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Sayonara Wild Hearts is a rhythm-action game quite unlike any other - and yet, it's also a combination of just about all of them to have come before it. We've all played music titles - everything from Rez to PaRappa, via Guitar Hero and Amplitude. But while it leans on precedent for mechanical inspiration, Sayonara Wild Hearts really is the album format translated into a video game. And that feels really, really special.
Indeed, its makers at Swedish studio Simogo - previously known for the exceptional mobile games Year Walk and Device 6 - call this "a pop album video game". And after playing it myself, and enjoying it far beyond my expectations, I cannot disagree. It's a perfect description. Much like an album, it's designed to be played over and over again, each new listen - each new playthrough - revealing deeper layers, hidden secrets and riddles to tie you up in knots.
And, like an album, it doesn't stick around long. Which is to be commended - if Sayonara Wild Hearts' gameplay was dragged out beyond being 'beatable' inside 90 minutes, it'd begin to feel lumpen, stuffed with filler. In other words, it'd hit you like a bad album where the artist in question hasn't managed to coerce their individual songs into a coherent, compelling sequence.
But don't let its short play time fool you - the joy of Sayonara Wild Hearts is learning each micro-beat of its tracks, of its levels, and attaining a gold rank in each. This is a game all about rhythm and movement, of following tracks as you might in Amplitude and hitting button prompts at the perfect time, in a fashion akin to the evergreen Elite Beat Agents. There are roads to race along on both two wheels and four, jumps to nail and skids to perfect. There are swords to clash, fists to let fly, ships to sail and worlds beyond the world beyond our own to explore from a variety of perspectives, all in hot pinks and deep purples, decorated with sparks of starlight.
Which is to say: this takes all the best bits of past rhythm-action games and wraps them into a fascinating, embracing, electrifying whole that never trades exclusively on the successes of the genre's past. There's always something new to see and, more importantly, to hear.
Sayonara Wild Hearts features some of gaming's purest, sweetest original pop music, written by Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng and Linnea Olsson. Synths pulse and electronic beats thump and thud, while the vocals shimmer and soar one moment only to collapse into introspective reflection the next. If sad bangers are your thing, this is full of them, themed as these songs are (likewise the game) around a heartbreak resonating across dimensions.
The songs, the levels, come in different shapes and sizes. Some are short and simple, while boss fights can be multifaceted affairs involving precision-pressing and button-mashing alike, as well as slick navigation through tight city streets, dense forests and virtual reality passageways that seem to be leading to a game of Tetris. Every time what you're doing, in terms of inputs, changes, it's handled with smoothness that never shakes you from your rhythm. Whether speeding along a motorway or blasting mechanical wolves, the gameplay styles are wholly complementary.
The music is what keeps you coming back. Excellent in and of itself (it's on Spotify, so have a listen), it comes into its own once interactivity is thrown into the mix. Each level (check out one in full, in the video above) can be 'beaten' easily, as there's no condition where you can ever lose - run into an obstacle or get blasted by a laser beam and the track merely rewinds a little, giving you another crack at what defeated you almost instantly.
But attaining every gold rank (which unlocks even more content) means executing each move, every prompt, with microsecond accuracy. Much like musician learning songs, you'll fudge it a few times - or even a lot of times - but the tracks ultimately dig in and get under your skin. And when they do, you'll be racing towards high scores in no time. Towards them, at least, because being the best in this game is tough.
Getting to that point isn't made easy by some of the controls, though. Playing through the game on Switch, I found the sensitivity of the left stick to be a bit of a problem, especially during the first-person sections, where you have to line up your flightpath with a course through ever-shifting obstacles. Keep on getting it wrong and the game will let you proceed anyway, unlocking the next level in the process - and you needn't even score the lowest rank to move on, either. But you'll want to finish them all, to hear these songs to their crescendos. Twitchy controls is just something I'll have to get used to, as I push towards my own gold standards.
Sayonara Wild Hearts delivers hit after hit of sumptuous pop goodness. You don't have to connect with its story of an everyday girl turned into our protagonist, The Fool; or with its themes of heartache, heartbreak, and the repair process we go through after a relationship collapses to enjoy it. The rush of each level's marriage of sights and sounds is more than enough, even on the shorter ones. Out now on Switch, PS4 and iOS, this is a game to set your skin tingling and swell your soul, if you'll let it in.
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