Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Moon Spider Studio
Release Date: Feb. 12, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Harold'

by Brian Dumlao on March 11, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Harold is a unique platformer racing puzzle game, in which players guide and protect the titular Harold as he races through a number of beautifully animated, treacherous obstacle courses.

The endless runner may be a staple of the mobile landscape, but it also has a presence on the home console and PC market. Jetpack Joyride goes for simple mechanics by challenging players with randomly generated levels and split-second decision-making. Titles like Bit.Trip Runner 2 go for more structured levels and provide some more advanced mechanics to make things interesting. Harold subscribes to the latter blueprint and does so with good, if somewhat misplaced, results.

You play the role of Gabriel, a guardian-angel-in-training at the Heaven academy. He's a bright student, but the ease with which he aces his courses has made him lazy and a target for other students. For the final exam, the angels are randomly assigned to a human runner to compete in obstacle course races. Unfortunately for Gabriel, he draws Harold, the slowest, most uncoordinated, and unluckiest racer of the bunch. Gabriel must do everything he can to come out on top.

The endless runner mechanics used are basic. Harold runs automatically from left to right, though "runs" is an exaggeration since he mostly stumbles forward at a slow pace. You can make him jump, but like his running capabilities, his jumping is lackluster. You can give him a temporary speed burst by throwing down some lightning behind him, but that comes at the cost of an extra life. The start of every race sees you equipped with these lives/speed boosts, which can be replenished for every two winged halos you collect in the race. Winning requires you to finish in the top three.

Where the game springs to life is in the interactivity with the environment. Since Harold isn't blessed with the best physical abilities, you can use your heavenly powers to even the field. Some of the simpler tasks include breaking down barricades or moving platforms to raise the elevation or make large pits traversable. Other tasks include moving bridges to open pathways or push Harold forward. You can even propel Harold forward with a spiritual slingshot. Though your interference is mostly used to make Harold's race easier, you can also use the influences to disrupt other racers. It may seem completely against the nature of angels, but you can cut swinging ropes, break down icicles, or entice the local wildlife to devour a runner while Harold makes it through unscathed.

It is the pacing of the environmental elements that keeps the game lively. Past the starting line, you'll get a nice series of different obstacles. Aside from basic functions, there are some alternative paths if you manipulate things just right. You'll find some nice shortcuts that include cut scenes to match the wacky races. The levels are rather brief, but there isn't a dull section in each race, and the challenge is very apparent from the get-go. This is the kind of game where you can lose in the first race, and the challenges only get tougher from there.

Including the tutorial levels, there are 14 stages in the game that are split among four environments. Each stage comes with a practice session where you get a preview of the obstacles you'll face and how to deal with them. The session is broken up into several different sections, each one with up to three stars to collect. You'll get an extra life/speed boost if you collect them all. Get past the practice sessions, and you've got the actual race to tackle, and all of the elements in practice mode are now in play. Win this, and you open up a Challenge mode, where no other racers are present but you're charged with collecting all of the pick-ups while making it to the end flawlessly.

The flow of progression can be a bit off-putting, though. Considering how hard some of the levels are, it is very advisable to go through the practice stages first. For those who would rather face the challenge head-on, there's no option to do that, as you're forced to play those practice stages no matter what. This also creates an interesting challenge curve since the practice levels are easy enough as solo challenges, but the races are much tougher since all of those segments are strung together and presented in a rapid fashion. The game alleviates some of the challenge by having you respawn at a later location, but limited lives means that repeating the stage after too many failures is inevitable. For those who are impatient, this isn't ideal.

The real point of contention with the title comes from the controls. For starters, you need a gamepad since the game won't function without one. While other titles of this nature prefer you to have one, very few would prevent you from playing with a keyboard and/or mouse. Once you have that gamepad, you'll notice that some of the button combinations are rather interesting. Using an Xbox 360 controller, the A button feels fine for jumping and the left analog stick is good for platform movement, but it feels rough for bridge turning if your left thumb isn't limber enough and you aren't given enough prep time.

Even then, there are times when the rotation feels a bit sticky, making some of the split-second decisions difficult to perform. The triggers are fine for switching between environmental pieces, but their analog nature means that the switch isn't as fast as you'd expect, which can be a hindrance. Finally, you need to hit both LB and RB to initiate the temporary speed boost. Without an option to customize the controls, the button placement can be odd. It could be said that the quick nature of the environmental switching and some of the actions seem better suited for touch-screens. Additionally, the cut scenes show tablets, and typical Smartphone/tablet terms are seen in the game's trailer.

At first glance, you wouldn't believe that the game came from a small 10-person development team. The cartoony look has a good style, and the animations for background elements and characters are smooth. The switch from cut scene graphics to actual gameplay graphics is indistinguishable, with the exception of camera angles. Effects match up perfectly, like dust being kicked up and the glow of your heavenly powers controlling the environmental elements. The style and quality of animation is reminiscent of the recent Rayman games — a feat that has rarely been accomplished by those outside of Ubisoft. If you had to find faults in this area, it would be with camera panning and foreground elements. The game likes to pan in sections instead of in one smooth take for every stage, causing situations where some obstacles are easy to prepare for while others require some quick reflexes. Also, some of the secret areas have lots of foreground elements that create a nice illusion of depth but cause some of the obstacles to be more difficult to discern the first time around.

Like the graphics, the sound is excellent in just about every respect. There aren't too many voice actors in the game, but their performances are good without falling into some of the tropes. The music is very good due to the varied styles of the soundtrack. The overall vibe is rather light and breezy but pumps the adrenaline as the expected track themes come through with each stage. What elevates the soundtrack is the presence of a gospel choir that sometimes chimes in to sing the praises of Harold as he races through each environment. They also sigh every time you fall or run into a deadly obstacle, and they let out a small cheer when you conquer any tough challenges, making the whole thing feel a little more important.

There's a good game in Harold. The frantic pace at which environmental manipulation can be done and its use in sabotaging the competition breathes some life into an otherwise straightforward genre. The presentation is fantastic, with excellent audio and visuals. The difficulty is appreciated, but the apparent grind is disappointing, and the controls seem better optimized for a touch-screen instead of a control pad. For fans of endless runners with a twist, Harold is worth checking out.

Score: 7.0/10

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