Playing Sayonara Wild Hearts‘ best levels is an intangible, hard-to-describe feeling. When the art, the movement, and the music all come together in a track, it’s absolutely captivating. But it’s also fleeting, and I spent the majority of my time playing Sayonara Wild Hearts chasing that feeling. It came through in a few standout levels, but for most of the game, I found myself on the verge of falling in love with songs only to fall short of that high.
It’s an interesting kind of music game. The main goal is to simply flow with the music, rather than hit a series of precise rhythm-based inputs or dance along to beats. Crystalline hearts line the paths you ride (or fly) through, and often, following the hearts is the best way to get through a level safely without scrambling to avoid oncoming obstacles. Timed inputs are reserved for flashier moves–big jumps, deft dodges, graceful attacks–and these sequences are all scripted, so all you have to do is hit the button somewhat on time and then watch as the moves play out to the music. The camera and forward movement, including your speed, are automatic, too, leaving you to move only from side to side with rare exception. This all lends Sayonara Wild Hearts a dreamlike feel; you are both participant and observer, somewhat in control but mostly just along for the ride.
Initially, the dreaminess of Sayonara Wild Hearts is enchanting. The scripted moves, which often come during fight sequences against brightly colored antagonists, have a distinct magical-girl flair. Dodging an attack becomes a balletic leap, a flurry of punches culminates in an explosion of color, and even punch-induced vomit (in one level) is so colorful and abstract that it flows seamlessly with the overall aesthetic. Some levels are bathed in electric neons, while others are more pensive, dark blue interdimensional affairs. And yet all of them, even at their most bright and exciting, are tinged with melancholy, largely due to the heartbreak-infused pop soundtrack–it’s the kind of music that, if it were to come on in a bar, would make you feel incredibly lonely but also kind of like dancing.
When this all works together, it really works. My favorite level, Dead of Night, closely matches the music with the action and, as a result, the song has impact. During the buildup, you ride your motorcycle through the forest, weaving between trees and picking up hearts while all is calm. Ahead of you are four masked enemies; they strike a group pose, and then, right as the drop hits, their three-headed wolf tank appears and the mini-boss-like sequence begins. You slide side to side to dodge attacks, then hit X with the prompt to leap over the tank as the music swells. It’s timed beautifully, and you feel a sort of abstract sadness as the singer belts, “I’m the only one alive in the dead of night,” and the tank slides, defeated, on the forest floor. You’ve “won,” but it’s bittersweet.
Most of the levels, however, aren’t as finely tuned. A lot of times, the timing-based moves feel offbeat, like you should hit them a moment or two early or late to really be in-time with the music–or like they aren’t really set to the tempo at all. It makes it hard to get into a lot of the songs, even though the soundtrack as a whole is excellent, and distracts from the overall spectacle of a level–you have to watch the prompts’ visual cues rather than listen for the right timing most of the time.
Movement, too, can disrupt the flow of things. It can be hard to line yourself up properly for hearts, turns, and jumps; you might find yourself a little bit to the right or left of where you thought you’d be. This is largely caused by the independent camera, which sometimes leaves you blind going into turns or unsure of how obstacles and collectibles will line up. The highly stylized, dreamy feel of each level also leaves some ambiguity as to the placement of things. I found myself wishing there were either fewer obstacles or tighter controls; while the flowy feel of moving side to side fits the aesthetic perfectly, it’s hard to stay in the zone when you’re constantly tipping the analog sticks slightly to better line yourself up.
Each level continues into the next not like tracks on an album would, but with short breaks in between. On top of that, the main story mode kicks you to the menu after each level to see your score and select the next song. There is a seamless mode of these same levels in the extras section, and the broken-up structure lends itself well to mobile or handheld play–but the story is the first mode you’re introduced to, and it’s only about the length of a long album. Where you might listen to an album all the way through at least once before jumping around and picking songs, you do the opposite in Sayonara Wild Hearts, and that saps it of its momentum.
On repeat playthroughs, I found myself getting more and more used to Sayonara Wild Hearts’ quirks and better appreciating each level as I gained the muscle memory for them. Only a few hit me like Dead of Night did, and those levels are stellar. But the rest are either forgettable or somehow discordant, whether because of movement issues or strange timing. I wanted to get lost in the daydream it presented, but I kept getting ripped back to reality, just a bit more melancholic than when I started.