This Moving Music Game Is an Essential Part of My New Year Routine
Put this game on repeat.
Heartbreak is about as universal as human experiences get, but while it’s inspired countless works in other media, comparatively few games have tackled the topic. If you want to ring in the new year with a little lovesickness, though, you can grab the best breakup game ever on sale for under $10 on PC, PS4, and Switch.
Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts follows its unnamed heroine through a surreal post-breakup journey in the form of a spectacular music game. It’s not a rhythm game per se, since acting on the beat is rarely required, but music is still central to Sayonara Wild Hearts — so much so that its developer has described it as a “pop album video game.”
Each level in Sayonara Wild Hearts is only a few minutes long, timed to a single synthpop track. At the start, gameplay is extremely simple. You just ride your skateboard down a pulsing, neon-colored highway collecting hearts as an electronic arrangement of “Clair de Lune” plays. You don’t even really need to collect the hearts. They’re just there to give you a score at the end of the level.
Immediately after that overture, Sayonara Wild Hearts starts to show its true colors. Our heroine magically trades her sensible sweater for a stylish jacket, scarf, and mask combo, transforming into a character known to fans as The Fool, due to the game’s use of Tarot cards as a motif. She also swaps her skateboard for a motorcycle, and the level speeds up as the camera gets more acrobatic, sometimes hugging close to your character and sometimes pulling out for swooping 360-degree action shots. Three equally fashionable bikers appear, launching fireballs you need to dodge with timed button presses.
From here on, things only get more psychedelic. Neon-pink city streets give way to a blue-toned forest, and the Fool briefly rides on the back of a stag before getting back on her motorcycle to face down a giant robotic wolf. As you play through each location’s short sequence of levels, the music builds to a final track for your confrontation with another gang, each represented by a Tarot card. The whole soundtrack is excellent, but it’s these boss-fight compositions that really shine, adding soaring pop vocals to the synthy mix.
Sayonara Wild Hearts’ gameplay changes even more often than its environments. One moment you’re in a sword fight timed to music, and the next you’re in a first-person motorcycle chase. Then you’re trapped inside an Atari-esque retro arcade game. Combined with its great music and mesmerizing art style, the effect is hypnotic. There’s no time to think about what you’re doing, only enough to feel it and react instantly.
About halfway through Sayonara Wild Hearts, you hit one of my favorite video game levels ever. Here, the Fool faces off against a sword-wielding duo called the Stereo Lovers. As you avoid obstacles and collect hearts on your motorcycle, the Lovers snap in time with the music, and each snap changes what’s laid out on the road ahead of you.
The gimmick here is that there are two or three different versions of the level in play at any time, and they appear as the Lovers snap. You need to keep each of these versions in your head at once and react not to the obstacles you see now, but to the ones that will appear after the next snap. It’s a perfect blend of music and gameplay, and no matter how many times I’ve played it, I can’t help but lean forward and dance in my chair with my heart pumping every time. To cap it all off, your final confrontation with the Lovers is scored by “Mine,” an absolute bop that’s impossible not to dance to.
Sayonara Wild Hearts gets even better after you’ve beaten it. That’s when you unlock album mode, where you can play through the whole game in one roughly hour-long run without breaks between levels. It’s the perfect way to experience a game that’s essentially one long album, and because the levels and challenges are so varied, Sayonara Wild Hearts loses nothing on multiple replays.
That’s part of why I find myself wanting to play it again every year around this time. With every playthrough, I only like it more. And I can appreciate its ever-shifting structure a bit more each time, too.
But that’s not the only reason. While it centers on a breakup, Sayonara Wild Hearts is ultimately a story of hope, renewal, and growth. It’s a story about the anger and sadness of a relationship ending, the fear that you’ll never find love again, the loneliness of resigning yourself to isolation, and about finding the courage to move on, with or without a partner. It works best in album mode, as one unbroken cathartic journey, culminating in a fantastic finale that runs its heroine through a condensed version of each level, only now as a character who’s processed her pain and come out better on the other side.
Sayonara Wild Hearts’ final gift to the perpetually broken-hearted girlies out there (myself included) is that it doesn’t end with the Fool finding someone new to love — it ends with her learning to love herself. I can’t think of a better game to spend a little time with at the most self-reflective time of the year.