Review by Blinded_No_More
As a longtime fan of quirky Japanese rhythm games, HarmoKnight satisfies for the most part.
Rhythm games have fallen from grace in the past few years. The over-saturation of the market with constant releases in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises led to the genre going out not with a bang, but with a whimper. As a result, rhythm gamers had to get their fix with quirky, obscure titles from Japanese developers. HarmoKnight is one of those titles. This game comes from the creative minds at Game Freak, the developers best known for the Pokémon franchise. Their goal was simple: to create a music-based action platformer.
In many ways, HarmoKnight definitely succeeds at its job. The controls are simple enough to be learned and grasped within the first few tutorial levels; one button jumps, and one button attacks. Standard platforming levels make use of this control scheme while milking it for all its worth in terms of level design. As you progress through each level and world, new concepts are introduced at a healthy pace, keeping the gameplay fresh and fairly challenging at times. New characters are introduced, who swap in and out at certain intervals. New kinds of levels entirely are thrown in every now and then, but they tend to be hit or miss in terms of their execution.
Boss battles, which show up every two or three stages and then always at the end of a world, dumb down the gameplay to a simple "Simon Says" format. If you have any experience with games such as PaRappa the Rapper or Space Channel 5, these levels can be blazed through with minimal effort. This is my second biggest complaint with the game; when the player can get a perfect score against the final boss with minimal effort, but have trouble getting even a Good ranking on a random platforming stage, then the difficulty balance wasn't really taken into consideration during development. It's as if almost all of the development was put into fine-tuning the main platforming levels, with not much thought put into the variety of other stages.
Despite my qualms with the difficulty balance, one thing I can definitely give the game credit for is its deep scoring system in the platforming levels. Stages have branching paths, requiring split second decisions that can either lead to more points scored through dangerous territory, or a safer route that will score less. Your standard attack can be charged by holding the attack button, and this is how you will improve your scores time and time again. You might think you have a perfect score, but then you'll discover a new opportunity for a charge attack and everything you thought you knew goes out the window. It's a deep system with tons of opportunities for reaching higher and higher scores. The problem is, the grading system is fairly generous, giving out the highest ranking of Great to subpar performances from time to time. Since all you need to progress through the main game is a Good (in order to collect Royal Notes, which are used to break obstacles), this poses a slight problem. Unless you're insanely devoted to improving your high scores, you won't really have a reason to master each level.
The story is fairly cliché and not very deep, but it does a good enough job to keep the player going and motivated. You play as Tempo, a young boy thrust into a journey to deliver a magical staff to the princess of Symphony City. His journey hits many twists and turns that eventually lead to him becoming a righteous and brave hero in his own right. This sounds like a recipe for a feel-good coming of age story, but due to the lack of character development, it doesn't hit the same notes that other games have hit in the past. It doesn't help that the supporting cast feel more like archetypes than unique characters: you have the serious and dutiful royal guardswoman, the boisterous and tough adventurer, the crotchety old mentor and the cute animal mascot. The villains are also one-dimensional and bland, with your average "corrupt the world into chaos" plot that we've seen time and time again. Despite all of this, the narrative ends up being slightly more than the sum of its parts due to some occasionally cute dialogue, and it is definitely aided by the art style.
Graphically, HarmoKnight is one of the best looking games on the 3DS. The 3D models and environments simply pop with color and vibrancy, and they don't suffer from jaggedness or fuzzy edges as much as you might think. Character designs definitely fit the vibe and personality of each character and enemy, ranging from the soft and rounded design of Princess Ariana, to the spiky and menacing "this is definitely the bad guy" look of the game's antagonist, Gargan. Musical motifs and references abound, and if you look hard enough through your adventuring, you can easily tell how much care and attention to detail went into each world.
As for the music, which is easily the most important part of a rhythm game? Well... it's kind of mediocre. It's such a shame that the songs have to be so unmemorable for the most part. They fit each level's theme perfectly, ranging from marching music, calypso, rock and roll, classical baroque, and several other genres. However, most of the tracks lack the catchiness and quirkiness that makes tunes from this type of rhythm game so memorable. The songs definitely keep you on edge and in sync with the gameplay, but aside from a select few, none of the tracks really make you want to listen to them again outside of the game; which is a crying shame, considering how the action-platforming gameplay and graphics are top-notch. This is easily my biggest fault with the game.
Quirky rhythm games such as these often suffer in the replayability category. The campaigns are usually short, and don't offer much in terms of post-game content. HarmoKnight actually does a lot to alleviate this... for the most part. The game has a lot in terms of unlockables. Getting a Great ranking on any stage unlocks a much faster version of the stage, which will take everything you knew about that level and amplify it by about 1.4x the speed. Getting Greats on these advanced stages unlocks concept art from the game's development, which is nothing groundbreaking, but still a nice touch considering how much care went into each character and level design. After you clear the main game, there is a side mission that, while I won't spoil it, definitely features some of the game's hardest stages. The absolute best unlockables, however, are the special Pokémon music stages you unlock from beating each major boss. Without bias, I can easily say these are the best songs in the game, and the stages for each are spiced up with Pokémon decorations in the background.
Sadly though, once you've unlocked everything and beaten every stage with the highest ranking (which, mind you, is quite a feat that might take you a while depending on your skill level), there's nothing really to do aside from try to improve your scores. I had completed the game 100% within a week of playing it on and off for an hour or two per day. With the game's subpar soundtrack, what could have been an addictive scoring game just becomes something you might come back to every now and again out of boredom. The fact that there are no online leaderboards doesn’t do anything to help either, considering you won’t even know what scores you’re aiming to reach.
In the end, HarmoKnight is definitely worth looking into if you're a fan of Japanese rhythm games that think outside the box. It's not perfect by any means, and the soundtrack definitely misses some notes, but the gameplay makes it one of the more innovative rhythm games to come out in a while. It’s definitely a fun and somewhat memorable way to kill a weekend or so. At $15 on the eShop, it could offer a little more bang for your buck, but previous games in the genre have been priced at full retail and offered much less content, so I can't complain too much.
+ Very unique gameplay that merges rhythm and platforming action
+ One of the most gorgeous and artistically inspired games on the platform
+ A fair amount to do and unlock for a rhythm game of its kind
- Some levels aside from the main platforming stages lack polish and inspiration
- Mediocre soundtrack, which is sorely disappointing for a rhythm game
- Cliché story that doesn't do much to surprise the player
- Not much incentive to keep playing after everything's been unlocked
Final score: 8.5/10
A great rhythm game for sure, but not without its flaws that keep it from being the gem it could have been.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: HarmoKnight (US, 03/28/13)
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