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Review: The Wild at Heart Is an Intimately Scaled, Story-Driven Spin on Pikmin

The game’s top-down perspective is quite zoomed in, amplifying the gorgeous details of the storybook art style.

3.5
The Wild at Heart
Photo: Humble Games

Despite centering on a pair of preteen runaways, The Wild at Heart will have a hard time shaking comparisons to the Pikmin series. After all, the game is set in a mysterious, magical forest and it finds young Wake and Kirby directing a gradually expanding horde of bipedal critters known as Spritelings, using strength in numbers to fend off hostile wildlife and transport heavy objects back to camp. And these Spritelings, like Pikmin, are color-coded to note their resistances to things like ice and fire, all of them making similarly chirpy noises while they work. Various interface details like the small green circles to denote a foe’s health and the ghostly indicator of a felled Spriteling push the resemblance into territory that an uncharitable person might call “potentially litigious.”

Developer Moonlight Kids does, though, manage to squeeze something different out of what is a familiar blueprint, opting for an intimately scaled, story-driven experience. The top-down perspective is quite zoomed in, amplifying the gorgeous details of the game’s storybook art style while necessitating a smaller-than-Pikmin play area where there are fewer creatures on screen at any given time. Though your Spriteling corps grow over the course of the game, you begin with only a handful and, for a while, cap out around 20. You aren’t building and maintaining an unstoppable force so much as getting to whatever small number of Spritelings can comfortably solve environmental puzzles of the stand-on-this-switch and carry-this-boulder variety or deal with hazards like fire toads and noxious mushrooms.

Combined with some laidback, ethereal music, The Wild at Heart is a conspicuously more relaxed experience compared to the Pikmin games. The Spritelings don’t go down as easily as their diminutive stature and general interchangeability might suggest, and unlike Pikmin, they’re less prone to accidental drowning and able to shake off a good number of attacks. Similarly, any of the resources you need for crafting items, buying materials, or hatching Spritelings repopulate with a rather generous frequency and no time limit to worry about, beyond the advice to not venture out at night. Night belongs to the game’s most dangerous creatures, malevolent ghosts called The Never that roam the darkness but avoid the light. And even then, getting caught outside of your home base doesn’t mean failure, as you can plausibly (though not ideally, since it takes a little while) wait out the night by the glow of various handy lanterns strewn throughout the environment, and you can keep working if you’re quick enough and supply your own light sources. Smaller camps also dot the open-interconnected map to provide more permanent refuge and let you sleep until daybreak.

One can imagine a version of this game that adheres to a more linear structure, guiding you through each area in a prescriptive order while drawing attention to whatever obstacles that you’re meant to come back to deal with later. But beyond whatever new Spritelings you find, the more open-ended nature of the world means you’re less reliant on specific upgrade paths and unlocked abilities (many obstacles can be overcome if you simply stop and experiment).

Compared to so many of its resource-grinding contemporaries, The Wild at Heart requires some degree of unlearning to realize that you’re not simply waiting to craft or discover (or discover the blueprint in order to craft) the applicable tool somewhere down the line. The game is pleasantly, refreshingly spare in its tutorialization, leaving players to learn enemy behaviors and crafting recipes either organically or by reading text entries, acquiring relevant objects as they happen to encounter them rather than being led by the nose to each one.

If that sense of relaxed discovery is the game’s most impressive achievement, it also doesn’t totally gel with some of its more rigid elements, like the early inventory limit. With only a few spaces and item stacks that don’t exceed five, you’re often fighting for space to store various materials and consumables, a problem that’s amplified by how easily items blend into the scenery or disappear behind additional ones. Though you can expand your carrying capacity by having individual Spritelings carry single objects, they won’t be able to do more than follow you around until you give the order to drop everything, and taking along items specifically for your Spritelings to carry is a chore of opening and closing different menus.

While these limitations have the potential for forcing nail-biting compromises, the irritating micromanagement clashes with other elements that otherwise suggest a breezier game experience, like the rudimentary combat and the way the environment practically overflows with currency and crafting material. So much of The Wild at Heart elegantly sidesteps the usual pitfalls of a resource grind that it’s disheartening whenever it devolves into busywork.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Moonlight Kids Publisher: Humble Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 20, 2021 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Comic Mischief Buy: Game

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