You only need to glance at Wild Hearts for a moment to see the similarities it shares with Capcom's Monster Hunter series. Both games are about exploring large, open areas--either alone or with other players--to find and defeat giant monsters, then harvesting and using their parts to craft better weapons and armor. Developer Omega Force has explored the genre before with the Toukiden series, and those two games represent perhaps the best examples of the monster-hunting genre outside of Capcom's own influential best-sellers. With Wild Hearts, Omega Force hasn't just set out to create a simple imitation, though. Sure, it has plenty of familiar elements, but the novel Karakuri system gives the game a unique identity that sets it apart from its contemporaries.
In the fiction of Wild Hearts, Karakuri is an ancient technology used by hunters to conjure impressive pieces of technology out of thin air. In action, it's a fast-paced crafting system that serves multiple functions, opening up your available options both in and out of combat. You start with what are known as Basic Karakuri, the first of which lets you produce a wooden crate that launches you into the air when you climb on top of it. You can stack up to three of these crates at once to generate extra height, which proves useful when exploring the environment but really comes into its own when fighting Wild Hearts' various monsters, known as Kemono. You can launch from these crates and transition into a devastating downward strike, or utilize the added elevation to quickly avoid an area-of-effect attack that spews out a pool of lava or poisonous clouds. Most Karakuri serve a dual purpose such as this, whether it's a springboard that proves useful in dodging attacks and propelling you toward Kemono, or a glider that allows you to traverse large gaps and position yourself above monsters for an aerial barrage.
Erecting these Karakuri is quick and simple, so it doesn't take long before you're integrating the various devices into each combat encounter. Constructing a crate, springboard, or torch in the heat of battle eventually becomes second nature, and being able to do so is just as essential to each battle as knowing how to use your specific weapon of choice. Later on, you also unlock various Fusion Karakuri, which use different combinations of Basic Karakuri to create larger, more elaborate contraptions. Stacking nine crates together in three rows, for instance, produces a rock-solid wall that can block incoming projectiles or halt a charging Kemono in its tracks, launching the beast into the air before leaving it in a vulnerable heap on the ground. You can also summon gigantic bouncing hammers, powerful bombs, and blinding firework cannons that can knock flying enemies out of the sky.
There's something immensely satisfying about creating an apparatus out of thin air and using it to gain an advantage over a 20-foot-tall monster, yet the presence of these multifaceted tools doesn't dilute the tension that's inherent to the genre. Each one costs a specific resource to build called Celestial Thread. If you run out, you can find more by hacking down trees and rocks, or by extracting chunks of it by targeting weak spots on a Kemono's body. This ensures that you need to think strategically and consider when and how to use Karakuri, but it also offers extra encouragement to play with other people because you can pool all of your individual resources together. You might build a wall to protect a teammate who's stunned, all leap from the same structure to deliver three consecutive aerial attacks, or help someone finish building a mechanism after they've run out of Celestial Thread.
There are numerous ways to play cooperatively and it's a fairly simple process, whether you're aiming to party up with friends or join a couple of strangers. You can search for other sessions that are tackling specific hunts, join a fellow hunter in need, ask for assistance yourself, or create your own party, and the inclusion of cross-play also makes it that much easier to group up with others. You have the opportunity to revive each other, too, which makes Wild Hearts' multiplayer more approachable than Monster Hunter's. Everyone still shares the same pool of three lives, but you're less likely to die if someone else is around to help you back up.
You can play the entirety of Wild Hearts solo, but there are a few drastic difficulty spikes that make this a perilous proposition. The first roadblock is a Kemono ominously called Deathstalker. After failing to put a dent in it on more than a few occasions, I spent a couple of hours hunting other monsters so I could improve my gear and focus on its elemental strengths and weaknesses. Equipped with the best ice-resistant armor I could craft, and the best fire-tinged weapon at my disposal, it still took me a few tries to eventually defeat the beast. I imagine this would have been easier if I could enlist the help of other hunters, but this proved impossible on this particular hunt prior to launch, so I was stuck by myself. If you're averse to playing with others, this sudden difficulty spike may prove too much, so it's tough to recommend Wild Hearts to those who prefer to play alone. Playing cooperatively is also just a better experience, partly because there's more of a communal spirit than in other monster-hunting games.
