Wild Hearts has to deal with a very obvious elephant in the room: with its heavily-Japanese-inspired aesthetic and open-world structure, it’s going to be fending off a lot of “Like Monster Hunter Rise, but…” comparisons. This isn’t a death sentence: the last time KOEI Tecmo and Omega Force tried their hand at using an established game as a launching pad, it gave us the “Like Dark Souls, but…” Nioh games. So maybe Wild Hearts can rise out of Monster Hunter’s shadow? The outset of the adventure is at least promising. For starters, Omega Force’s beloved character creator is back from the Nioh games, letting players be as intricate with their character designs as they’d like. There’s even a height modifier this time around, which for a game like Wild Hearts must’ve been a nightmare to incorporate given hitboxes. Considering that fashion is the true end-game for these titles, so far, so good.
Now, about those fights with the Kemono? They’re what you expect. Massive monsters lumber around the map, using telegraphed attacks to take swings at you. Players dodge and weave through their attacks, taking potshots at the giant monster until one or the other keels over. If the player dies, their rewards are diminished. Die three times, and the hunt failed. No two ways about it; it’s Monster Hunter. The big X-factor here is the Karakuri, mystical contraptions. Early on, you’re only using simple boxes, but later you unlock more far-reaching Karakuri, like gliders that whisk you up from the ground or springs that launch you forward. In a curious twist, there are also combination Karakuri with much more creative effects; a massive stack of boxes can turn into a Bulwark that stuns any charging foe, for example. But a glider stacked between two boxes becomes an elemental lantern that weakens any Kemono’s elemental attacks. These combinations feel more like weapon combos than anything else. While some of the weirder or more complicated ones are more situational than anything else (the Pounder is a giant hammer that would require a Kemono to stand absolutely still for what feels like a little too long), the Karakuri nevertheless add a nice wrinkle to combat. Any of them make your attacks differ, encouraging experimentation and rewarding creativity.
The Kemono themselves, sadly, don’t stand out. Mostly, they’re just animals that seem to be mutated by an elemental force. Some of the smaller ones are honestly cute (my favorite is a large monitor lizard covered in ferny scales). But some of the larger ones, like Kingtusk (a massive boar with viney tusks), are… big animals. They look more impressive once they’re in their Enraged states, with their flowers blooming fiery red, but few Kemono seem to stand out. Their names could be more inspired, too. I’ll be the first to admit that some Wyvern names like Magala or Nergigante seem like gibberish, but they still feel more creative than “Ragetail” or “Sapscourge.” There also aren’t terribly many: while future DLC updates promise to add more Kemono, Wild Hearts only features 14 different monsters at its outset. (Even excluding the smaller monsters, Monster Hunter Rise boasts a bestiary of 46 monsters, not including DLC). Weapons also don’t feel very inspired, but they feel fun to use. Even the basic Karakuri Katana feels intuitive. While Wild Hearts only features eight weapons, they all feel fantastic.
Maps and regions are enormous, helped in no small part by the massive cliffs and valleys dotting them. Players run through these areas gathering materials and ingredients while activating Dragon Pools. These Dragon Pools allow you to construct Dragon Karakuri, which helps with your menial tasks: item collection, cooking food, forging weapons, tracking down other Kemono, the list goes on. You can also upgrade Dragon Pools to increase their potency, allowing you to build even more Dragon Karakuri.
As players progress through the game and hunt monsters, they unlock newer and newer Karakuri that let them traverse the environment in new ways. These Karakuri are also useful for combat: a zipline Karakuri can be used to cross great chasms, but it can also be fired at a Kemono so that you can zip toward it and deliver a powerful dive attack. Each new Karakuri encourages you to go back to old maps and poke around at areas you couldn’t scale before, accessing new areas loaded with items, food, Kemono, and hidden treasures. And Karakuri persist between fights, meaning that with enough diligence, you can construct a massive network of ziplines and wind tunnels to fly across acres in one go. Exploration feels good, even in the early game when you don’t have a wide variety of Karakuri, and you still have to hotfoot it from one side of the map to the other. A day-to-night system keeps track of the in-game time, allowing ingredients to dry out or different kinds of Kemono to appear. And at any point, should you find yourself in a surprise bout with a Kemono, you can hit a button to invite players online to help you in your fight seamlessly. This last detail is a big one: there were plenty of times when I was restless roaming the maps and offered my services to anyone online who was hunting a Kemono; it was a snap and barely impeded my progress. You’re limited to the Kemono you’ve encountered before, and you won’t be able to request help in cases where Kemono are severely weakened. Still, any Kemono you help kill counts towards your own quests.
In my playtime, the PC port of Wild Hearts ran spottily; whether because of network issues or optimization issues, Wild Hearts has issues with slowdown that can make traversing its big maps feel annoying. It’s incredibly annoying when trying to chase down monsters, especially in another player’s map, where they might not have Karakuri in places you’re used to. This all adds up to a game that, while undoubtedly competent, nevertheless feels like a very ambitious also-ran. Wild Hearts can be forgiven for its general feel and controls being so similar to Monster Hunter. But while the game itself is solid, performance issues aside, I nevertheless struggle to find some reason to recommend it over Monster Hunter Rise. Wild Hearts is a very ambitious beginning to what could be a fantastic franchise—lest we forget, fantastic games like Saint’s Row had their beginnings as ersatz copies of other, better-known games. While Wild Hearts may not deliver on Nioh’s intense depth or Monster Hunter Rise’s sheer amount of content, it is at least very promising. I have high hopes for their future.