People who like Rez don’t just like Rez, they love Rez, the 2001 game which blended electronic music and on-rails shooting. It’s a game likened to a religious experience that opens one’s eyes to the possible. And while I’ve always had an intellectual respect for Rez, my repeated attempts to make it past the first few areas failed for a pretty important reason: I cannot stand the music. Electronic music does less than nothing for me, I actively dislike it. Without that, Rez falls apart. But pop music? Pop music has always been, and continues to be, a genre that speaks deeply to me I love its deceptive simplicity—and its bubblegum formulaic construction. I love the way it can make you nod your head and tap your feet—and curse a catchy chorus that refuses to leave your head. Most importantly, it makes me happy.
Sayonara Wild Hearts, the latest from the visionaries behind Year Walk and Device 6, is my Rez. It’s an interactive pop album, a fusion of game and music, a shooter and a rhythm game. It’s an experience that’s Carly Rae Jepsen by way of Anamanaguchi, an infectious album of music that, on its own, would be excellent, but the journey of flying through its pulsing beats and wavy vocals is inexorably enhanced through play. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call playing Sayonara Wild Hearts a religious experience, but at times…it felt close.
Have you ever listened to a favorite album and let your imagination wander? That’s what playing Sayonara Wild Hearts is like, except someone took that dream and let you play it. Or if you’ve been to a live concert where there’s been a strong visual accompaniment alongside the music, Sayonara Wild Hearts is what’d happen if they then handed everyone a controller.
Nothing in Sayonara Wild Hearts works without the music, and to that end, the music is spectacular. If it were released as its own pop soundtrack, nobody would blink. It’s full of synths and distant, echo-y vocals that’d be perfect in the car as you head towards the beach. It’s clearly been recorded with the gameplay beats in mind, but if it works fine without them. The soundtrack hasn’t been released anywhere (yet), but the launch trailer has a great song:
The act of playing Sayonara Wild Hearts is, at first, straightforward, but as things progress, becomes increasingly hard to pin down, jumping between genres at the breakneck pace of a shaky pop single trying to avoid wearing out its welcome, without realizing everyone would be fine if it took a chance to breathe a little. The breaking of a woman’s heart suddenly puts the universe’s balance in peril, prompting her to be unceremoniously plucked from her bedroom and whisked to a strange world of bright colors, bright lights, and bright hearts. One minute you’re soaring through a trippy version of Rainbow Road, the next you’re straddling a motorcycle through a burning city. You also, at one point, fight an enormous mechanical wolf, and later put on a virtual reality ma—look, you get the point, and I don’t want to spoil much.
What all this literally translates to is moving across the screen—sometimes on the ground, sometimes in the sky—as the camera whizzes around and the world morphs from one dreamy state to the next, giving players little time to compose themselves. The controls are simple and never require more than basic movement and tapping a single button. Scattered about are objects worth varying points, from tiny hearts (a few points) to big hearts (more points) and crystals (lots of points). Scoring has zero impact on progress—in fact, very little does. You can’t ever fall off the track, though depending on the sequence, you can “die” by running into an immovable object. The only consequence is moving back a few moments, and the game doesn’t even knock your high score, a marker that unlocks bonus content.
And it’s here where Sayonara Wild Hearts distances itself from most music rhythm games; it’s a game strongly favoring a propulsive experience that’s always moving forward, like an album quickly bumping from one track to the next. You can’t exactly set the controller down and watch Sayonara Wild Hearts complete itself, as there are a number of sequences that require an active level of precision, but it’s also a game that rarely burdens the player with much difficulty. It’s also not a game where the player’s actions are constantly impacting and enhancing the music around them. It’s a compliment, sure, but unlike a Rez or Thumper, where the player essentially becomes an instrument, your presence here is more passive.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either choice, but the former was disarming at first. Early, there were moments where Sayonara Wild Hearts would absolutely floor me with a snappy and brilliant sequence, a moment where the music and gameplay wonderfully played off one another, the kind of moment another game would treat that as a tutorialized introduction for a more difficult follow-up sequence. “Let’s go,” I’d be muttering to myself, ready for the beat to drop and my fingers to slap. Instead, Sayonara Wild Hearts would just…move on. A number of “levels” in Sayonara Wild Hearts last, at most, a few minutes, sections that pulled up a completion screen only as it felt like they were gaining momentum.
