The Switch isn’t exactly lacking in short, artistic games that grab your attention for a scant couple of hours, unleash all ‘the feels’ (as the kids say) then wander off into the sunset, leaving you dumbstruck at what you’ve just played. Gris, Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch are just three examples of Switch games that provide these short but highly concentrated journeys that stay with you far longer than they take to beat. You can now happily add Sayonara Wild Hearts to this acclaimed list because while it’s a short game, it’s one you really have to experience.
Experience is the right word here, by the way. Although Sayonara Wild Hearts absolutely is a video game in every sense of the word – it’s split into 20-odd levels, there are items to collect and obstacles to avoid, and you’re given a score at the end – it’s also a ride. It may always be clear what your overall goal is, but the way this goal is presented to you is constantly changing, in the best possible way.
To go into too much detail would be to spoil part of the game’s essence: half the fun here is starting a new level and letting out a wee swear word – not an angry one, but an awe-inspired one, probably with “ohhh” before it – as you realise how the game’s managed to transform its basic mechanic into yet another different style. Whether you’re on a skateboard, a motorbike, a sports car, a horse, and whether you’re travelling through a forest, a city, the skies or some abstract Escher style world, twisting and morphing under your feet as the camera swoops around (all at a flawless 60 frames per second), you might want to put a little net in front of your mouth to stop flies taking advantage of your constantly-dropped jaw.
Now that we’re verging on “it’s so good you’ll accidentally swallow insects” territory, let’s calm down a bit and look at what we’re actually dealing with here. Sayonara Wild Hearts tells the story of a young woman whose heart has been broken, and takes you on her emotional journey as she tries to come to terms with it and eventually move on with her life. As with many short, artistic games, a lot of the plot here is open to interpretation: you make of the protagonist’s journey what you want to make of it. After all, when you’re on a motorbike shooting at a giant three-headed robot wolf, it’s not like the parallels with a relationship breakdown are immediately obvious. Actually, maybe they are.
The actual game element of Sayonara Wild Hearts is straightforward enough. Each stage is on rails and has you collecting a series of hearts and various other glowing power-ups, each with varying points values. Your initial aim is simply to collect as many of them as you can and avoid the various obstacles thrown at you until you reach the end of the stage. Occasionally, you’ll get Elite Beat Agents-style rhythm prompts – you know the sort, where the circle shrinks and you press a button at the right time – but these are extremely lenient.
This is not a game that wants you to fail, at least on a basic level. You absolutely can die, and the incredibly high speed of the action combined with the slightly twitchy controls means there are a few sections later in the game that can be a little tricky to navigate. But each time you die, the game simply rewinds back a few seconds and lets you try it again, and again, and again. And if you still can’t do it a prompt will come up asking you if you just want to skip that bit. After all, there’s a break-up to get over here, and there’s no way this game is going to let its heroine fail to reach the closure she needs.
Before the self-appointed ‘hardcore’ gamers – the ones with the final stage of Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels tattooed on their small intestine – start complaining that this is another example of games pandering to non-gamers, sit down and relax. Beating the game and reaching its ending is something everyone will be able to manage, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a challenge to be found here. Clearing a stage is one thing, but clearing each one with a gold rank is a whole different story.
Here’s the idea: each time you collect an item without dying, the next one is worth more points. For example, the first small heart you collect is only worth 1 point, but the next is worth 2, then 3 and so on. If you can stay alive and collect as many of these hearts as possible, you’ll eventually get to the point where you’re getting 153, 154, 155 points each time. Add to this the larger power-ups – which also multiply in value but to a greater degree – and the extra points you get for timing the rhythm bits perfectly, and the high score potential is obvious here. The catch is that dying resets the counter, meaning you drop back down to 1 point for the next heart again; the aim for a high score and potential gold rank, then, is to collect as much as you can without dying.
This is much easier said than done. Everything zooms by at an extremely fast pace here, and the visual spectacle can sometimes make navigation trickier than you’d initially expect. Many of the game’s beautiful, neon-soaked stages are littered with set-pieces, often morphing and transforming your entire environment while you’re still on the move. Add to this the occasional dramatic camera swoop and your simple task of moving around and collecting stuff suddenly becomes noticeably trickier (though never frustratingly so, crucially).
There’s one main issue with Sayonara Wild Hearts. It’s one that eventually resolves itself, but by that point, the initial damage has been done to an extent. The game is described by its developers as a "playable pop album", and that’s absolutely accurate: for better and worse. This happens to be one of those albums that have little intermission tracks, which means a number of the game’s 23 stages are far too short and end just as you feel like you’re about to get into things. It’s especially annoying when you consider how deeply immersive this game is; having that immersion cut off abruptly – sometimes after less than a minute – so you can be given your score for that brief section and get dumped back to a level select screen can be really jarring.
There’s an unlockable spoiler in this paragraph, so move onto the conclusion if you don’t want to know it. Still with us? Well, this issue is thankfully addressed when you clear every stage for the first time and unlock Album Arcade mode. This takes all 23 stages and joins them together, giving you one glorious, unbroken journey with a single high score. It’s only at this point that you truly appreciate what that “playable pop album” description means; the whole game itself only takes around 45-50 minutes to beat in this way, but the incredible electro-pop music merges with the unbroken action in a way we haven’t seen since Rez. Play it in handheld mode with headphones on and it’s almost spiritual at times. It’s just a shame that you have to play through it in a broken-up manner first; after all, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is the video game equivalent of Prince: it’s extremely short and its journey maybe ends a little sooner than you’d hoped, but it packs so many varied and beautiful ideas into its brief life and masters so many different styles that even though there’s a real disappointment it’s over so quickly, what it did give you will remain with you for an extremely long time. A true creative masterpiece.