Simogo’s new pop album video game ingeniously explores the messy and rewarding process of healing.
I didn’t know much about Sayonara Wild Hearts going in. Prior to playing it, all I knew was that it was very music focused, the art was stylized, and the color palette very similar to the bisexual pride flag. As a bisexual who loves all kinds of music, this was right up my alley. Other than that, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited for a poppy, dreamy rush of a game. But then I pressed play on my Nintendo Switch, and after a motorcycle centric load screen, I heard this:
“Not long ago, in a town much like yours, there was a young woman who was very happy. Until one day, her heart broke so violently, that her sorrow echoed through space and time. So our saga begins tonight, yet eons ago. Just here, yet light years away.”
That is the beginning dialogue. Before anything happens, before you glide across synth heavy cityscapes on your motorcycle or battle girl gangs in dance fights, the narrator (the wonderful Queen Latifah) tells you something that makes the game relatable. We’ve all felt heartbreak grand enough to shatter the cosmos and beyond. Maybe not necessarily romantic heartbreak, but if you’ve ever lost someone or something that was important to you, where it feels like the universe is crashing down on you, then you can relate to this woman. Developed by Simogo (Year Walk, Device6), Sayonara Wild Hearts lays its genius bare before we even press play; you’re put in the shoes of a woman whose felt grief and loss and pain, and you want nothing more than to help her, to see her succeed. I’m a big softy who loves to see people succeed, so I was all in. But when I realized they were using the Major Arcana tarot cards as their narrative structure, I was hooked.
Gameplay and Visuals
To say this game is pretty is an understatement. This game is gorgeous. Sayonara’s aesthetic is very synthwave; blue, purple, and pink are the stars of the show throughout, and each color choice fits. When moving through a city street, pink stands out as the color of the buildings; when moving through the woods on your stag (yeah, you read that right, you ride a stag), deep blues are the star of the show. At the start of every level, you go through a Heartbreak Subspace, the pre-game to the actual level; brighter blues and purples are featured here, all blurring together to highlight the speed of these segments; if they went with more pink tones in these moments I fear it might be too much for the player.
Sayonara was made on the Unity engine and that tracks; the game’s movements are very smooth and floaty; it reminds me of other games made on that engine like Monument Valley or Inside. Everything glides with grace in this game, riding across cityscapes or in forests looks and feels very nice. I will say, though, the vehicle riding sequences might feel a tad slow for the player, especially if you’re trying to rack up serious points collecting heart shards along the way. This wasn’t terribly distracting for me, but if you’re gunning for the highest score possible, move your joy con a second earlier than you normally would to get a jump on any potential lag.
Despite possible lag, the riding sequences rarely go stale; you’re already busy trying to avoid running into walls and falling off the map, but you’re also given new vehicles often. You ride a motorcycle, a hot rod convertible, a stag, and a boat. During parts of the motorcycle sequence, the camera shifts from third to first person, putting you in the driver’s seat. I can say from that experience, that I would be terrible on an actual motorcycle. It’s not just all riding and avoiding, you get weapons from time to time as well. During the dark forest portion, your motorcycle gets decked out with twin guns on the side of the mirror to take down foes. In other levels, you receive a sword that you fight with while riding your motorcycle, and later you fight with a bow and arrow.
Sayonara is, in part, a rhythm game; when you encounter bosses or avoid obstacles while riding, you’ll sometimes be prompted to press A at just the right time, triggering the protagonist to leap, spin, and punch. Clicking at the right time will resort to a “perfect!” or “good!” or “ok!” Depending on how well-timed your clicks are, the more points you accumulate. At the end of each boss battle an octagon will appear that you rapidly press, loading up a more powerful punch to deliver to the baddie. The more times you click, the harder the punch and the more points you get.
The game takes a slight break from rhythm and riding to offer a VR experience and things become more like a platformer, where you dodge obstacles in first person. It kind of reminded me of a sequence you would play in Mirror’s Edge, if Mirror’s Edge was a 64-bit game. During this same level, things take a retro shift in which the protagonist has to dodge and shoot away missiles in an homage to the oldie, but goodie, Meteors. The developers at Simogo have been very vocal about the inspiration behind the game’s play style and aesthetics, everything from Tron to Punch Out to Rhythm Tengoku to F-Zero is here, lovingly invoked in a game that, while certainly makes nods to older properties, is something new and unique all on its own.
In terms of penalties, this game doesn’t really have any. If at any point you run into an obstacle or lose a fight, the only thing that happens is that the music stops, the level stops, and you get brought back to the place you were before you crashed. If you continue to hit obstacles, a screen will appear asking if you would like to skip the part that’s giving you trouble. Click yes, and you will be sent to the next part of the level, whether that’s more riding, or dance fighting. The only real “punishment,” if you can even call it that, is that, by skipping through certain parts you miss out on any sweet points you could have acquired if you kept going, but it doesn’t impede on your game experience story-wise at all. One of the million cool things about Sayonara is learning from your mistakes; you get better at knowing which obstacles come up and how and when to avoid them. The feeling you get when you expertly swerve past that tree that you ran into thrice is immeasurable.
I can’t talk about Sayonara Wild Hearts without mentioning the music. To say that it’s just good would be an understatement; it’s otherworldly and sumptuous. Composed by Daniel Olsén (Year Walk and Device6), written by Jonathan Eng (The Sailor’s Dream), the music is techno and rhythmic and driving, which is appropriate for the fast paced and action centric sequences. Additionally, the whole game is supposed to have a very dreamy quality about it, and there are many glittery, twinkling sound effects to add to the fantasy and the whimsy of it all; this is evident in the game’s remixes of classical composer Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which plays beautifully as you shred down a highway on your longboard. As a music nerd, I think using Debussy’s pieces are an amazing choice, as Debussy always composed music that sounded surreal and otherworldly.
