A screenshot of the fool riding a tarot card in the Apple Arcade title Sayonara WIld Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop album video game developed by Simogo, known for their previous titles Year Walk and Device 6. Featuring a half synth-pop, half EDM soundtrack from Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, Sayonara Wild Hearts is like no rhythm game you’ve ever played. It’s probably fairer to say that this is a playable animated music video.

A screenshot of the first level of Sayonara Wild Hearts, Clair De Lune

Let’s Pop

The musical immersion of this game is outstanding. Each track is a different level of the game, revealing a bit more of the story of our heroine, a masked biker we know as The Fool. There’s driving and flying bits of the game, where you steer to pick up hearts and collect points. There are also quick time events—like striking at enemies with a sword. There’s also teases of shooting and bullet hell mechanics in some levels.

Tapping to and playing along with beat feels good—especially when it gets tricky, like tapping offbeat to emphasize bits of the melody. It’s the best version of tapping your foot to the beat, except you get a score for it.

The album itself is incredibly catchy and stands alone as an excellent album outside of the game. It’s got a dreamy, atmospheric vibe to it that calms you down despite the high-BPM of some tracks. It became the soundtrack I put on while preparing dinner last night, and I’m listening to it while writing this.

A screenshot of Sayonara Wild Hearts, showing the the Dancing Devils

Hearts & Swords

This game is astonishingly clever, and each level brings something new to the table. My jaw dropped more than once, completely inverting my expectations for what this game is.

Parallel Universes is a level where you play against the twin-like allies, Stereo Lovers. As the Stereo Lovers snap and clap along to the beat, you’re flipped between two parallel game universes, each one with bits to pick up and obstacles to avoid. The goal is to foresee what’s coming up in your path in both worlds and avoid it. I’ll be honest, I struggled a bit in one segment this track, but there’s no severe penalty for actual failure: the game never sets you back far, and will let you skip a small chunk if a segment is too hard. I stuck through it, and I am glad I did. (And, if you can’t swipe fast enough, turn up the sensitivity in settings.)

You’re chasing scores in each level, with different benchmarks for bronze, silver, and gold. You’re likely not going to get gold in many levels on your first playthrough, and that’s okay. I doubt anyone playing will feel that the music or visuals are repetitive. After you complete the game for the first time, there’s even an Album Arcade game mode that unlocks—you play the entire game/album front to back, and earn a score from that. (Probably a perfect game mode for a long flight.)

The Stereo Lovers swinging their swords in Sayonara Wild Hearts

The World We Knew

The aesthetic is something else too. It’s punchy and purple in the best way. It leans on bright and minimal thin lines for key artwork, which provides a sharp contrast from the quiet, dark blues and purples of the backgrounds. If you’ve read my previous posts, I might have mentioned “vibrancy” of color a time or two on this website, but holy hell, this game is in your face with its über-colorful aesthetic, and boy, it’s on point at all times.

The game uses tarot lore to tell parts of the story. The heroine is the fool, which is one of the cards in a tarot deck. At times, you’re riding along a level on a tarot card. The tarot base becomes the driving backbone of this dreamy spiritual and really glam vibe of the game.

Oh yeah, Queen Latifah is the narrator for the game too. (Who would have thought?) I didn’t realize it was her voice until I hit the credits the first time, but it’s excellent casting. Her voice brings such poise and confidence to the narration and is the right choice to deliver the narrative through-line of the story.

Riding a motorcycle in Sayonara Wild Hearts, in the level Begin Again.

Wild Hearts Never Die

Sayonara Wild Hearts is published by Annapurna Interactive, which seems to be winning my heart “best publisher” feelings, for the sheer number of indie titles that I love they’ve published in any capacity this year. (Telling Lies, Journey, and Donut County come to mind.)

Sayonara Wild Hearts is available for free with an Apple Arcade subscription. It’s also available for PS4 and Nintendo Switch for $12.99. Each stage only takes a few minutes so that you can play in discrete chunks, but a typical front-to-back playthrough will take just over an hour of your time.

