Wild Hearts is a game that’s not shy about sharing its goals- it’s entering an incredibly niche Hunting Genre, where it’s only real competition is Capcom’s behemoth Monster Hunter franchise.
Still, with Koei Tecmo already having experience carving a niche-within-a-niche via the Nioh games, their studios have form- and after our time with Wild Hearts, it’s clear they’ve got what it takes to put Monster Hunter through its paces as you hunt the gorgeous Kemono in their fantasy world.
From a simple-yet-deep combat system to some genuinely interesting ideas about how to handle defense, Wild Hearts could very well be a game to watch when it releases next year.
It’s Got The Sauce
So one of the biggest problems with the Hunting Genre is just exactly what the developer thinks combat needs to be. While EA and Koei Tecmo have said things like elemental weaknesses will be a factor, our own hands-on time with Wild Hearts has proven that it backs that up with a combat system that’s just that good.
The preview build we got had a 5 weapons to try out, from the all-rounder Karakuri Katana to more extreme weapons like the Bladed Wagasa- an umbrella built around mobility and offense. Of course, those who want their combat ranged have a bow well, and all these weapons sport pretty deep mechanics on how they run.
Take the Wagasa for example- on its surface, it’s a pretty simple moveset- one fast close range attack, one advancing attack, and a parry. Each attack has its own follow up leading to a combo, which is further modified with a gauge that fills up whenever you do hits, similar to Monster Hunter’s Spirit Gauge for the Longsword. At higher levels, this adds more hits to each of your attacks, racking up even more damage and meter.
And that Parry I mentioned? Fills up a chunk of meter and can be done at any point during a combo, even in the air. Eat your heart out, Daigo.
It very much feels like Wild Hearts is the Nioh to Monster Hunter’s Dark Souls- it’s not content to just do the same things, it’s introducing a more offense-based gameplay since being defensive in this game rarely ever comes at the cost of losing your offensive capabilities.
It’s not like the Kemono are pushovers, either- you still need to learn their movesets and adapt appropriately. But the fact that you get such big payoffs for staying on the offense either from your weapon’s gimmicks or just bringing the Kemono down and breaking their parts is such good incentive to not do the Dark Souls keep-away dance and instead get in there.
This isn’t just the Wagasa, either- the Karakuri Katana also has a meter that fills up as you mount your offense, letting you enter the Unbound Stance- changing your moveset entirely as your katana turns into a bladed whip. Even the weapons without a Spirit Meter mechanic like the Bow or Nodachi are all about knowing when to hit, with moves that are about decisively knowing when you want to use which attacks, such as with the Hunting Bow’s two different arrow types comboing off each other or the Nodachi’s Iai stance for doing powerful unsheathe attacks if you charge it up right.
This level of complex offense does have some funny implications though- the Great Maul is a weapon whose whole gimmick is just being raw damage incarnate. Because it has no discernible mechanics to it outside of being slow and powerful, it’s easily the most boring weapon in the game. Even then, you can still do it’s powerful spin attack to rack up big damage numbers in a short period of time- it’s just that every other weapon uses stances and other tools in their kits to make it so you’re constantly deciding when’s the best time to use which parts of your kit. Still, having a simple “hit the monster” weapon is bound to tickle a few people’s fancy.
It also really works well with the game’s skill system- Considering loot is easily the worst part of every Nioh game (and, by extension, Stranger of Paradise), I was really worried that Wild Hearts would turn into yet another game about collecting colored loot whose only purpose is arbitrarily increasing the numbers on a bunch of stats.
Thankfully Wild Hearts drops that school of game design in favor of something more, well, Monster Hunter. While your standard “increases defense” skills are there, there’s also more substantial skills like an Evade Extender to increase the length of your dodge. Better yet, upgrading weapons can also give them armor skills too, so it looks like there’s a lot of potential for some sick builds that compliment your playstyle in future.
Chug Jug With You
Of course, it’d be remiss to not talk about Wild Heart’s most unique feature- the ability to build constructs a la Fortnite. This mechanic basically makes up the bulk of what the game considers defense- you can build crates to block some attacks, and I’m sure the skill to throw them out immediately is going to be extremely valuable in later hunts.
These Karakuri Constructs are split into two types- Dragon Karakuri are meant to be permanent installations, and require you to unlock resources in the maps to accomodate them. These can include things like Hunting Towers to locate your prey, to “Flying Vines”, which act as ziplines to make traversal easier.
Meanwhile, the normal Karakuri consume Karakuri strings, which you can tap from the environment or even the Kemono themselves when you deal enough damage to them. These make more simple constructs, like crates or springboards. My main gripe with these is that what they’re for can feel counter-intuitive. The springboard, for example, has a main function of removing sticky sap from you. If I hadn’t read that tool tip when it popped up, it’d be functionally useless since it doesn’t launch you particularly far and I don’t think anyone has ever considered “running really fast” as a way to clean themselves from a mess.
Even if you’re not an acolyte of Builder, Bob, hunts are perfectly ok to complete without them- anyone comfortable with just dodging through attacks will likely find themselves wondering why the build mechanic is there at all.
But for newer players, having the defensive mechanics be independent of your weapon choice is probably going to be a breath of fresh air, since you can easily choose the weapons you want and have the same toolset for keeping a plant-rat from tearing you a structurally superfluous new behind.
It looks like the game does intend for you to rely on them more though, since it’s really easy to get more Karakuri strings. Exploiting Kemono weakpoints even lets you go over the limit, likely to construct bigger Karakuri like the ones shown in the gameplay reveal trailer last week.
Let The Hunt Begin
From our time with it, Wild Hearts is shaping up to be a great addition to the Hunting genre. It seems to understand what a lot of live service games don’t- that deep combat, not colored loot, is what makes for an engaging grind. The focus on offense is enough to set it apart from Monster Hunter, and the Karakuri system is sure to turn up some interesting speedrun strategies in future.
That being said, it’s biggest flaw lies in its setting. Wild Hearts takes itself very seriously, tying everything into the Kemono and the Karakuri. I feel like while yes, many games do struggle to balance seriousness and lightheartedness, just going all-in on the serious tone feels kind of dull. Worse still, giving everything Japanese names for no reason other than to have it sound Japanese feels less authentic and more fetishistic. I’ve written this whole article with a notepad next to me with the official names for the weapons, since weapons like the Nodachi and Wagasa just don’t translate well, especially when games like Monster Hunter have such literal weapon names.
Still, Wild Hearts has a strong shot at being my time-consumer for early 2023, even releasing at the same quarter Monster Hunter usually guns for. Nioh-style gameplay without the annoying loot grind is a powerful combination, and other quality of life features like transmog and cross play mean there’s a good chance I could be hooked on this for a while.
Game tried out on PC, with hands-on access courtesy of EA.