The music isn’t all instrumental; the core boss-focused levels are framed by songs and like the gameplay, takes inspiration from different artists, including Sia, Chvrches, and Carly Rae Jepsen. All performed expertly by Linnea Olsson, the songs range from head bang-worthy, rock-forward tunes like “Dead of Night,” to dance-y, bubblegum bops like “Inside,” to melancholic, slow, balletic ballads like “The World We Knew.” The songs, while incredibly important to the game, are more akin to background noise during gameplay; it is fairly difficult to hear the lyrics, but you can hear a few words. The songs are great even without playing the game, so I highly encourage you to seek out the game album and jam out to it so you can pick up more of the lyrics. In spite of this, each song serves as another way for the player to piece together the story of this woman and imagine the relationship she could have had (and lost) that launched her on this path.
“Long ago, a harmonious universe existed beyond ours, and three Divine Arcana watched over it. But one night, a Cursed Arcana, along with her star-crossed allies, stole all harmony, and hid it in their vile hearts. Before the Divine trio started to fade, they created a heroine from the shards of a broken heart, and hoped that, one day, she would be strong enough to save their world.”
We learn a lot during this second piece of narration. We find out that the stakes are a lot more cosmic, more astronomical, more astrological, as well. During the narration, metallic and resplendent illustrations of the tarot cards The High Priestess, The Empress, and The Hierophant, the three Divine Arcana appear before you, followed by the Cursed Arcana cards: The Devil, The Moon, The Lovers, The Hermit, and Death. Lastly, The Fool card appears, and we learn that this card will be the heroine of the hour, our sad, heartbroken girl transformed into an alter ego–The Fool card–that we control and follow through this game.
For those that don’t know, the Tarot is a deck of cards that date all the way back to the 15th century. Previously used as a stack of regular playing cards, their use has greatly transformed and now are used in the art of divination and fortune telling. In this practice, each card — all 78 of them– have a different meaning, and the 22 Major Arcana cards are considered a way to track the way one’s life changes and the different trials and tribulations one will encounter.
When I found out that tarot cards played a part in Sayonara, and a large part at that, I thought it was brilliant. Using a tool that conveys a person’s journey through life as the mechanism by which our protagonist navigates going through and coming out of heartbreak is so galaxy brained because each card literally translates to an obstacle one will face and feelings we’ll encounter, heartbreak or no. Making the protagonist and embodiment of The Fool is stellar; The Fool is the first card in the Major Arcana order, and represents bright-eyed curiosity and new beginnings, so it make sense that the three ruling Divine Arcana would transform the protagonist into a woman ready to take on whatever life throws at her, eager to step forward on a new journey.
Each boss you encounter number as one of the Cursed Arcana, and when you beat each level you are symbolically helping The Fool confront the emotions she’s feeling that are keeping her from moving on from her heartbreak. For example, your first encounter is with The Dancing Devils in Hatehell City, who represent obsession, overzealous behavior, and excess in the arcana. In the game, the card is represented by three girls in devil masks wearing pink letterman jackets. Once you dance-fight your way to victory in a way that would make West Side Story jealous, you help The Fool overcome reliving negative memories from her relationship, and you can move on and become just a little stronger. Each level has its own lesson related to the tarot arcana, and, if you’re someone like me who uses tarot cards and acknowledges them in her day-to-day, it’s fun to watch the meaning of each card in action during the game, whether Simogo uses the conventional meanings of them, or reinterprets them to fit game mechanics.
This game is incredibly special to me. I wasn’t prepared for how deeply loving the story is. When I say ‘loving,’ I’m talking about how the game takes care of the protagonist and by extension the player; things in this game are very forgiving, as I previously noted when given the option of skipping parts that just might be too difficult to handle and not punishing those that choose that path. I think, for the type of story this is, one that’s about hurt and healing, it makes perfect sense; it’s as if the game is saying, “some things are just hard now, and that’s fine. You’ll get through this eventually.” The same rewarding feeling you get when you finally avoid an obstacle is the same one you feel when you change a way of thinking or behavior pattern for the better, allowing you a chance to move even more forward and get even stronger for whatever comes your way.
I love that that is one of the core messages of the game, and it sneaks up on you in a funny way. The game is called Sayonara Wild Hearts, you hear this line echoed throughout the game, yet the game’s theme song is “Wild Hearts Never Die,” which is about growth and transformation:
“This is not how it ends, this is not goodbye/ ’cause Wild Hearts never die/ Wild hearts never die/ We’re just changing shape like butterflies/ ’cause Wild Hearts never die/ Wild Hearts never die”
This song, and by extension, this game, is saying that, yes, you’re going to run into love or other big events in your life and sometimes they’re not going to go the way they planned. It’s going to hurt, you’re going to feel confused, you’re going to make mistakes. And that’s okay. You’re going to learn from this experience, and grow, and change, and be even better next time. And when I realized that was one of the core tenants of the game, I couldn’t help but shed a tear because this game helped me recognize my strength; I thought of all the obstacles I’ve encountered, some big, some small, and I took a second to remind myself that I’ve gotten through all of them, and I’m stronger and more ready for whatever comes next.
I know things are…a bit uncertain right now. We’re tired, we’re angry, we’re sad, we’re stuck. If you have an hour or so to kill, and you want a dreamy, synthy escape where you help a young woman climb her way back to herself and take her power back, I cannot recommend this game enough.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is available to play on Steam, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and iOS.