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The Spirit of ‘Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’ Lives On In Canadian-Developed ‘Children of Zodiarcs’

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My tank is surrounded.

Two knights flank him, and a spellcaster is perched on a nearby roof. I play out the next few turns in my head. Based on possible enemy attacks with this specific arrangement of hostile units, I assess the risks behind staying in place. A sniper is close; they’ll have my tank in their sights after the next turn.

I settle on using my tank as bait to keep enemy placement concentrated. Instead of running, he’ll buff himself, top off his health, and hunker down.

Now to calculate damage. My rogue can stealth in closer. Ideally the tank will hold their attention. But, in the likely scenario that the one knight my rogue is in range of decides to attack her, she can shrug it off.

My mage, on the other hand is a glass cannon. She plays a dangerous balancing act of dealing out high bursts of damage and trying to not get knocked out in two hits. This is a setup turn for her; get her in closer, but out of range, and prep ahead. Or should I risk it and try and get in range to debuff the enemies? Could the tank block movement well enough where she isn’t at risk? Will that help the tank survive?

Thirty minutes and dozens of imagined scenarios later, I end my turn. My plan unfolds over the next few turns in a glorious symphony of prediction, combos, and a smattering of luck. Ten-year-old me grins ecstatically.

A frazzled 10 year old boy explains his video game strategy, ca. 2003

For a child like myself who was either frequently on the move or busy coming up with different ways to sprawl himself along the length of the couch, the Gameboy Advance existed as an extension of my body. My library consisted of staples like Mario, Zelda, and even more esoteric ones like Boktai. But as time went on, only Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had the staying power and replayability to consistently find itself in my GBA.

Gorgeous painted aesthetic, ornate armor, and ridiculous hair. Yep, this is a Square game.

FFTA was my gateway into the wonderfully frustrating world of SRPGs and Tactics games. Shining Force, Fire Emblem, and Western titles like XCOM scratch this itch of chess-like strategizing blended with video game mechanics like items, skills, and leveling up. Tactics and SRPG games tend to be turn-based and utilize a grid/hex-based movement system with specialized units or classes that can move and act in discrete increments. Combat takes place on maps where the objective (or one of them) is usually to eliminate the enemy units. The genre focuses on strategy and planning ahead, so players spending inordinate amounts of time mulling over every possible situation is a common occurrence (as is the player turning into a frothing, raving mess when they see their plan fall apart during the enemy’s turn).

This makes sense in context, I swear.

FFTA is by no means the best or most nuanced the SRPG genre has to offer. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1, can claim greater depth, customization, and arguably a more fleshed out narrative. Disgaea, pictured above, is notorious for its complex gameplay. But it is precisely because FFTA was a more streamlined experience that it continues to hold a special place in my heart.

There is something to be said for stylized simplicity, a design notion that functions as a unifying thread tying together all aspects of FFTA. The story is a charming fantasy adventure, the mechanics are straightforward but deep enough to offer a hefty amount of strategy and replayability, and the pixel sprites, isometric environments, and GBA soundfont mix together in a gorgeously simplistic blend.

Simple and clean.

So where did the genre go from there? There were other SRPGs along the way, like Luminous Arc, Disgaea, and Stella Glow but they were all more or less repeats of the same formula. Western devs would carve out their own niche with games like XCOM and Banner Saga, but it was in 2016 a certain Kickstarter campaign caught my eye. It touted itself as a game that aspired to follow in the footsteps of well established Japanese Tactics games. The devs drew distinct lines to beloved titles that many gamers have clear thoughts and opinions about. I was intrigued enough to back the project and the very next year Children of Zodiarcs released to the world at large.

There are a lot of Kickstarter horror stories out there. Thankfully, Children of Zodiarcs is not one of them.

CoZ, developed by Montreal-based team ‘Cardboard Utopia’, does exactly what it advertised: offers a game inspired by Japanese Tactics and SRPG classics. To what effect is up for debate, but what is interesting is how it approaches this concept of player agency and how it does so differently from the games it draws inspiration from. CoZ is a unique blend of Japanese gameplay retooled with Western sensibilities.

SRPGs: now with 30% less numbers!

Before we delve in further, it is important to establish what exactly I mean by “player agency”. It is this idea of how much control player has over the flow of the game and, to an extent, its narrative. In a game like Fallout or Mass Effect, the player has the freedom to make choices and they must deal with the consequences, good or bad. This can manifest in a number of different ways, from picking a hostile dialogue option with an NPC to specializing a character’s skills and abilities.

