2019 was a great year for video game soundtracks. I already covered the Crypt of the Necrodancer spinoff Cadence of Hyrule a few months ago. I also finally got around to trying Lumines Remastered, a puzzle game that also makes the soundtrack part of the gameplay, and enjoyed that (although not quite as much as Meteos). And while less integrated into the gameplay, the Pokémon series, which has always put out great soundtracks, hit their strongest one in a while (in my opinion) with Sword and Shield. Similarly with Waypoint, a company that always has good music, and their new game River City Girls (although it integrates into the game in a cute meta way when you fight the soundtrack vocalist as a character in the game). And this isn’t getting into a few other music games that I didn’t get around to, like Ape Out or Songbird Symphony.
We truly were spoiled this year, but for my money, none of them take home the Best Music of the Year award. That honor belongs to Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts, a masterpiece of a game with an absolutely killer soundtrack courtesy of Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng, and Linnea Olsson. And thanks to that music, it was one of my favorite games of the year.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game that is both stunning in its ambitions, yet also incredibly straightforward in conception. You might be familiar with the idea of visual albums, musical albums with video aspects added to them. Simogo took that idea and extended that into their specialty of game design: what if that visual aspect was instead a series of video game levels that you played through? It would almost be shocking that the idea isn’t more common, until you remember that it requires the effort of making both an entire album and an entire video game, and keeping it all cohesive (although it would be amazing to see others attempt it!)
Like most concept albums, Sayonara has an overarching narrative, steeped in big, sweeping, metaphors and abstraction and with most of the specifics up to player interpretation. This tale focuses on a young girl who experiences a heart break so profound that it ties her to a cosmic struggle for universal harmony between the forces of good and evil, represented by tarot card arcana. Thus, she becomes The Fool, the masked, swashbuckling hero charged with fighting the representations of the evil arcana (who may or may not be representations of her former lovers).
That’s really the main framework of the story, with most of the details told via the level designs and songs for the player to pick up on and work into their understanding of the narrative. It really is impressive how much story you can draw out of the three aspects put together, given how little of it is made explicit, and it makes building a personal interpretation out of all of that extremely fun.
The levels each serve as sorts of "music videos", with your character constantly running through different absolutely gorgeous environments and picking up different heart icons to score points. The level design mentioned mostly comes through both the placement of collectibles and obstacles, which often serve as accents on the musical accompaniment in cute ways, and Sayonara's impeccable aesthetic sense. Each level is a tightly choreographed (sometimes-literal) ballet of motorcycle chases, fistfights, acrobatic stunts, and more, against backdrops like neon-technicolor cities and surreal forest-raves; the actions and environments become more building blocks setting up the game's story, open to their own interpretation. But even if they weren't, they'd all be beautiful enough to check out on their own.
The levels themselves are rather short, as they correspond directly to the songs. Most fall in the 1-2 minute range, with longer levels coming out to more of a traditional pop-song length (and usually serving as boss stages of sorts). And the game itself isn't too long, and can be completed in under an hour. Of course, that's not too much of a problem, since the game is at once an album and an arcade game. Each level is infinitely re-playable as you try and outdo your best score, and the game stays interesting for as long as you still enjoy the soundtrack. I've played through it essentially three times at this point just as a function of wanting to re-listen to it, and I can see myself continuing to do so.
And oh, that soundtrack! Olsén is a wizard with synths, with complex layers filling out lush orchestrations to further build out the worlds shown in the levels. They all feel so propulsive and energetic that I can't imagine them accompanying anything but The Fool's constant forward movement, and yet, all of them feel like they could just as equally serve as dance tracks. Laser Love might be my favorite such example.
The pop songs bring in Eng on lyrics, and he writes perfect mood pieces to underscore the actions on-screen. They walk the fine line of filling in details to make the songs reflect a distinct experience, while also remaining universal in the feelings they convey. And Olsson's vocals are just perfect, ethereal to match the surreal world of Wild Hearts while also carrying intense emotion, driving home the heartbreaks and triumphs. Her voice reminds me a lot of Lauren Mayberry (lead singer of CHVRCHES), which I mean as the highest praise. To get a picture of how it all comes together, just take a look at the first "boss level", Begin Again, a story of preparing to move past a doomed romance set to an extended chase scene through a town known as Hatehell Valley. That sort of heightened emotion is the backbone of Sayonara Wild Hearts, and it really sells every minute of it.
I could go on about this game for ages, but I really just want to treat it as a short but strong recommendation. So if any part of this review sounds interesting, definitely pick up Sayonara Wild Hearts. It really feels like a genuinely interesting burst of creativity and ideas, the start of something genuinely new, on top of just being a stellar pop album, and I love it for that.