“Sayonara” is Japanese for “goodbye".
Alright, you probably didn’t need help with that one. On the other hand, with Sayonara Wild Hearts, a new video game on the Nintendo Switch developed by Swedish developer Simogo, you’ll probably need some help, both to understand it and to master it. It’s self-described as a “pop album video game”, but what that translates to is basically an arcade game in love with its own technicolour styling. Sayonara Wild Hearts is drenched in style, meanwhile, the gameplay itself is almost indifferent to the player (that is, unless, you go looking for a challenge, in which Sayonora Hearts will hand your butt to you in a basket).
We went hands-on with the latest build of the game at PAX West, the demo set in handheld mode and the music flowing through a headset. We (often literally) blazed through some half-dozen levels, and even though the demo was only some 15 minutes long, it was paced well and easy to fall in love with, just like the characters in this game often do with themselves.
So what exactly are you doing in Sayonara Wild Hearts? Well, it’s a lane-switching auto-runner, so it’s about a person going forward, in circles, and flying all over time and space. You collect neon heart shapes that dot your path, guide you, and make your points go up. You can, in fact, do things like fall into cracks, fall off your on-rails track, or hit a wall, in which case the game resets you back a few seconds, like a skipping record, until you’re able to progress. At level’s end, the number of hearts you have determines your ranking, and that’s that.
If you’re at all interested in Sayonara Wild Hearts based on Simogo’s oeuvre of games, recalibrate your expectations a bit because you’re in for something completely different here. There are maybe only two common threads it holds with previous Simogo titles like Year Walk, Device 6, and The Sailor’s Dream: the production values are fully realized and super glossy, and sound is key. Everything else, though? Well, you ride a motorcycle at mach speed while chasing fashionista gang members, so, yeah, this is no interactive mystery novel.
But while Sayonara Wild Hearts isn’t brooding, it goes the other way with it to great effect. The game begins with an average joe asleep in bed before the perspective of the camera shifts completely sideways, forcing said protagonist to fall out of the bed, then out of the frame altogether. Then, through the magic of J-pop, they somehow become a superhero made from neon. If you’ve ever seen pretty much any anime intro-theme ever, you’re already mentally equipped enough to go along for the ride.
Each level is like an elegant chase scene set to music. Why a chase? It’s hard to say, but you’re chasing something, probably to do with love. Sometimes it’s on foot, sometimes on rails, other times on motorbike or even flying through the air using just your arms. Each level is very short. In fact, only one of them in the demo, the last, was what someone might even consider a full song. Think micro-action scenes set to a short melody.
Subtly but crucially, the music never really lets up at any point, not during narration, nor even between levels, but instead, it remains kinetic and fluid and never lets the player’s mind wander. “Pop album” indeed, like a flowing concept album with different peaks and valleys, but clearly retaining a single theme.
And for a game all about music, it's a good thing the music is good. This game bops. It’s hard to wipe the smile off your face when you’re nodding the whole time, collecting hearts and pirouetting through space. It smartly uses its pop song structure to surprise you, much like a song that knows it has to hook you every minute and a half or so. This translates in interactive form by generously introducing the player to new mechanics out from left field suddenly and often. One second you’re running after your love, then Earth cracks and you fly to survive, then you’re not collecting hearts but timing button presses to shrinking circles in West Side Story-esque square offs. It’s hard to believe all of this happened inside of 15 minutes.
And a word on difficulty: it’s not. But it is. Using minimal effort, anyone can glide their little dancing person to the finish line. But collecting all the hearts? The perspective shifts alone make this feat seem actually impossible, and yet a gold ranking exists for the perfectionists among us. For reference, we got silver every single level, but this was with maximum effort. It’s great to know that the difficulty is there for those who want it.
But can Simogo keep up the variety per level? Is this game actually longer than a single album’s worth of music? Does true love exist? Check back with Nintendo Life for our full review when it releases later this year.