Preview: ‘Wild Hearts’ is a ‘Princess Mononoke’ take on the monster hunting genre

When I heard that Electronic Arts was publishing a new hunting game, I immediately thought camo, Bowie knife and hunting rifle. I expected something akin to “Deer Hunter.” What the company showed and what I played was completely different.

The reason for that is “Wild Hearts” is developed by Koei Tecmo’s Omega Force. The Japanese team is known more for “Dynasty Warriors” and efforts in that mold. It’s not exactly “Big Buck Hunter” from the arcades. In fact, the new project is different from anything that EA and Koei Tecmo has done before.

MONSTER HUNTING DONE DIFFERENTIt’s a fresh take on a genre that Capcom’s “Monster Hunter” has carved out and dominated. Other developers such as Phoenix Labs’ “Dauntless” and Shift’s “God Eater” series have tried their hand to capture the magic of taking down giant creatures, and they’ve added their own tweaks to the formula. The issue is that they didn’t go far enough to establish their own identity.

That’s what “Wild Hearts” is different. The game takes place in the land of Azuma, which is heavily influenced by Japan. The area is fantastical with four realms that are based on the four seasons. There’s a secluded summer island, a war-torn autumn stage and a winter realm with a castle split in two. Lastly, there’s a blooming spring area.

Ragetail in “Wild Hearts” is a giant rat with a budding fruit at the end of its tail. (Electronic Arts) 

MEET THE KEMONO MONSTERSThese four zones are enormous open worlds that are full of creatures called Kemono. They come in all shapes in sizes but they’re based on creatures from the natural world. The small ones such as frogs and deer are easy to handle, but the larger monstrosities such as the Ragetail, Sapscourge and Kingtusk are another story.

They’re enormous, and in the case of the Kingtusk, players can climb on the side of it. They’re the targets that players must hunt down and they’re comparable to a Rathalos or Rajang in “Monster Hunter” albeit the monster design has a distinct flair that matches the tone and theme of the world. It’s almost like a riff on “Princess Mononoke.”

These monsters are enormous versions of animals, but they’re infused with nature. In the case of the Ragetail, it’s an enormous rat with giant berry at the end of its tail. The Sapscourge is an almost unrecognizeable tanuki, or raccoon, which is covered in orange tree sap and has ferns covering its face. Lastly, the Kingtusk is a boar that seems to command plant growth at will. When it becomes enraged, its face glows with fire.

The Kingtusk in “Wild Hearts” is a giant boar that can control nature and has flames coming out of it when it’s enraged. (Electronic Arts) 

KARAKURI MAKES THE DIFFERENCEThey all exist in an open world that’s full of valleys, caves, hills and streams. The terrain is diverse and sprawling with nooks and crannies to explore. Getting around and battling them would be difficult but that’s where Karakuri comes in.

Early on, the protagonist stumbles upon a special box and that endows the hero with the ability to summon these wood tools out of thin air. They’re fueled by a resource called Karakuri thread that can be mined from rocks or harvested from plants. Players can build Karakuri structures until the threads run out, but since they’re harvested fairly easily and they’re everywhere, players don’t have to worry about scarcity.

Karakuri structures start off simple. Players start off with boxes and they can clamber up them to reach higher ledges on cliffs. When facing monsters, players can stack them up to three boxes high almost like building structures in “Fortnite” and use them for cover, but the smart move is to climb the top in order to catapult up for a powerful diving attack.

When facing the Kingtusk, players can build multiple boxes and form a bulwark. This protects hunters from the charging boar. It even repels it so hard that it falls on its back, opening it up for attacks.

Karakuri structures in “Wild Hearts” can be built for battle or traversing terrain. The Flying Vine is especially useful as it lets players create zip lines for use over the world. (Electronic Arts) 

BUILDING BEYOND BATTLEAlthough they’re helpful in battle, Katakuri also has uses outside of that. Players can build Karakuri Flying Vine, a ballista of sorts that shoots a harpoon to create zip lines to faraway areas. This helps players traverse the terrain quickly. They can also set up camps in different parts of the world that allow them to rest and adjust their starting point if they die during a hunt. What’s notable is that all these objects are permanent unless a creature destroys them.

The one element that determines how much players can build in a specific area is a dragon pool. They appear to limit how many objects a player can build in an area but it can likely be expanded.

From the three hours I played, this gameplay mechanic makes “Wild Hearts” stand out from the action role-playing game crowd. It adds a different strategic element to hunts as there’s a different flow to confrontations. Karakuri structures can create openings for attacks or they can be used for evasion. The one issue is that building them while under duress can be stressful. Sometimes boxes don’t stack the right way to build a bulwark, or in a panicked fight, one can build the wrong structure and end up getting hit.

The building part can also be more chaotic when up to three players are battling the same Kemono online. The difficulty of the creature scales up with more players entering the fray.

Up to three players can take on Kemono in “Wild Hearts” and the ability to create Karakuri can create a bit of chaos during the fray. (Electronic Arts) 

HOW THE FIGHTS FEELPlayers do have more manueverability in a fight. They can jump away or head to higher ground. They can also run and slide or roll away from an attack. Players will have to read a Kemono’s attack pattern to figure out the right course of action and what Karakuri to build.

“Wild Hearts” includes a lock on, but “Monster Hunter” vets will find that doing without it is better. Kemono’s have weak spots. With the Ragetail, it’s the tail that can be cut off. With the Sapscourge, players can smash its face and knock the ferns blocking the tanuki’s face. On the Kingtusk, players should aim for the open sores on its body or its tusks. Similar to “Monster Hunter,” hitting these points will knock off the parts and players can carve them up for resources.

Those resources in turn are used to create better gear and weapons. Speaking of that, players will find eight weapon types. I tried out the Karakuri Katana, a large sword called the Nodachi and a giant Maul. They’re all distinct with the katana having quick attacks that powers up so that the sword turns into a whiplike blade played with its stronger strikes. The large Nodachi sword is slower but deals more damage, and when combined with a slide or jump, players have surprising though unwieldy mobility. Lastly, the Maul also deals big damage but again it’s on the slow side with a wild whirlwind, hammerthrowish attack similar to one seen in “Monster Hunter.”

There’s an umbrella weapon called the Bladed Wagasa, but I didn’t try out, but it does seem promising. Lastly, a Bow is available but it’s not really my style of combat. Wielding these weapons feels a bit more combo-heavy and more like something out of “Dynasty Warriors.” It doesn’t have the granularity of “Monster Hunter” combat. There’s more of an uncontrolled momentum to the strikes like the character is going through a combo animation rather than each button feeling like a swing.

It’s not bad. “Wild Hearts” combat feels different, or one could say it’s distinct. The game like the rest of the project has a unique identity that makes it one of the most promising titles scheduled to come out next year. Players can see for themselves when “Wild Hearts” releaseds Feb. 16, 2023, on PC, Xbox Series X and Series S and PlayStation 5.

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Author: Gieson Cacho