transform into a wall that rebounds off an oncoming enemy, or you place multiple torches to shoot a flare into the air that startles a flying kemono and plummets to the ground.
Whereas similar items like flash bombs and traps are handy sidekicks in Monster Hunter, they are much needed in Wild Hearts. Indeed, Wild Hearts is balanced entirely on the use of the karakuri. Kemono are hugely aggressive and typically have multiple attacks that reach virtually the entire arena. So without constant use of your karakuri, you’re not only missing out on damage and opportunities: you’re also likely to get hit. A single hit here takes at least 50% off your HP, and one shots aren’t out of the question either, so a missed karakuri counter can mean instant end of practice. All of this makes for some hefty jumps in difficulty and some added frustration, but if the later Monster Hunters didn’t provide enough of a challenge for you, Wild Hearts will have your fun.
I would even venture to say that the choice of the four basic karakuri you carry is more important than the rest of your equipment. This choice determines what tools you have at your disposal, and must be tailored to the specific prey. Armour skills, on the other hand, have very little impact. Usually these are simple percentage upgrades like a higher crit chance, some more defense or a faster dodge. Their effects are barely noticeable. That’s a shame, but if the roadmap is to be believed, there are quite a few new weapons and equipment coming. Perhaps these will bring with them some special abilities.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned one of the three types of karakuri yet: that’s the dragon karakuri. The dragon karakuri represent the biggest change to the Monster Hunter formula. Dragon Karakuri are constructions that help you gather materials, or move through areas. You can use them to set up zip lines, lay down mounts and decide where your fast travel points will be located. This is necessary, by the way: the areas are huge and have huge height differences. So placing these structures really makes you feel like you are taming that wilderness.
That taming of the wilderness is permanent, by the way. Dragon karakuri only disappear when you remove them yourself, and thus remain even after separate hunts. Wild Hearts does not, in fact, consist only of single missions like Monster Hunter. Here you have a set of open areas where you can go wherever you want. Only when you attack a monster or start a mission from a campfire does time tick and count when your character dies. Monster Hunter World experimented with more free-form expeditions here, but in Wild Hearts, the individual areas really feel like vibrant environments precisely because of that freedom. Even without hunting, exploring the areas, creating shortcuts and finding collectibles is a joy.
Issues of Wild Hearts
The one thing that keeps Wild Hearts from being of the same quality as a monster Monster Hunter are its many technical problems. In general, Wild Hearts comes across as pretty neatly polished, but when things go wrong, they go right wrong. For example, I clipped through the environment numerous times, and experienced hefty FPS drops on the PS5 in performance mode – especially in multiplayer. Also, strange behavior when placing karakuri has cost me several lives and caused frustration. In addition, some effects, such as the aforementioned snow – are not particularly pretty to look at.
Well, technical issues can be fixed and hopefully will be in the upcoming, free updates. Even with these issues, Wild Hearts is a great game with a beautiful world, challenging battles and a lot of weapons and tools to master. The somewhat lopsided balance in weapon types and shallow armour skills you soon take for granted in the process. I sincerely hope Wild Hearts becomes a permanent franchise – if only to keep Monster Hunter on its toes. After all, with the ways Wild Hearts matches and even improves upon the Monster Hunter formula, it’s up to Monster Hunter 6 to make another splash.