You wouldn’t quite classify it as a pattern, but the Xbox has seen a fair number of Nintendo classics reimagined by indie developers in recent months. Animal Crossing was given a gothic edge in Cozy Grove, Nexomon: Extinction did an excellent Pokemon impression, while Effie was a diluted Breath of the Wild. We’ll put an order in for an indie F-Zero and Pokemon Snap.
Add The Wild at Heart to that list. It certainly looks like a high-end indie; a close visual neighbour to Knights & Bikes and one of Cartoon Saloon’s movies (The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers). But underneath the hood, this is Pikmin. The Wild at Heart may call them Spritelings, but we kept lapsing and referring to them as Pikmin.
That’s not to say The Wild at Heart is derivative or doesn’t have ideas, though. It just has excellent taste in gaming foundations. And it’s not as if we have a surfeit of minion management games on the Xbox, outside of Overlord.
It certainly starts differently from Pikmin. It’s ‘80s America, your name is Wake and you are sleeping in the basement. You have a single father who would rather you didn’t exist and chooses instead to get paralytic in front of the telly. Fed up of the neglect, you pack your bag and head into the wilderness to meet your partner in running away, Kirby.
Except you can’t find her, and the forest starts to close in. Second thoughts cross your mind, night falls and creepy creatures approach. Before you’re eaten, a Gandalf-alike called Grey Coat and a man wearing a teapot for a head called Scrap Heap save you, and whisk you to The Grove, a safe haven in the middle of the forest. It turns out that they are the ‘Greenshield Order’, knights of the forest that protect it from an insidious monster called Big Pockets and their armies of The Never. The Order’s ruler, a green witch, has recently deceased, but her powers have spread about the forest, and gathered around you.
It sounds like The Wild at Heart is steeped in story, but it’s actually one of its weakest points. The ‘80s setting is ditched the moment you step out of the basement. The father subplot re-emerges in some nightmare sequences and the ending, but ultimately it dallies with serious themes but wimps out. The Greenshield Order versus The Never is plain good against bad, and, while the characters you meet are fantastically designed cast-offs from a Del Toro film, they are mostly vendors or objectives to complete. The Wild at Heart is richly imagined, so it’s a shame that the story and dialogue are so half-baked.
Luckily, the real stars are the Spritelings. Starting with the bog-standard flavour, you can have an entourage of ten, and you get to chuck them at things. Enemies like giant slimes and toads can be gang-tackled, popping to give you energy. Fruits are smashed, revealing seeds that can be grown into more Spritelings (the seeds depend on which Spriteling type you used to pop them). Treasures can be grabbed from far away, items can be carried and pressure plates can be pressed if you have enough Spritelings. Your entourage grows from ten all the way to seventy-odd.
The Wild at Heart is, in essence, Pikmin recast as a Metroidvania. You can travel wherever you want, but you’re limited by the Spriteling types you have, as you’ll soon be blocked by pollution, crystals and brambles. As the game progresses, you’ll gain the Spritelings you need to bypass them: Lunar Spritelings can clear pollution for a period, for example. Half the battle is remembering the map and the various places that were previously locked to you, so that you can revisit them.
The minor negative to the Metroidvania template is that it makes The Wild at Heart surprisingly linear in places. The game bottlenecks until you find the right Pikmin – sorry – Spriteling. Too often, the pattern was to exhaust the map until we got frustrated and returned to an old location, only to find a new Spriteling available there. The Wild at Heart could have benefitted from pinpointing a new Spriteling and making it an objective to stop the backtracking and aimless wandering.
It’s a minor blot on some rather great gameplay and exploration. Where Pikmin holds your hand a little too much, and gates everything into discrete levels, this is a Legend of Zelda-style world for you to explore in the direction you want. We moved out to the west, into a coastal location before running out of things that our Spritelings could do, then straying north into ice lands and east into a misty forest.
Like a true survival game, you will be pushing outwards to find camps and warp points, where you can dump items into a stash, save and deposit or withdraw Spritelings. Clearing this fog of war never gets old, and each location feels varied.
You will want to arrive at a camp before darkness falls, because the night brings The Never. These are unkillable(ish) creatures that will kill you or your Spritelings, but light keeps them at bay. While it adds some tension, the day-night cycle means you are using the game’s worst features more often than you’d like: the depositing and withdrawing of Spritelings is clumsy, so we would have rathered that the day-night cycle wasn’t there.
The depositing and withdrawing are a pain because your Spritelings will go walkies for unknown reasons. You will be notified that “five Spritelings have been left behind”, but you will be damned if you can remember where. They tend to get caught between rocks or hidden in water, and retrieving them at night is more bother than it’s worth. Withdrawing them is a fiddle too, as you have to manually drag out the five different types you want every morning, and you just wish there was some kind of preset or auto-withdraw.
Still, the game’s good enough to make the chore worth it. Puzzles require you to use your two characters’ different abilities (you gain Kirby early on), as Wake has a Gutbuster vacuum cleaner and Kirby has a magical flashlight thing that can deactivate ancient idols, and she can climb into smaller holes. Using the two characters and the Spritelings in the right permutation is great fun, and the open world means that solutions can be a ways across the game map.
There is plenty to find and unlock, with cats hiding in boxes, ancient relics like outhouses and carousel horses to carry to warp points, and major milestones to find in the form of ancient temples and members of the Greenshield Order. It’s a deep game and we spent twelve hours rinsing it of its secrets, and we were motivated at every step to do so. There are upgrades and a slightly shallow crafting system too, so there’s plenty of things to tinker with.
As a day-one Game Pass game, there are few reasons not to give The Wild at Heart a go. It plays like Pikmin but corrects a lot of its faults, giving you more of a leash to explore and puzzle by yourself. When the world is as beautiful and rewarding as it is here, you will feel that tug to keep going, chucking Spritelings at treasure chests and giant wasps with abandon.
You can buy The Wild at Heart from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S