This game is so chill, and I probably would have had this post up a few hours earlier if I didn’t get completely immersed playing it again while taking notes for this post. Let Sayonara Wild Hearts steal your time (and heart) too.

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A screenshot of Mini Motorways, showing editing strategies and tips for building roads.

Do you know those moments when you’re sitting in deep stop-and-go traffic that goes on for miles? The traffic that makes you lazily slouch down in your seat and turn up the volume to your podcast, to distract you from the boredom? Perhaps you wonder to yourself, who designed these roads? Well, now it can be you.

Mini Motorways is a city simulation game by Dinosaur Polo Club. Your task is to build a road network that can support a growing, sprawling city. It’s a follow up to Dinosaur Polo Club’s earlier game, Mini Metro.

A screenshot of Los Angeles in Mini Motorways, showing the early development of a city, with multiple colors of buildings.

Los Angeles

I first take on the task of planning roads for Los Angeles, a city notorious for dense and never-ending traffic. Something makes me think I can do better. (It’s a game, right? How hard can it be?)

Specifically, Los Angeles is vast and open, with only the Los Angeles River (and later, the San Gabriel River) to get in the way of your planning. As the game starts and time passes, colored houses and factories pop up. The houses provide a few cars of traffic, and the cars leave home to a store or factory of the same color, and then turn around and return home.

Since LA is my first experience with the game, I’m soon caught out by learning the systems yet. I don’t yet know how to foresee the problems here, so my road development is just blindly connecting new houses and buildings to my road network without much rhyme or reason. I don’t know how to anticipate where buildings will grow, and this gets me caught in awkward corners. My first (and expected) loss comes because I never expected how to grow across the Los Angeles River. Next time, I’ll build across the river in advance of things popping up there, and start to preestablish a grid.

An early screenshot of Tokyo in Mini Motorways, showing a road along the Sumida river.

Tokyo

My next contract is in a new city: Tokyo. This city presents a slightly different challenge from Los Angeles. The Sumida River (隅田川) is my first foe—It doesn’t take too long for the game to start throwing stores and houses on the other side of it.

I build on what I’ve learned from LA and decide to establish a grid layout. If you’re thinking about a grid, when a new building appears, try to extend the roads well past the building with your extra road tiles long enough so intersections can naturally form. Also, since you can connect houses to a path from any of their sides, flipping houses seems to be a more critical strategy, so I can start reducing their pressure along main roads.

A well formed city of Beijing in Mini Motorways, with an advanced grid established.

Beijing

Beijing is the next map I sunk my teeth into, and honestly, it took me a few attempts to get right. There are a small river and lake here, and both manage to get in the way. I feel like Beijing is more big-building dense than the other cities I’ve played too.

I’ve refined my grid strategy a bit here, and also picked up a few other strategies. For example, to reduce the number of intersections, I’ve started to focus on tertiary roads that connect to major arterial grid roads—these tertiary roads focus more on dead-end home traffic, and the grids hold more store/factory traffic.

I’ve also picked up the habit of pausing when a new factory drops. I’ve quite often found that the large buildings drop in awkward spots, and as I’m going to paint down new roads, a house will pop into my planned path unexpectedly.

A close zoom of Moscow in Mini Motorways, showing traffic and two buildings about to fail.

Russian to download it

Overall, Mini Motorways is a more zen-like experience than Mini Metro. Once you start to pick up skills that help you better understand the game and its traffic flow—like pre-planning a grid, tertiary roads, etc.—it feels like you have much better control over the game. When I fail, it’s mostly due to shortcomings in anticipating traffic, not from a bout of randomness—like fifteen people decided to stack up at a metro station that I suddenly have to account for (like in the previous game). You also usually have a bit of time to recover from these misses, or can plonk down a motorway as an exhaust path.

Mini Motorways is available now for Apple Arcade. Each game can last from just a few minutes to a max of about 20 minutes (all depending on how well you do), but you can undoubtedly get hours of playtime out of this game.

A newspaper from Animal Inspector, proclaiming that there are too many animals.

Welcome to another worldwide crisis: too many animals. Shocking, I know.

