Review by Lord-Spencer
A Nice Tune that Misses Some Beats
I had high hopes for this game. It is the first project to come of GameFreaks new Google like policy, and as such was heavily focused on by Nintendo. To the degree that it had its own Iwata Asks despite being a download only title.
At first, the game seems to fulfill all my hopes for it. Yet, while it mostly holds the beat very well, near misses and outright mistakes holds this title from a grand finale, even if it is all and all an enjoyable sonata.
I will try and spare the musical puns, but no promises.
A Simple Premise that goes a long way
As a rhythm platformer, HarmoKnight tasks the player with collecting notes, avoiding traps, and defeating enemies in time with the music. And the game accomplishes this task by giving the player two buttons to work with; jump and attack. With a deliberately simple control scheme, HarmoKnight keeps the game accessible to all skill levels, but it does not mean players of higher skill levels are excluded from the action, but more on that later.
In most levels, Tempo (the player character) auto runs through the level in time with music, and attempts to avoid danger while collecting notes. Every move tempo makes, from a swing with his club to a regular jump adds beats to the levels soundtrack. This makes the player want to evade danger and hit enemies to hear more beats, which acts as an encouragement tor players to improve, because the music gets better based on their performance.
From its simplicity, the game is accessible to almost anyone, and even gold flowers (highest award for a level) can easily be earned with minimum practice. However, this does not make it a bore for players looking for more of a challenge. Each level has a huge number of background instruments (drums, disks, triangles, etc) that you can hit to add to the music, as well as a charged hit that earns two notes instead of one and a higher beat. It is then entirely up to the player to look for challenge. The best version of the stages music is only attained by hitting all background instruments and using charged hits with the music.
The end product is a game that can be finished by most, but also has a high ceiling for players who want that extra challenge; their reward being the music itself. In that regard, HarmoKnight takes a simple premise and goes a long way.
Some notes fall flat
Admittedly, with the simple concept of auto run and two button rhythm platfroming, there can be only so many levels until the experience turns stale. To its credit, HarmoKnight attempts to change its rhythm with boss fights and extra playable characters and more. Ironically, it is when the game deviates from its central premise that it starts missing major beats.
To start, the boss battles are simply terrible. Abandoning the whole premise of the game, where actions are timed with music, the boss battles bombards you with a number of commands (Hit, hit, jump, hit) and expects you to follow them. Which would not be terrible if those commands were reasonable to follow or actually worked. That is unfortunately not the case. The visual cues cannot be trusted, and the game gives no information on how exactly the player erred. A simple early or late feedback would have gone a long way towards easing the frustration of the game. It cannot be overstated how much frustration there is in missing a jump you could have sworn to make just to plummet to your doom. And these boss battles undermine the whole accessible vibe of the game. To top all of that is the biggest unwanted cherry, unskippable cutscenes that while very cool become annoying the tenth time you watch them.
Elsewhere, the change in gameplay is simply not as fun as the regular game. Other characters are only played mid-level, and the game counter intuitively stops the music to change characters which makes changing characters a detracting experience.
The game is most difficult when the music changes tempo mid-level. It is then only right that the game itself fumbles when it tries to change the tempo itself.
The Tunes are good but seldom rise beyond that.
Arguably, the most important aspect of a rhythm game is the music, even more so than the gameplay. Unfortunately, the music in HarmoKnight is its major disappointment. Not to say that the music is bad, because it is rather good, but good is not enough to differentiate HarmoKnight from other rhythm games.
Understandably, it is difficult to craft music where the player has direct impact over, but the game itself contains some great music that focuses the mediocrity of the rest of the soundtrack. Jazz town in its three levels brass trumps all other worlds. In fact, it is not until Jazz town that the soundtrack picks up any steam, which is then promptly wasted in the pedestrian Christmas Carol inspired snow land. While having Calypso and Christmas Carol music is cool, having two entire worlds based on them was a mistake. The game would have had a better soundtrack if it had more worlds with only three levels and thus more types of music. Because then, even if the music was still not great, it would not be unnecessarily repetitive.
Another reason for the repetition is however more ingrained in the sound of the music. For some reason, all the music in the game uses the same instruments. It is a bizarre choice that while eases the gameplay (makes it easier to time actions with the music) lessens the experience. The rock and metal worlds are the greatest victims of this choice.
An excellent style colors the entire experience.
I think it is safe to say that HarmoKnight is the greatest looking eShop game today, both in terms of graphics and style. This was the first indicator for me that the game had high ambitions, since there were obviously tons of love and care thrown on this little title from Game Freak. The entire game obviously draws influence from old Japanese children Anime, with over the top design for villains and a cute endearing design for the heroes. Tempo, the main character, expresses his emotions with bright and warm facial expressions that made me chuckle a number of times, while the main villain looks menacing and dangerous. In fact, each of the bosses looks suitably menacing, and it is their designs that are the only saving grace of those terrible boss battles.
It is the stages however that are most interesting, with each world having its own theme and cool touches. For example, the rock world has mountains in the background shaped like guitars, which actually lend more feeling of rock than the actual music. Yet, the best stage design goes yet again to the Jazz world, which with its city design evokes the root of Jazz music.
All this scenery is presented with the music to produce a stylistic spectacle. From the way that Tempo traverses through the levels, each with different twist with music, to the awesome cutscenes with and outside of bosses. HarmoKnight finds a cool stylistic identity, and it is this identity that ultimately wins you over.
While hard to recommend with its price point and flaws, I still do.
This is a game with many flaws, some of which tempted me to test the 3DSs capability of resisting high speed impacts. This is also a game that charmed me from the onset, and a game that I could share with my five year old sister.
At the end of the game, I realized that HarmoKnight could have been a much better game, and I hope Game Freak continue their newest strategy and produce more game like this one while simultaneously learning from their mistakes.
Indeed it is hard to recommend this game when there are better games than it, but I think that anyone who buys it will have fun, and it is a good game. I also think that its charms outweigh its flaws, and as such I do recommend you to buy it.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: HarmoKnight (US, 03/28/13)
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