Player agency is an incredibly important aspect of good game design. Think about some of your favorite games. How did they allow you to make choices? Were they small choices like how your character moved or large ones like choosing factions to align with? Chances are, your favorite games gave you the opportunity to directly influence the world and how you engage with it, with the game responding in turn.

Imperial tax septims at work.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance offers player agency by creating freedom of choice in a multitude of different aspects, ranging from job/class development, item builds, missions, and even placing narrative landmarks. It does a wonderful job of giving the player a wide variety of small choices that add up to a surprisingly personal experience.

While the game does have a central narrative and cast, the bulk of the player’s fighting units will be random recruits with equally random names. By giving the player free reign over their classes, skills, items, and how they fit into the team, a personalized narrative forms organically. These recruits are far more than gussied up Mad-Libs. They live and die in battle. They score crits and misses. They clinch victories or sometimes bring you defeat. They’re your guildmates. Your comrades. Your friends.

Clan Nutsy rules, Clan Borzoi drools.

Children of Zodiarcs reworks the concept of player agency to create a more visceral immersion, as opposed to a narrative one. I had an interesting conversation at PAX with Jason Kim, the Creative Director for CoZ. He described how one of the team’s key design philosophies was capturing the highs and lows of playing a board game. CoZ replicates, to surprising effect, the feeling of immeasurable dread growing into glorious triumph (and vice-versa).

Pray to the gods of RNG.

I did some research on board games in Japan and curiously came up short. Unlike the West, which is experiencing a tabletop renaissance, Japan’s board game scene is limited. The benefit the developers of Children of Zodiarcs had in their design process was access to a culture heavily entrenched in this unique notion of experimenting with mechanics and rules. Nowhere is this more apparent than in tabletop games.

Board games have come a long way from Monopoly and Battleship. Games like Settlers of Catan and Pandemic herald a new generation of tabletop gaming where depth, experimentation, and innovation are the norm. Replayability and customization typically come into play through decks of cards and sets of dice; these game pieces can dictate units, abilities, or any number of game mechanics. The luck of the draw or roll can greatly affect future decisions, so strategic planning will usually involve mitigating randomness (RNG). Manipulating risk mitigation and RNG is equal parts tactical foresight and dangerous gambling. It is a core tenet of tabletop games that allows for intense gameplay experiences across a wide range of situations.

My friend, Michael, carefully considers his increasingly limited options (spoilers: I won).

Where FFTA allowed for comparatively deep customization, CoZ only gives the player two avenues for customization: the aforementioned dice and cards. Customization, while present, is not nearly as fleshed out as in other titles within the SRPG genre. The game limits the roster to a select group of individuals, and stats are practically non-existent in the game. There are no talents, classes, or passive skills. It’s as if someone took FFTA, an already streamlined SRPG, and streamlined it further.

On the flipside, what CoZ does brilliantly is replicating the feel and excitement of playing a board game. You have some leeway in choosing deck composition and crafting sides for your dice, two mechanics that play into this idea of mitigating risk and RNG. There’s something deeply satisfying about drawing a series of cards and rolling through a combo or hearing the clack of the dice as a wonderful mix of symbols signify that you are about to absolutely destroy your enemy, especially when it was the result of strategic foresight and planning. The elation in drawing a high-damage ability in the exact situation you need it or the seething rage from a stray die messing up your perfect roll are sentiments that CoZ expertly draws from tabletop gaming.  

Not pictured: the player fist pumping.

This is what I mean when I refer to Children of Zodiarcs shifting the player agency from narrative immersion to visceral immersion. Your decisions in-combat as the player consist of choosing which dice and cards to use and which two dice from any given roll you’d like to reroll. That’s it. By placing greater emphasis on how the player engages with the game, the CoZ devs succeed at capturing the emotional highs and lows that tabletop gaming offers. The genius at work here is the depth and time you can still spend parsing out the optimal strategies for you to take. Deck composition and dice crafting are relatively small adjustments that can greatly affect the likelihood of what you draw or roll. Risk and RNG mitigation is a simple game design concept that allows for a surprising amount of depth. Not to say that a game like FFTA didn’t have this, far from it. What I’m instead suggesting is that by presenting the player with a modular set of limited tools, their sense of play, strategy, and imagination are given free reign within relatively simple confines.

This is one sub-menu for one character in FFTA…

…and this is your whole party in CoZ. The menu doesn’t get much more in-depth than this, even after you progress.