Both Basic and Fusion Karakuri are liable to break when met with the full force of a Kemono, but there are a plethora of Dragon Karakuri that persist throughout the entire game unless you opt to dismantle them yourself. Instead of using Celestial Thread, these constructions pull from Dragon Pits that are located on each of the game's four islands. By unlocking them, you can use their resources to materialize bigger tools like zip lines, wind vortexes, and giant wheels you can clamber inside and drive. Placing these traversal tools in your world makes subsequent hunts faster, but you can also place them in other players' sessions, and they can do so in yours. Even if you're not playing with someone else at that exact moment, something they built previously might still leave a mark on your hunt, aiding your success long after they've departed. The moment-to-moment impact of Wild Hearts' Karakuri mechanic is already terrific, but adding a societal value to some of the constructions elevates it even further.
When you're not building magical gizmos to assist you on the hunt, you're wielding one of eight distinct weapon types to deal damage. These deadly accouterments range from a nimble katana to a hefty maul and a robust hand cannon, and each one has its own idiosyncrasies, including unique weapon gauges that allow you to inflict heavy damage when a certain requirement has been met. By attacking and performing combos with the katana, for example, a gauge fills up that, when full, lets you trigger Unbound mode, transforming the sword into a bladed whip that deals additional damage for a short period of time. Elsewhere, the Karakuri Staff can mutate between five different forms: a staff, polearm, shuriken, double blades, and the building-sized juggernaut blade, while the Bladed Wagasa is an umbrella with an emphasis on counter-attacks and airborne moves.
Most of these weapons are rather straightforward--with a couple of exceptions--but any lack of depth is alleviated by how they synergize with the various Karakuri. The slow, lumbering Nodachi's lack of mobility isn't as much of a problem when you can use springs to quickly maneuver around a Kemono, just as crates and gliders give you ample opportunity to unleash the katana's powerful jumping attacks. Karakuri feels like an extension of each weapon, offering additional offense, defense, and mobility. Crafting the starting version of each weapon type is also relatively cheap, and there's a training area that explains how to perform each attack and special move, so Wild Hearts makes it easy to experiment, learn, and decide which killing tool is right for you. The weapon upgrade tree is fairly restrictive, however, making you fight the same low-level monsters over and over again before you can craft some of the more powerful armaments.
Whatever weapon you choose, Wild Hearts' action is thrilling if familiar. There's a palpable sense of weight behind each weapon swing, and you need to consider when to attack so you're not locked into an animation when you're forced to roll out of danger. Slicing off monster parts is always gratifying, and the orchestral score conveys a sense of wonder and terror in equal measure, often evoking classic Japanese cinema with its use of traditional instruments which contributes to each battle's awe-inspiring nature. There's also a lock-on system that makes it easier to target specific body parts, but it has trouble keeping up with the action, often blocking your view with the floor or other nearby objects, so it's more frustrating than anything.
Of course, the Kemono themselves play a pivotal role in how enjoyable it is to cut them down to size. Each one is a giant, mutated version of familiar wildlife, from rats and boars to gorillas and crows. Crucially, these rampaging beasts are also fused with nature, able to strike at you with fetid fungus spores and twisting roots that violently emerge from the ground. Each Kemono presents a different challenge, and learning the best strategies to take them down is a rewarding experience that encourages the full use of your extensive repertoire.
The monster designs are solid from a visual point of view, but this isn't commonplace across the rest of the game. Wild Hearts is set in the fictional land of Azuma, which is inspired by feudal Japan. Each location has a distinct flavor, oscillating between the verdant rolling hills of Harugasumi Way, the craggy barnacle-encrusted beaches of Natsukodachi Isle, and the once-impenetrable Fuyufusagi Fort, which now lies in ruin amidst a neverending winter. There are some beautiful sights to behold, but also plenty of others that fail to flatter due to the abundance of low-resolution textures and a general blurriness. I mention this because, despite appearances, Wild Hearts also struggles when it comes to performance.
My PC setup exceeds the recommended system requirements, yet stuttering and frame rate issues were a nuisance throughout my playtime. Thankfully, these hitches didn't occur quite as often during combat, but I still encountered a few moments where the game would freeze for a few seconds at a time. Lowering the graphical settings didn't alleviate these technical shortcomings either, since it still performed the same at both the lowest and highest presets. A couple of updates have already yielded minor improvements, and Omega Force says more fixes are on the way, so the hope is these issues will soon be a thing of the past.
The core gameplay loop of Wild Hearts doesn't deviate too far from the formula established by Monster Hunter, yet the surprising decision to center it all around a fast-paced building mechanic is a stroke of ingenuity. The Karakuri system elevates each individual part of Wild Hearts. Combat, traversal, and co-op are all improved by its presence and the way Karakuri is weaved into each component. There are some notable shortcomings that hold it back, especially when it comes to technical performance, but Wild Hearts is a welcome entry in a genre that's otherwise dominated by a single series.