In Tom Astle’s Animal Inspector, you’ve been hired to help solve this crisis by sifting through scores of animals to decide which animals survive another day. That’s not it, though. You’ve got skin in the game too: you have an adorable dog that you want to save from the culling.

From Animal Inspector, a rejected cat that kills mice and disappears.

We Rate Dogs, the game?

Day by day, the game foists a new batch of animals upon you to approve or reject.

In the WeRateDogs era of the internet, a game like this is strangely cute—you just want to tell every lazy dog that, yes, they are the most adorable (13/10). But, don’t be distracted by your impulse to or the game’s cute and cushy MS Paint Aesthetic. It’s all a distraction from the fact that some animals won’t pass muster.

Each day (and a new stack of animals) throws something different at you to switch it up and inject unique flavor. There’s the day where Martha—a bonafide cat lady—begs for you not to reject any cats, and the game dumps on you a stack of five cats. Or the day a documentary crew arrives, and you have to be on your best behavior for them—yes, you can imagine exactly how that goes.

You also have to inject your own opinion into your evaluations. Not only is there a binary approve/reject, but you need to give a reason. And the game tracks your reasons, and scolds you if you’re not good enough. You can’t swear, you can’t be repetitive, you can’t stamp multiple times—you know, the rules and procedure any proper bureaucrat should know.

Martha in Animal Inspector asks if you really rejected a kitty—she loves cats.

Tinderlike games

This game is a good jumping-off point for a developing genre of games that I find to be pretty compelling: Tinderlike games.

These tinderlike games feature repetitive player-initiated approval/rejection as a core mechanic. It could be several binary factors: yes/no, true/false, approve/reject, or a swipe right/left. There’s something about this type of mechanic—game or not—that answers to a primal thing going on in our brains. When Animal Inspector was first out, it was one of just a few of these “tinderlike” games, but now the genre is a bit more established.

A good old dog approved in Animal Inspector

Approve them all

Well, wait, no, you can’t actually approve them all, sorry. (That’s also the point.) But, the game takes a quick thirty minutes, and you’ll hit an even faster failure route if you do try to approve them all.

Animal Inspector is a chill game that exists in a world of established Indies, with games like Sort the Court and Papers, Please as distant related cousins. It also features a soundtrack by Ben Esposito, notable now for Donut County.

You can approve and reject different pets in Animal Inspector for free on itch.io, for Mac and Windows.

A screenshot of a replay of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick and an enemy pointing their guns at each other.

John Wick Hex is an action strategy game developed by Bithell Games. Billed as a prequel to the John Wick film series, it's a timeline-based action game that puts you deep inside the tactical mind of John Wick.

Who is the Baba Yaga?

So, John Wick is the "Baba Yaga," a title loosely inspired by a Slavic term for an old chaotic witch. But here, it more or less means that "even the Boogeyman would be scared of him." And boy, there sure are Boogeymen here. Hex, an antagonist, developed for the game, kidnaps Winston and Charon. Each new map area is a "scene" set up for you to face a powerful enemy from John Wick's past, before the first movie.

A top down view in the first level of John Wick Hex, showing off the vibrant game style.

This game is heavily stylized in a vibrant and flashy cyberpunk style. The UI is bright, and enemies die in sprays of neon pink blood.

True to the name, Hexes are everything in John Wick Hex. You move about the on a hexagonal grid. Because the levels are designed on a hex grid, but our everyday world on hexes, you don't exactly flow through spaces cleanly. When you first encounter John Wick ping-ponging and serpentining through a hallway, initially it's jarring but later becomes a bit endearing.

Even the final battle against Hex, a mob boss who prefers to stay out of sight, takes place in a Hex shaped room.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing the timeline and game UI, with a the menu of potential actions open.

Watch the timeline

This game is essentially chess, but with guns and melee attacks instead of knights and rooks. You're always thinking about your decisions, and how it'll affect your timing for other incoming attacks from enemies. Mechanically, it's a bit of a cross-breed of the precise action dynamics of Superhot coupled with the tactical calculations of XCOM.

