Imagine Pikmin with an Over the Garden Wall skin and you get The Wild at Heart, a recent game by developer Moonlight Kids, published by Humble Games. I hate to open a review by immediately making comparisons, but The Wild at Heart wears its inspirations on its sleeve you can’t really talk about the game without mentioning all of the different areas it pulls from. The game’s story centers around concepts of childhood and youth as well, so it really ties all of these childhood inspirations into its design very tightly. The game does pull all of these elements into a nice little package though, and players will be pleasantly surprised by what they find.
The game opens with you playing as Wake, a young boy who seems to be somewhere around 10 or 12-years-old. You start in Wake’s basement, where you need to collect your things to prepare for an adventure Wake has planned with his friend Kirby, who isn’t there. After you get your things, you go upstairs and grab a snack from the kitchen. Up here you learn that Wake intends to run away, either permanently or at least for the day, and that Wake does not have a good relationship with this father. Wake then exits to the backyard where he picks up an invention of his: a leafblower backpack that can suck up items from nearby.
This leafblower makes up the core unique element of the game. Nearly all of the puzzles center around your ability to suck things up from far away, whether it’s items, windmills, Spritelings, or other things. The other playable character, Kirby, who the game allows you to swap between once you unlock her, gets an item that has a similar ability, though her item does have a slightly different function.
After Wake leaves the yard, he enters the forest behind his house and quickly gets lost, though a little forest creature guides him into an area called the “Deep Woods” where he meets an eccentric old man named Grey Coat. Grey Coat tells him about a little town called The Grove, where he lives with a bunch of other people in the forest. At this point Wake also gains the ability to control little creatures called “Spritelings”, which he can use to gather objects, construct bridges, fight enemies, and more. These Spritelings are the game’s version of Pikmin, and at this point, the game has given you most of the core mechanics of the game.
The game takes place in an open world, very similar to other 2D action-adventure RPGs, specifically pulling from very traditional SNES RPGs, like Link to the Past. It lets you run around freely in the world very quickly, giving you goals and tasks all over, and the different areas unlock as you unlock different abilities. By exploring you can find different kinds of Spritelings that have different abilities, and also find Kirby, your friend whom you planned the adventure with. As mentioned before, Kirby has similar abilities as Wake, but can squeeze through small areas, and also use her item to unlock certain areas that Wake can’t. Most of the puzzles in the world have you using all three elements (Wake, Kirby, and the Spritelings) together to solve puzzles and unlock areas.
The game also has a day/night cycle that is always ticking, though the day and night do not have too many differences aside from a demon called the “Nevergazer” that chases you and will kill you during the night. It’s possible to do things at night, though you’re better off just sleeping through the night. The day/night cycle actually does add a decent amount to the ambiance and experience, though I do wish it moved a little slower, as the day can feel a little too short, especially when you need to do things all over the map.
The art style helps to distinguish The Wild at Heart from its contemporaries though, pulling much more from art for childrens’ books and animation than from more traditional video-game styles. You can easily see the similarities to shows like Over the Garden Wall, which I mentioned earlier, and also Gravity Falls, but the detail in all of the elements, from the line art to the coloring to the lighting, point to childrens’ books, especially books like Where the Wild Things Are (which the title of the game pretty clearly alludes to). The game is, quite simply, very pleasant to look at, and the sound design and music pair with it nicely to create a very nice aesthetic experience pretty unique from other comparable games.
I should note one game-breaking bug I ran into in the game though. At one point, while entering an area for the first time, the camera pans over into the area to show something, pausing the game and removing control from the player. After the camera shows what it needs to show, the game unpauses, but the camera never pans back and never gave me back control, meaning that I had to close and reopen the game. This bug happened on my save file multiple times and never resolved itself, making me unable to continue playing on that save eventually, though I haven’t seen anyone else experience this issue, so it doesn’t seem like a major issue.
Instead of trying to hide its inspirations, The Wild at Heart makes them a core element of the design. The game uses its allusions to classic childhood works like Pikmin, Zelda, and Where the Wild Things Are to enhance the experience and create the ambiance and sense of childlike wonder and adventure. Underneath the surface though, The Wild at Heart does not have too much else going on. The mechanics are fun but simple, and the story is cute but unsurprising. I can’t say that the game is worth its $25 base price, but if you can grab it on sale (or play it on Xbox Game Pass) you’ll definitely find a good bang for your buck and an enjoyable time all around.
Score: 7 out of 10
Reviewed on Playstation 4