Let's get the boring paperwork out of the way quickly. Yes, Wild Hearts is a lot like Monster Hunter: World. The similarities are plain to see, both structurally and conceptually. However, far from being a Monster Hunter clone, thanks to mostly fantastic creature design and splendid, fast-paced combat with an emphasis on ad hoc building, it manages to differentiate itself and stand on its own two feet as a viable alternative.
The gameplay loop in Wild Hearts is broadly the same as Monster Hunter, but for the uninitiated, we'll sum it up as succinctly as we can. You create your avatar using the excellent character creator and then you're introduced to the town of Minato. It's a peaceful settlement in the Azuma region of Japan during feudal times. Minato is your base of operations, and it's there that you prepare for hunts by forging weapons and armour with the blacksmith, peruse wares at the shop, talk to the locals and pick up side-quests, or take a restorative dip at the local bathhouse.
Once you're fed, watered, armed, and dangerous, you head out into the wilderness to track and hunt monsters known as Kemono that pose a threat to Minato. Maybe some fisherman got chomped by a giant rat, or perhaps merchants are struggling to secure a trade route because a fire monkey is battering anyone that treads upon its territory. There's always a reason you have to go out there, be it in the main story moments or one of the not-quite-as-fleshed-out side-quests, and it always ends with you having to fight a big monster.
The Kemono themselves are, for the most part, wonderfully designed. They're based on real, recognisable animals, only grown to an absurd size and fused with nature in a most unsavoury way. There are wolves that can command the powers of ice and snow, bears made of rock that can tremble the earth, and magma-skinned gorillas that can conjure molten lava at will. They're an elegant mix of formidable and beautiful, and the Kemono that are reserved for boss fights are usually the most jaw-dropping of all.
Combat is fast and chaotic. Preparation will help, but once you're in the heat of battle it's timing, an intimate understanding of your weapon, and an awareness of your surroundings that will be key to victory. The weapons available to you run the gamut from a huge cannon that lets you fire off powerful artillery once you've charged it up, to genre standards like the slow and powerful greatsword, to a samurai sword that transforms into a whip once you've filled the requisite gauge.
The most interesting feature in battle is the Karakuri system. You can collect a resource named celestial thread from rocks and trees in your environment, and you then use this to build structures known as Karakuri. The simplest of these range from torches that imbue your weapon with flame when you run by them, to springboards you can leap off to avoid a deadly attack. Later, you can build more elaborate constructions, like a giant, spring-loaded hammer that can pancake an enemy, or a harpoon gun that can ensnare your target so you can wail on the creature while it's tethered.
The Karakuri's uses extend outside of battle, too, as you can build structures within the world to make traversal a little easier. You can construct zip-lines, stakes to stab into cliff faces so you can climb sheer walls, and crates to bounce off to clear obstacles in your path. These items stay in the world, and so the next time you visit they'll be there waiting for you.
You can also construct camps that function as fast travel points across the wilderness, and these camps can be fitted out with various amenities. The most useful of these are perhaps the food preparation devices, which allow you to eat a hearty meal before a big hunt, gaining buffs in the process, which you'll need for the toughest fights in the later stages of the game.
It took us around 45 hours to reach the end of Wild Hearts, and for around half of that time we thought the game was a little too easy. We didn't fail a hunt for the first twenty hours. But there's a specific point where the difficulty ramps up significantly and from that point on each hunt is a genuine challenge, and these fights are the ones that are most rewarding when you finally come out on top.
The best hunts in the game conjure the same sort of feeling in us that we get when we're battling a ferocious boss in Elden Ring, or when we're scaling the back of a towering creature in Shadow of the Colossus. It's tense, and you're never more than one or two hits away from death, but once you've learned the attack patterns of your prey, and you effectively mix up your attacks, dodges, and Karakuri, it's incredibly gratifying and constantly entertaining.
It's a shame, then, that many of the battles in the second half of the game are just bigger, nastier versions of Kemono you've already fought, or the same enemy as before only now with a different elemental persuasion. More sour still, the final hunt might be visually spectacular, but it's mechanically unrewarding, tedious, and a little cheap feeling. Fortunately, it's not too upsetting, because the couple of battles leading up to it are absolute barnstormers.
Of course, you'll never make it to the somewhat disappointing finale if you don't keep your sword sharp and your armour shiny. Between hunts you can visit the Minato blacksmith to upgrade weapons and armour using the bits you've taken from fallen monsters, as well as minerals you've found in the wilderness. If you don't have enough of a particular resource, the helpful bestiary will tell you which monsters drop which items and even where to attack them to get the best chance of finding what you need.
Upgrading a weapon has a helpful feature, too, in that once you've upgraded, if you decide you don't like the weapon anymore you can revert it to a previous state and get all of your resources back minus a little gold. This is helpful, especially if you want to switch your weapon to a different elemental attack in preparation for a fight, or if you just want to start using a different weapon entirely but don't fancy farming all the monster parts a second time.
Wild Hearts can be played co-operatively online, which is refreshingly easy to take part in. You can call for assistance at any time when you're hunting and a helpful player might turn up to lend a hand, or you can set up sessions with friends and play the entire game together. The only concern we had with the online multiplayer was that we suffered occasional frame rate drops as the game seemed to struggle to deal with three people running around building giant hammers and harpoon guns at once.
Playing Wild Hearts in co-op is a blast, and it makes the game much more manageable. Not only does it mean that if the monster you're battling is distracted with somebody else you can get some free attacks in, but also if you're killed in battle one of your partners can revive you. This does make the game a mite too easy in our opinion, but it's not game breaking, and we're sure that with a few tweaks post-launch they can get it right.
Wild Hearts is, at times, an utterly thrilling game. It's a game that will leave you kicking yourself for a poorly timed dodge or a missed opportunity, and jumping out of your chair when you finally topple a troublesome foe with a last-ditch, go-for-broke attack. There's a handful of technical issues, a mite too much repetition, and some quibbles about the difficulty, but the core monster hunting experience is spectacular enough that the joys far outweigh the frustrations.