Playing as John Wick, you've got a limited set of actions—like "shoot" and "push"—that dictate how you interact with the world around you. You're free to move about, but every action—including movement—takes time. The timeline auto pauses when your queued action completes, or when there's a new interruption.

When you're scrapping it out against enemies, some actions are faster than others. A takedown is usually pretty useful, but it's a bit slow and needs melee proximity. A push against one enemy might get you out of the range of gunfire from a 2nd attacker. Parrying is an effective rapid response to a close enemy that's attacking, which generally enables you to edge in before their attack fires. You know the drill. On deck is the need to anticipate the moves of the people in the world—and sometimes it's better to wait.

A cutscene screenshot of Osborn, one of John Wick Hex's bosses in the Elysium level of the game.

It's a bit janky

Some parts of the game feel a bit off, though. In particular, the replay mode—which is available after you complete a level—stands out as having the most significant room for polish. Animations feel stilted and stuttery; there doesn't seem to be blended movements at play here. The dynamic camera also picks shots that are relatively uncinematic, occluding John or the enemy you're attacking from view, like behind an object or wall. It doesn't feel like a perfectly orchestrated cinematic action experience like the movies portray, but if you can look past that it's still an effective reflection of how you conquered a level.

Also at times, John Wick Hex has some tight difficulty pinch points which can make it a bit of a brutal game, much like XCOM, so you should get used to dying. I got extremely stuck in the Osborn level of Elysium and was frustrated because I felt like I was close but not quite to getting Osborne. I'd just get overwhelmed by a mire of enemies, even if I swept the place before entering Osborn's room. Part of me wants a lower difficulty I could flip on for that level, so I could advance forward and then flip it back to normal. It was worth it to stick with it, though—the level after Osborn introduced new enemies and weapons in the world that refreshed the tactical feel of the game after that tired boss fight.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick in a spot of trouble against a boss.

Give it a shot

This game is a total departure from some of Bithell's past narrative-heavy games I've played, like Thomas Was Alone and Subsurface Circular. Even though it takes place in a story filled universe, the narrative takes the side seat to the tactics here.

If you're a John Wick series die-hard looking for the next dose of John Wick canon, there's no excuse to not pick up this game. The game is tightly associated with Lionsgate, featuring voice acting from the actual actors of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick). If you're just looking for a good indie tactics game, but the cost ($19.99 at the time of publishing) is too much to chew, wait and give this game a shot when it's on sale.

John Wick Hex is available on the Epic Games store for Windows and macOS. The game's publisher provided a review copy of this game.

The Tea Making user interface in A Tavern For Tea, showing the ingredients and fresh brew.

A Tavern For Tea is an interactive fiction game by npckc. As the owner of a tavern, you serve tea and chat with patrons in a comfortable and unassuming environment. Oh, this game has a side-dish of timeline manipulation, too.

Inside these walls, you're just my customer.

In this tea tavern, you tend bar and make just the right tea for whatever customer enters. Just like the cyberpunk bartending game VA-11 HALL-A, you drive the story by actually choosing and making the kind of tea your patrons want.

Your tavern is located "at the edge of the domain," a boundary between the world of humans and demons. Your location brings in two familiar wandering travelers, Horns and the Adventurer, from npckc's previous game, A Hero and a Garden. You explore the back story of these two patrons that have a bit of an awkward past. Perhaps, you can resolve their tension and become their matchmaker?

Shared Dialogue with The Adventurer and Horns in A Tavern for Tea

And, that's where the creativity of this game comes in—the looping narrative, with timeline manipulation. As you chat with these two, you'll eventually hit a dead-end in the story that forces you to restart. In each loop, you gain a new tidbit of information that you can use to manipulate the timeline to seek the best ending.

Gameplay Tip:

Because this game loops down and evolves over a single path, make good use of the skip all button. This button jumps you past dialogue you've already seen to either the next time you can make tea or to bits of the story you haven't seen yet.

Even if you haven't played npckc's A Hero and a Garden, A Tavern for Tea has a short playtime and unique looping narrative that is worth checking out. A Tavern for Tea is available on itch.io for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

There's more to be seen!