This, thankfully, becomes less true as the game (the album?) presses on and its confidence builds in what it asks of the player. The cadence of Sayonara Wild Hearts is a handful of short and quick stages, eventually concluding with a long, extended sequence that wraps those ideas together and asks you to accomplish them faster and for longer periods of time. It’s also where Sayonara Wild Hearts becomes the most game-y—and for my money, the most satisfying. You’re jumping, dodging, and hitting button prompts in rhythm with the music, and spending enough time in the world to become part of its musical soundscape.
But it’s also true that Sayonara Wild Hearts’ rapidfire ideas are always, somehow, more inventive than the last. It’s tough to lament the loss of what you’ve just experienced because the game’s already moved onto the next clever idea, the next infectious bop, as though the designers had a million ideas and decided they wanted you to experience ‘em all. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a platformer, a racing game, a shooter. It’s whatever it wants to be, whenever it wants to be, and somehow nothing feels out of place. You even ride a boat, and at one point everything goes fi—sorry, I’m doing it again. But every time I think about something cool that happened in Sayonara Wild Hearts, I immediately think of ten other cool things.
All of this happens over the course of, at most, a few hours. Sayonara Wild Hearts is short, but exactly the length it needs to be. While some pop albums feel like little more than a mixture of the best cuts from a year spent in the studio, Sayonara Wild Hearts is an album in its more idealized sense: a collection of songs, in this case interactive songs, that tells a story from start to finish. The order is important. Momentum is important. And then it’s over.
When you finish Sayonara Wild Hearts, it opens up another mode called Album Arcade, where the game allows you to technically rack up scores while playing, but no longer stops between stages. You float from one track to the next, one sequence to the next, as though Spotify was quietly playing in the background. (Your first time through, the game stops to judge scores, and you can replay previous areas.) In short order, I’d whizzed through half the game again, and found myself calmer, more immersed. The collectibles didn’t matter, my score didn’t matter. In retrospect, I wish that’s how I’d experienced the game to begin with, and how I expect to revisit Sayonara Wild Hearts, with myself and friends, in the future.
(If the length gives you pause, the game seems to have a lot hiding away. There are “riddles” to solve by completing areas in certain ways the game only vaguely gestures at, and other game modes locked behind achieving high scores. There’s probably a lot more in there.)
"Sayonara Wild Hearts is a platformer, a racing game, a shooter. It’s whatever it wants to be, whenever it wants to be."
All I want to do, even as I write this, is play Sayonara Wild Hearts again, and I don’t ever play games again. But like a good piece of music, pop or not, appreciation grows over time, as you notice little details previously overlooked and other parts start to grow on you. It’s not often I feel legitimately lost inside a game, and normally, I’d raise an eyebrow at such comments, dismissing them as hyperbole. But I can’t deny what happened here. I now get why people don’t just praise Rez but worship it. Sometimes a game speaks to you. This did.
P.S. For the record, and because this is important: this review was written while listening to the latest Taylor Swift, Lover, an album with serious bangers (shout out to Paper Rings), and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. Lover is a nice throwback to Red-era Swift, and far better straddles her obvious attempts to adopt a more mature personality than, uh, Reputation. Emotion is, by my count, the best pop album in the past decade not called Lemonade. Also, the first pop song I can remember listening to on loop? If it’s not “Comin’ Out of my Shell” from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stage show, it’s Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. It was a confusing moment for young Patrick, but also maybe an early sign.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've got a pop album he should listen to, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.