The Wild at Heart feels like an amalgamation of some of Nintendo’s most unique gaming mechanics. Such a statement might strike fear into your heart, and we wouldn’t blame you. After all, many attempts by third-parties to imitate Nintendo’s design traits and tricks have fallen flat thanks to poor execution or a lack of understanding concerning what made such mechanics so great in the first place. The Wild at Heart, however, is one of the most successful stabs at playing Nintendo's game we’ve seen in some time.
Featuring a mix of gameplay elements from Pikmin, Luigi’s Mansion, and The Legend of Zelda, The Wild at Heart might, on paper at least, seem like it has no ideas of its own, instead being perfectly content with hanging on the coattails of Nintendo’s finest. However, despite pulling most of its mechanics from other games — not unlike the similarly magpie-like (and excellent) Death's Door — thanks to its well-realised world, engaging characters, and stunning visual design, developer Moonlight Kids has managed to craft something that feels wholly unique.
You play as Wake, a young boy who, along with his best friend Kirby (no, not that Kirby), heads off into the deep woods to escape a troubled childhood at home. After losing Kirby, Wake encounters and befriends Grey Coat, a wise old man who forms part of an order known as the Greenshields. Wake is tasked with locating other members of the order throughout the deep woods, tackling various puzzles and enemies along the way, all the while searching for his missing friend.
At the start of his adventure, Wake collects a piece of equipment called the Gustbuster, and this is remarkably similar to Luigi’s Poltergust, minus the handy ability to actually suck up ghosts. Early in the game, the Greenshields grant additional power to the Gustbuster, allowing Wake to traverse the land with it and pull key out-of-reach items towards him. As you progress, you’ll upgrade the Gustbuster, letting you use its power for longer periods of time.
Shortly after meeting the Greenshields and testing out his upgraded Gustbuster, Wake encounters adorable little creatures known as Spritelings. These are essentially the ‘Pikmin’ of this universe, and you’ll be cultivating and utilising these little guys quite a lot on your journey. Creating them is fairly straightforward, requiring a combination of collectible items called Twigling Pips and blue coloured orbs. You simply chuck these into a Spriteling Well and out pop the Spritelings. You can only have a maximum of 15 with you at the start of the game, but this increases over time.
The Spritelings themselves can be hurled around as you roam the land, mostly to either carry items for you or break down objects and monsters with their combined force. In the early hours, you’ll find a lot of tasks take a little bit of time, as you’ll only have a few of the Spritelings at once. As soon as you’re able to hatch larger batches of them in one go, though, their strength in numbers makes tasks much more manageable and time-friendly.
Of course, although useful in their own way, the Spritelings are nevertheless pretty inept when it comes to self-defence. Going up against larger creatures, they can be knocked back with relative ease, and multiple hits will lead to their death. There’s little you can do about this other than hatch even more of them to replace your extinguished friends, but it can make for some frustrating encounters, particularly since the enemies’ health bars replenish when you return to their locations. Sometimes, you just have to cross your fingers and hope that their increased numbers can chip away at a monster’s health before they’re all killed.
Despite these minor frustrations, the game does include a few quality-of-life conveniences to ensure you’re able to track and manage your Spriteling squad. Should any of them become stuck in the world at any point — whether it be on an island or a cliff side — you can spend 50 of your coloured orbs to warp the little guys back to your position. Alternatively, if you want to save your currency, you can dismiss any idle Spritelings entirely at the wells. Regardless of the method, you rarely need to worry too much about the wellbeing of your little friends.
Structurally, the game is largely similar to The Legend of Zelda, specifically Breath of the Wild in terms of its freedom of choice. When you’re given your main task of locating the Greenshields members, how you go about this is pretty much up to you. The map branches out into different paths, all of which are explorable, even if a few require a couple of upgrades to your equipment or Spritelings to navigate.
The size of the land does, however, mean that the game often struggles with its loading times. Smaller areas aren’t too bad, but when you move into a large, open space, the game often takes between 30-60 seconds to load. When you frequently need to move back and forth between areas, this can definitely get a bit irritating.
The good news, however, is that the loading times are more than worth it just so you can cast your eyes over the stunning visuals on display. With handcrafted 2D characters, the game’s unique style really shines through. This is a world that has been meticulously assembled with the utmost care, from the main characters right down to the flora and fauna. It makes you care about your actions, and pushes you to see your journey through to its end. Couple this with a beautifully calming soundtrack, and we honestly can’t praise the presentation enough.
The Wild at Heart borrows several of its mechanics from Nintendo IP, there’s no question about that. This could have presented a bit of a problem had it not been for the exquisite visual style and presentation, not to mention Moonlight Kids' excellent execution of those mechanics. With a story that’s equal parts amusing, intriguing, and emotional, alongside genuinely stunning 2D visuals, you’ll be sucked into this world in no time. Minor frustrations with combat and loading times aside, this is an adventure you’ll be glad you embarked on.