To offer a similar analogy, compare and contrast the experiences of playing Hearthstone vs. playing Magic: The Gathering. MTG features a deep, faction-based library of cards that can result in exceedingly hefty and intricate decks and combos. Meanwhile, Hearthstone offers a streamlined collectible card game experience with fewer moving parts and more limits. By allowing the player to focus on fewer things, they can more quickly jump into a game and experience “Fun”.

The concept of “Fun” is an amorphous one, for which there is no right or wrong answer. “Fun” in a lot of these older Japanese SRPGs (and JRPGs to a greater extent) involves heavy micromanagement. Like playing MTG, there is most definitely fun to be found in these robust and complex game systems. But what Cardboard Utopia sought to accomplish in Children of Zodiarcs was to achieve this sense of fun that didn’t require excessive amounts of effort, while still capturing a sense of strategy and planning.

Do I wish I could see statistics and have greater control on the numbers? Sure. Is that what CoZ aims to do? Not at all. And that’s okay. I used the phrase “stylized simplicity” to describe FFTA in relation to its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics, and I’ll use it again to describe CoZ as it relates to FFTA.

“Arcadey” and “simple” are terms that may seem negative at first, but really all they are are different words to describe “fun”.

Edit: Because I was a dingus and forgot to post relevant links, here are relevant links.

Cardboard Utopia’s Website

CoZ’s Steam Page

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Kevin Foster

    September 25, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Check out Arcadian Atlas – http://store.steampowered.com/app/691790/Arcadian_Atlas/

    Also, would have been nice to have a link to the game’s website, Steam store page, etc in the article somewhere, unless I completely missed it somehow.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      September 25, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Yesssss I’ve been following the AA devs on twitter!

      And I will totally add those links. Was thinking about it but thanks for bring it to my attention.

    • Akesycu

      September 25, 2017 at 11:49 pm

      hah nice one! I need that on mobile tho.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remains relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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‘Sayonara Wild Hearts’ is the Rhythm Game of a Lifetime

Few Rhythm games can boast the sheer strength and variety of gameplay and stellar soundtrack that Sayonara Wild Hearts offers the player.

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Sayonara Wild Hearts

Rhythm games can sometimes be a dicy prospect. As well populated as the genre is, the possible variety in musical style, required skill set and game length can make it hard to parse whether a rhythm game will be a good fit for an individual player. With that in mind, few rhythm games nail all of these attributes as perfectly as Sayonara Wild Hearts does.

A neon-drenched fever dream of a game, Sayonara Wild Hearts tasks the player with driving, flying and sailing through an increasingly elaborate world of giant robots, sword battles and laser fights. In this ethereal plain you battle other wild hearts as you seek solace from a broken heart and navigate around the obstacles of each course.

Though this may already sound very gnarly, or even radical, if you will, what really makes Sayonara Wild Hearts work so well is the diversity of of its levels. Some stages will see you weaving in and out of traffic while dodging oncoming street cars and the like, while others will see you navigating a ship across storm drenched waters or working your way through a retro inspired shooter. There’s even a first person level that calls to mind old school PC classics like Descent

Sayonara Wild Hearts

It’s really something to see so much variety packed into a game that it nearly defies classification as a result. Few games can offer the depth and breadth of gameplay that Sayonara Wild Hearts does, and that’s part of its enduring charm.

Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its soundtrack. Luckily Sayonara Wild Hearts soars in this regard as well. The soundtrack contains pulse-pounding beats by Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng, with dreamy pop vocals by Linnea Olsson. Inspired by the likes of Sia and Chvrches, the killer soundscape of the game will keep you powering through time and again in hopes of attaining the ever elusive perfect run. A rank system and collectibles keep things interesting as well.

The unique look of the game is another feather in its cap. Pulsing neon lights pump to the beat while pinks, purples and blues color the world around you in a unique 1980’s dance club aesthetic. All of the elements coalesce together to make a game that looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever played.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

As mentioned at the top, sometimes rhythm games live or die based on their difficulty and accessibility. Fortunately Sayonara Wild Hearts manages to nail this aspect of gaming too. All you need to do to pass a level is get a Bronze ranking, which is attainable even for those of low skill sets. My 5 and 6 year old daughters were able to beat several of the levels, even some of the harder ones. Better still, less skilled players can skip the more challenging areas of the later levels with a prompt that comes up automatically when a player fails three times in a row.

With a stellar attention to all of the aspects that make for a successful rhythm game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is the rhythm game of a lifetime. Destined to be listed among the best games of 2019, and in the company of the best rhythm games of all time, Sayonara Wild Hearts is revolutionary entry into the genre and one of the best indies to come along in years.

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