Pikachu may be one of the smaller Pokémon out there but he casts a big shadow. So when the series’ long-time steward Game Freak decided it was time to stretch their creative muscles a bit and step out of that Snorlax-sized shadow gamers rejoiced, expecting a game that would bring the company’s penchant for charming and addicting gameplay to a whole new genre: the rhythm platformer. And on the surface, Harmoknight looks to be all of this. Instead what we got was, well… let’s just say that if I stumbled upon it in some tall grass I would select ‘run’.
You are Tempo, a young boy who is quickly thrown into the role of hero, tasked with saving the musically inclined world of Melodia from the foul sounding Noizoids (I assume they’re rocking some serious dubstep). Similar to the BIT.TRIP: Runner games, Harmoknight is a (mostly) 2D rhythm platformer, where you have to jump and attack in time with the rhythm to collect as many notes as possible and advance to the next stage. And while this is a tried and true concept it seems that Harmoknight is content with breaking every rule that goes with making a good rhythm-platforming game.
Let’s start with the controls. ‘B’ jumps and ‘A’ attacks. Simple, right? Well it would be if they actually worked. Okay that might be a bit harsh. Yes pressing ‘B’ will make Tempo jump and ‘A’ will make him attack. The problem is that the hit detection and timing are so off what the rhythm ‘tells’ you to do that often times you will find yourself missing a note or getting hit because you didn’t mentally adjust to pressing the button before the actual beat. This issue is present throughout the entire game and makes the whole experience more frustrating than fun.
I also have a bone to pick with the game’s tutorials. While I’m fine with a couple of levels showing me the basics, do these practice levels really have to be so lengthy? After a couple of jumps, anyone will get the concept, so why do you have to show the game you can do it 10 more times? On the other hand late game mechanics (such as switching direction by pressing the D-Pad) are introduced entirely without any warning.
It’s not all bad, however, as Harmoknight does offer something that the recently released BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner 2: Future Legend Of Rhythm Alien could not: varied gameplay. The game is constantly throwing levels with different gameplay mechanics like boss battles, rhythm battles, dance-offs, obstacle courses and all manner of contests at you that you will rarely know what to expect as the game goes on, even though some ideas are recycled a fair bit. The camera is also constantly in motion, giving you a different view of the levels and adding to the variety and challenge.
Harmoknight even gives you multiple playable characters like Lyra the archer and the brute Tyko, each with their own gameplay styles and special moves. And while their levels are few and far between they are fun to play and help add an additional layer of variety to the game. Sadly, however, the timing and hit detection annoyances that plague Tempo’s levels are present here as well, so the frustration of missing an enemy even though you were spot-on with the timing never does go away.
The most important part of any rhythm game, be it a platformer like Harmoknight or party game like Rock Band, is the soundtrack, and in this regard Harmoknight scores a resounding ‘meh’. The songs seem to blend together in a big mess of cute, cartoony themes with far too many bells and whistles. And while the different worlds all have their own musical themes, they all fall into the bland category. There are, however, several special Pokémon-themed levels that borrow their themes from that franchise and, needless to say, these tunes are by far the best the game has to offer.
The visuals are strongly influenced by a couple of weekend favourites: Saturday morning cartoons and the Sunday comic strip. This combination helps give Harmoknight a style that is both fun and pleasant to look at (I’m especially a fan of the Super Mario World-like overworld map). The character designs and their animations are also very cute and would definitely appeal to younger gamers. My only gripe here is that the 3D effect is definitely not put to any to any good use. In fact, I would often find myself sliding it up and down only to notice the smallest of changes.
I don’t think I’ve come across another game recently with such random difficulty spikes, especially when trying to get the highest ranks in each level. Some will give you a gold medal just for finishing while others demand absolute perfection to earn anything above silver, a task which is made even more difficult by the aforementioned unresponsive controls.
Your rise from innocent child to saviour of Melodia will last approximately five hours, though you can spend more time unlocking concept art, finding hidden secrets and replaying the levels on fast mode. The issue here is that the game costs a whopping $15. Even at half of that price I would find it hard to recommend; some of the levels are at most a minute long and a couple of the worlds consist of only three stages.
Once all was said and done and the adventure drew to a close, I knew that I would not be returning to Melodia anytime soon. While the world and the people who lived there were bright and vibrant, most of the gameplay was either boring or frustrating. I’m sure the younger crowd will appreciate the game more than I did, but even they would be put off by the unresponsive controls and dull soundtrack. In the future I really do hope that Game Freak continue to experiment outside of the Pokémon universe but also bring the quality we expect from that franchise to their other projects.
This review is based on a digital version of Harmoknight for the Nintendo 3DS.