Sayonara Wild Hearts Sinks as a Music Game, Bops as a Playable Concept Album

The best way to play is to simply enjoy the ride.

I spent a lot of time on the road during college. My university was located three and a half hours from my hometown. It was just far enough to justify a dorm, but not so distant that I couldn’t bring my laundry home on holidays. The connecting highway cut through the most boring sections of central Texas, all grazing cattle and sleepy pit stops, which meant I listened to a lot of music. And as I listened, I spun stories to match the songs.

These tales starred over-the-top characters straight from the ego of a freshman creative writing major. With Gorillaz, My Chemical Romance, and Arcade Fire on loop, I crafted derivative plots nevertheless run through with emotional honesty. Sayonara Wild Hearts, the new arcade rhythm game from Simogo, feels of a kind — sprung from a car stereo blasting pop songs about heartbreak and perseverance. It’s a concept album that invites you to play a role in its story. It’s something the guy driving that shitty Honda Civic past another Buc-ee’s had to wait nearly a decade to experience. But now he’s glad he did.

Despite appearances, calling Sayonara Wild Hearts a rhythm game both misses something critical about its artistry. It also gives the game too much credit. Rhythm trappings drape the framework of an arcade runner in the form of roughly timed button presses, strings of collectible hearts, and sudden perspective warps. But these mechanics serve better as musical emphasis to the thumping pop/techno soundtrack from Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng. They juice the highest point of a crescendo or punch the last note of a chorus (sometimes with a literal punch).

Borrowing selectively from rhythm games has proven a double-edged sword. Sentiment surrounding the game on Twitter praises the gorgeous bisexual color palette and matching character design, but laments floaty controls that lack the rigid reliability of a Thumper and Beat Saber. Fanbyte’s own morning reporter Victoria Rose tweeted through her feelings on the game’s lineage as a “music-centered game,” and I reached out for elaboration.

Sayonara Wild Hearts feels great out of the context of other past ‘music games,’ like Rez and Thumper,” she said. “But at the same time, if you’ve experienced those games, you understand what makes them satisfying — namely, the rhythm aspect of it.” To Rose and many others, Sayonara Wild Hearts feels caught in an awkward position: consciously choosing the best bits of rhythm games keeps it from making common mistakes, but it lacks the genre’s fine-tuned handling.

“It would have been a spectacularly perfect rhythm game if it had taken a little more care to that rhythmic synchronization,” Rose said.

I can understand the frustration. It feels undeniably bad to miss gold ranking a stage thanks to awkwardly placed collectibles or simply not knowing about the “Risky!” bonus the game awards for zooming a hair’s breadth from obstacles. There’s no tutorial or guide for earning a score that feels ultimately arbitrary. But (and bear with me here)… what if it didn’t matter? What if the game-y bits of Sayonara Wild Hearts distract from a much more satisfying experience: piloting a character through a series of loud, defiantly gay music videos?

Your journey as The Fool sees you clash with four highly theatrical biker gangs. These could roughly represent the emotional states of someone recovering from a devastating breakup. Or perhaps they’re the ghosts of partners past exhumed in an attempt to better deal with the trauma. The interpretation matters less than the resonance: Sayonara Wild Hearts is tells a story to your soul, using pop music’s interminable ability to stick in your ear and wrench open your heart.

A fairy tale plot, simple and predictable, primes our expectations in the best way. You aren’t playing to find out if The Fool triumphs because their success is guaranteed. You play to feel the thrill of discovery, the melancholy of seeming defeat, and the surge of cathartic triumph at the conclusion. If Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver only come out when you need to get deep into your feelings, Sayonara Wild Hearts is two hours of personal empowerment by way of magical girls and motorcycles.

And all of it would work just as well if Olsén, Eng, and vocalist Linnea Olsson had released an album. In fact, I’ve listened to the Sayonara Wild Hearts soundtrack on repeat while writing and rewriting this article. I can now confidently confirm that it rips. Its creators invited players into a world of striking visuals and fantastical settings, where a three-headed wolf mech stalks a dark forest, twins slash apart skyscrapers with gigantic swords, and hot rods screech across a vector graphics desert. By telling its story through a game, Simogo reimagined music videos as interactive media. It’s a guided but ultimately satisfying experience.

Even the difficulty of the game reinforces a design principle that enjoyment trumps accomplishment. High scores and gold ranks are great, but you won’t need to clear a certain threshold in order to progress to the next track. Failure within a level sends you back a few seconds, allowing you to tackle that tricky section one more time — armed with fresh foresight. And though I can’t recommend it, the game does offer a chance to completely bypass a chunk if it proves too tough. Given all this, plus a feature film runtime, it seems the developers wanted Sayonara Wild Hearts to land as tight and uninterrupted as possible.

I don’t listen to music as much as I did in college. Excuses like work and subscribing to one million podcasts sound flimsy, but the truth remains. Sayonara Wild Hearts reminded me of the creative joy and sympathetic workout I once enjoyed on the road. As soon as I finished my first playthrough, I launched directly into another. And like an album on repeat, my favorites changed. New riffs caught my attention; motifs emerged within the arching five-act structure. It reminded me of that younger person finding worlds within the lyrics of a concept album. He would have loved Sayonara Wild Hearts for turning idle daydreams into one of the year’s most memorable games.

The next time you’re hungry for songs with a bit of narrative backbone, the price of a full-length album could instead give you a motorcycle, a mask, and a mission to save a universe in discord. And though the controls don’t lend themselves well to mastery, maybe we’re too busy kissing dragons and greedy biker girls to notice. Grab a good pair of headphones, turn up the volume, and tune out the numbers. Sayonara Wild Hearts don’t care about gamerscores.