Few people would remember a time when developer Game Freak didn't do Pokémon titles. After all, it was the series that saved the Game Boy when it was beginning to fade into obscurity and gave Nintendo a new franchise that practically prints money. Look at Game Freak's portfolio, however, and you'll see a few titles that don't have anything to do with Pikachu and company. For example, it's responsible for the puzzle platformer Mendel Palace and puzzle game Yoshi, both on the NES. It also helped develop the Game Boy Camera and Drill Dozer, one of the few games on the Game Boy Advance that featured rumble in the cart. It has been seven years since that original title, and while many expected Pokémon X & Pokémon Y to be the developer's introduction to the 3DS, it's HarmoKnight, a game exclusively on the eShop.
As you've come to expect from Nintendo games, the story is pretty simple and familiar. You play the role of Tempo, an apprentice learning the ways of the HarmoKnight in the land of Melodia. One day, a group of alien invaders known as the Noizoids invades, causing people to go unconscious and the animals to be hostile. As an apprentice and not a full-fledged knight, it's up to you to deliver the sacred note staff to the princess so that she can harness the power to banish the Noizoids from the land.
The game is an endless runner that's closer to Bit.Trip Runner than Canabalt. You'll mostly be running from left to right, hitting the appropriate button at the right time to jump over obstacles or strike with your weapon. Your jumps, the moves of the enemies, and your strikes all create a beat, making this a rhythm game in some respects. As you progress, you'll gain a few more moves and some characters with their own special abilities, such as distance attacks with Lyre and hitting both high and low areas with Tyko and his companion Cymbi. In these stages, you gain notes by running over them, hitting enemies at just the right time, and hitting drum and cymbal plants. Enough of these notes nets you either a gold or silver medal, which yields a royal note, an item that's necessary to eliminate objects in the world that prevent you from progressing.
What immediately makes this different from most other endless runners is that it doesn't require perfection to pass each level. Your health meter consists of hearts, and you can take a few hits before you have to restart the level. You can also miss quite a number of the notes in a level without much of a score penalty. It is actually much more difficult to fail a level due to low note count since the game is generous with medals. Missing a few notes can still get you gold, and while the system makes it inviting for those who aren't adept at rhythm games, it gives genre veterans the impression that the game is too forgiving.
That impression is dashed when you discover how the game secretly offers up challenges for those willing to look for them. You can easily obtain gold medals with your regular cache of attacks, but learning the charge attack, which gives you double the notes when it successfully makes contact, gives you some room to experiment as you replay levels and see how it can help maximize your score. Obtaining gold medals opens up the ability to replay the level with a faster tempo, and while the energy meters and somewhat forgiving nature of the game are still here, it makes the title a little more difficult. There are also more levels to go through. Some require you to explore the current levels and find birds to unlock the path to those stages, and other levels are bonus ones that happen to be Pokémon themed, with music from specific stages and situations playing in the HarmoKnight style.
While the rhythmic endless runner is what occupies a good chunk of the game, there are a few areas where the gameplay transforms into a more traditional rhythm game. During the boss encounters, you're presented with actions to hit and the tempo with which to execute the actions. The patterns include the standard hit and jump actions and some dodges in specific directions. After the boss presents its pattern, you're given the chance to repeat it in a sort of "Simon Says" method.
Whereas the endless runner levels tend to be more forgiving, the rhythm matching levels tend to be less so. Missing key parts of the pattern almost always results in instant failure, no matter how many hearts you have when that occurs. The gameplay shift and difficulty requirements are a tad sudden but not overwhelmingly frustrating, and the early levels do a good job of easing the player into the new mechanic before presenting the challenges.
As it is, there's not much to fault with the game, but that doesn't mean it's flawless. Outside of the training stages, there's no real opportunity to practice the mechanics for more difficult moves, like air strikes and charged strikes. There are crosshairs present for Tyko and Lyra but not for Tempo. Lyra is understandable, since she's a distance fighter, but with Tyko being a close-range fighter like Tempo, one has to wonder why the main character is the odd man out. Also, one thing you'll have to wean yourself away from is using distance to determine when to hit enemies. The animations for Tempo's swings are sometimes lengthy enough that you'll think back to other platformers and wait for the animations to finish before initiating another strike. Unfortunately, that's counterproductive to the rhythm portion of the game and causes you to get hit more often than you'd like.
The component that's supposed to hold it together — the music — is actually quite average. The music is serviceable, as it does a good enough job of helping you keep up the rhythm. None of the tunes are really bad, but there isn't anything that's really memorable. It also doesn't help that the basic backbeat for a good number of levels gets repeated often, giving you a sense of déjà vu in some stages. While the music isn't impressive, the range delivered by the system's speakers is. Play it at a decent volume without headphones, and you'll be surprised by the range of separation being delivered, with parts of the songs being played way beyond either the extreme left or right of a player's range. Portable systems rarely get this type of audio workout, and while it doesn't make up for a less-than-impressive body of music, it makes one wonder how much this category goes untapped on this console.
Graphically, HarmoKnight continues the same standards of almost every Nintendo-published game. The character designs are very cartoon-like, and the environments take on a similar quality, especially with the appearances of onomatopoeia during big boss attacks and in cut scenes. The animations are smooth, and the expressions are fairly easy to read on each character. Everything carries with it a wide and bright color range, and the frame rate remains solid. There's nothing here that really pushes the system.
The use of 3-D is similar to other games in that it is an enhancement rather than a necessity. Most of the levels are side-scrolling, so there is a sense of depth but nothing really impressive. Boss fights really make the 3-D effect feel worthwhile since the action is taken from different angles, but for the most part, the effect is more for subtleties than anything else. If you choose to use it, you won't suffer from frame rate issues or anything crippling to gameplay, so it is a nice little bonus if you don't want to exclusively play the game in 2-D.
HarmoKnight is a fun, rhythmic endless runner for all ages and skills. The rather low initial difficulty level coupled with inviting graphics make it good for players just getting their feet wet with the genre. The bonuses from the gold medals provide some appeal to genre veterans or those looking for a challenge. Having a much more memorable selection of music to run with would have been ideal, but as it stands, this is another fine entry in the system's eShop.
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