Title: The Wild at Heart
Developer: Moonlight Kids
Release Date: May 20, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Humble Games
The Wild at Heart is an exploration puzzle game that takes place in a magical Deep Woods. At the helm of this adventure is Wake, who has run away from home but has become woefully lost.
The main gameplay is the utilization of woodland creatures called Spritelings. They act as both a weapon and an extendable appendage. Spritelings can be thrown to explore higher elevation, break objects, gather materials, and notably, fighting malicious beasts. Spritelings can be thrown in an arc, either one at a time or rapidly, and perform any available action upon landing.
Throwing Spritelings takes getting used to, as the sensitivity used to aim the reticle is fickle. However, the Spritelings are surprisingly adept at working toward your intent. They have a generous area in which they automatically begin to work.
Wake himself has a few unique actions. Most notable is his self-made vacuum, which can suck up items from afar, as well as solve certain puzzles that require pulling. It can pull back Spritelings that are stuck on ledges, or in over their head fighting enemies. He can also kick breakable objects and monsters, as little damage as he does. Wake could have felt like a lesser Spriteling that needs protecting, but he is given enough importance to where he feels like a separate tool for different jobs.
Fighting enemies is a dangerous affair. The small number of Spritelings you can bring in the early game help make brawls feel up close. Enemies often appear out of nowhere, hidden from sight between collectible items. Observing their behavior, such as when and how fast they strike, are paramount to keeping your young companions alive. Battles are rarely decided via raw strength.
As for puzzle solving, The Wild at Heart pursues a more straightforward option. Puzzles are generally no longer than a three-part process, where you find a McGuffin and return it to the rightful place. They serve to encourage exploration more than critical thinking. When an object needs 20 Spritelings to move, then there is not much else to do but to find more Spritelings.
While the puzzles are lackluster, the gates to new areas are clever. When stumbling upon a new setting, the player is not explicitly forbidden to enter. Rather, enemies with elements that you cannot defeat yet guard the entrance, and have a faster movement speed than Wake. This gives a sense of accomplishment when you can go back and defeat those previously impossible enemies.
The creation of new Spritelings is a pleasant process that becomes addicting fast. You may find sparkling buds around areas of enemy contention, and these carry half the material necessary to start the process. The other half uses different materials in order to create different kinds of Spritelings. While the resource gain from sparkling buds regrow over time, they present a small enough yield to where you feel poorly when a Spriteling perishes.
There are tons of other materials to collect, such as scraps and wild fruit to restore your health. The metal material can be combined with your vacuum to increase its functionality, so it never feels like Wake is losing his utility in comparison to your ever-expanding army of cute woodland sprites.
The feedback from every action is a surprising delight. The controller rumble does wonders in giving a moment’s weight. When Wake’s vacuum is activated, the controller slowly comes to life and escalates to a violent shake. When you take damage, the controller vibrates, the screen pixelates momentarily, and the sound gets muddled. Combined with enemies that sometimes jump out from hiding, the disorientation really simulates getting struck. In contrast, are the Spritelings when they are damaged. There is almost no physical response to them getting hit, so when they perish unexpectedly, it makes it clear how squishy they really are.
The environment is whimsical, bursting with soft palettes of color. The natural yellows and greens of the starting areas successfully portray a place of Marchen origins. Every object that you can reach can be interacted with by kicks or with the vacuum, even if it is not part of a puzzle. This gives palpable weight to the background, with flimsy leaves being blown away or sucked closer, and the thuds of denser objects when Spritelings bounce off of them.
Despite this, the story does not shy away from darker tones. As mentioned earlier, Wake’s motivation to run away from home is his alcoholic father. While he is somewhat prepared for the journey, The Wild at Heart makes sure you know that Wake is still a child. He brings his video games with him and muses about his “inventions” and the infallibility of his homemade map. The pressures of his home life follow him into the Deep Woods, with discarded bottles littered even in his dreams.
The Deep Woods itself is not without its secrets. The amusing early tones make it unclear whether the warning that the “dark is bad” is just a comical saying or if there really is something out there. Contributing to this feeling are the supporting characters Grey Coat – who wears a green coat – and Scrap Heap. They seem knowledgeable about the surroundings, yet not reliable enough to fully trust with your life. Both back at home and out here, Wake is still in the depths of peril.
The Wild at Heart has a satisfying gameplay loop of resource management and exploration. The puzzles aren’t challenging, but they serve as an acceptable means to an end of pointing players where to go. The colors and tones of Fall present a cute, yet somber accent to the bittersweet plot of running away to a hopefully better place. Wake is provided with actions that are unique to him, such as his vacuum ability, but it doesn’t quite elevate the game to surpassing genre conventions. Potential buyers should focus on whether the mysterious environments and curious characters entice them, rather than the simply adequate puzzle elements.
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