A code for this game was provided by Moonlight Kids and Humble PR.
You could compare The Wild at Heart to any number of stories you’ve seen before.
It thrives on a nostalgia for the late eighties and early nineties, putting it square in the Stranger Things camp.
Its “throw minions at puzzles” gameplay unmistakably smacks of Pikmin.
And its gloomy, nowhere-forest breathes the same air as The Unknown in Over the Garden Wall. (The use of charming 2D animation certainly brings the two together.)
But none of those are really fair.
Direct comparisons rarely are.
The Wild at Heart bears resemblance to other things I’ve come across, sure. But nearly every story ever made is built on those the creators have seen before, too. The Wild at Heart is hardly different because the protagonist reminds me a bit of a semi-modern Huckleberry Finn.
But what’s arguably much harder is how to describe the exact ways in which this game is unique.
Not because it doesn’t have those moments.
But because where they do pop up, it’s in a context that feels all-its-own.
Call it fae magic; call it a spark. But this game has something going on that I couldn’t quite pin down.
And that might kind of be the whole point.
The Heart and The Wild
I live inside a comfy bubble of perfectly-earnest stories. It’s my comfort zone, and maybe it’s a bit reductive, but I don’t apologize for that. And, despite how unmistakably heavy its story is from the word “go”, The Wild at Heart has plenty of warm scenery and fond feelings that put it smack up that alley.
But it’s also distinctly off-kilter in just as many ways. “Off-kilter” isn’t even harmful or unsettling – I rarely felt directly threatened, even in the face of a beetle the size of my entire body.
It’s more that I got attached to Wake, a boy who very pointedly has no center.
He’s a ship, unmoored and in waves he wasn’t meant to crest. Pushed this way and that, drawn in and given not enough power to fight the tide.
Very early on, the game presents him with something of a “home base”. A safe space to return to between the many tasks thrust upon him.
And while he hay have meant to leave his old home behind, this is clearly no replacement.
It’s dark and cold when you first arrive, in stark contrast to the warm reds of his basement bedroom. While no parents are around to understand him at home, the denizens of the forest – while amicable – actively defy understanding. And where every inch of his bedroom is crammed with his personal treasures, the hub in the forest is purely functional.
Wake is adrift.
And while it’s hard to argue his motives in getting there, even my woodland-smitten heart has to see this as a little bit of a trade-off for the poor lad.
It helps in any storm to have something to hold on to.
Or, in this case, a dozen little somethings, nibbling at your shins.
The Wild at Heart is built around using little nature spirits – “Spritelings” – to clear a path through the woods. They move twigs to form a bridge, or clear poisonous mushrooms, or protect Wake – and, by extension, me – from harm.
But just as critically, they’re just there.
Constant companions, never asking you to go on an epic forest-saving quest or retrieve a glowing snail-shell or any of that. They don’t even seem to expect much of you, despite letting you toss them headfirst into danger and manual labor alike.
The Spritelings are present, for good and for ill. Staring vacantly, but following loyally.
And honestly, that’s such a boon in the unfamiliar woods of The Wild at Heart.
You’ll eventually get a companion to join you, making the trek from campfire to campfire a bit less isolating. But until and even then, having the onion-headed ankle-biters around provides a sense of safety in a land that’s anything but safe.
And for as much as Wake is desperate to leave home from minute, I got the feeling that what he really needs is exactly that. Some constant to hold onto; any port in a storm. Be you twelve or thirty, you can hardly describe the value in that.
Nor on that last packet of Cheesy Chippers in my pocket. You better believe I’m never letting go of that last taste of home, runaway or not.
There’s so much more I could say about The Wild at Heart.
Its art style feels straight out of a children’s bedtime story. It wrestles with heavy and impactful topics, but its storytelling is light-footed and tactful. It asks me to think about my surroundings in a way that keeps me fully-engaged with its setting at all times.
But most of all, it’s a game that lets me enter a vulnerable space, but crucially doesn’t prey on that vulnerability.
Wake and I are always on the back foot, but there’s never a doubt that we’ll pull through.
The woods of The Wild at Heart are generally unwelcoming, but they’re not outright hostile – so long as you’re not out after dark. They’re a place that, given time, you can become familiar with and learn to live in. And yes, I’ve come to love the thrill of discovering them.
But that process that takes time.
And until then, it sure helps to have something reliable to hold you steady.
Even if that something is eight inches tall.