Blimey, has it really been seven years since Game Freak’s last wholly original project? Between developing two mainline series Pokémon entries, they’ve cooked up HarmoKnight, a download-only entry into the rhythm action genre.
HarmoKnight is an interesting beast because it feels so predominantly Game Freak, yet it’s so dissimilar to their previous projects. The bulk of the game plays like a more music-orientated Bit.Trip Runner.
That is, you’ll be relying more on your sense of rhythm and ability to follow HarmoKnight’s infectious music than the pixel perfect platforming and trial-and-error conditioning Gaijin’s game focused on.
This is reinforced by having just two buttons to worry about: jump and attack.
So yes, it’s on-rails (or on-tempo), where lead character Tempo needs to reach level’s end with enough notes – earned by doing anything the game throws at you correctly in time with the music – to nab a ‘good’ or ‘great’ rank and progress onwards.
And it’s this ‘anything’ that makes HarmoKnight shine. It’s all put together with such charm, reminding us of Rhythm Tengoku in its execution of rhythm elements in a gamey context.
Patterns of enemies to whack, notes and collect, jumps to make and cymbals to clash with your big musical stick are all expertly synced in time with the music, their visual cues ensuring playing a world for the first time – and thus not knowing the tune – is never entirely frustrating.
Alas, HarmoKnight is fairly easy to play through if you’ve a good sense of rhythm – unlockable levels and bosses aside – but difficult to master. Perfecting these side scrolling levels demands concentration and precision.
It’s the bosses which change how HarmoKnight plays, swapping things round to a Space Channel 5-esque remember-the-commands-and-beat-then-recall affair. Audio feedback for these – and the game as a whole - is sublime, lending a real sense of euphoria to inputting the button commands both correctly and with perfect timing.
So far, so good, then. But HarmoKnight isn’t always hitting the high notes. It can reach rage-inducingly unfair levels at times, particularly during minecart levels, where approaching enemies fail to produce audio feedback and a pre-empted presence on screen. That’s not smart level design.
HarmoKnight also lacks the sort of crazy levels of variety that, say, Rhythm Tengoku (Rhythm Paradise to us dirty non-importers -ed) brought to the table. And while you could argue that the Tengoku table was loaded with snack-y crisps, sausage rolls, chocolate fingers and some delectable mini quiches rather than a full fat hog, HarmoKnight’s never quite manages to feel like a main course either. It’s more of a cup-a-soup.
Despite each world introducing a new central theme (one world has the tempo sporadically change during levels) and a bunch of deviously fun new enemy types to tackle, many levels within a world won’t offer new challenges, lending some an indistinguishable feel from the rest.
The levels that do – an octopus dance off! New characters that change the primary rules! – are a treat, though, and Game Freak understands the importance of testing players by rhythm, often obscuring the screen and shifting the camera about mid-level.
HarmoKnight is successful at carrying a smooth difficulty curve. Its final set of secret, unlockable levels carry over New Super Mario Bros.’ Star Road tradition of offering ‘ultimate challenges’ for each world’s theme, and unlockable Pokémon stages provide a nice break from the main story even if they are too short, both in length and in supply.
It’s not a particularly long game though – we were able to attain “great” ranks on every level and see everything in under 10 hours – but the allure of higher scores, better ranks and fast tempo versions of levels ensure there’s more to be done, though repetition within individual worlds could be demotivating to some.
One thing Game Freak definitely nailed is the game’s presentation – it looks and sound brilliant, and surprisingly for a Japanese game all dialogue was voiced in English. Its art style (a bit of a cross-breed between the Mushroom Kingdom and Pokémon’s monster design) shines brightly and fits the catchy musical score well.
So HarmoKnight is that cup-a-soup rather than the almighty snack table topped with a variety of delights. But it’s a mighty fine cup-a-soup, one that’s been superbly boiled, miraculously managing to avoid that soggy crouton effect, to offer a fresh taste of rhythm-action across its eight worlds. While you’ll pine for some Heinz if you try and live on its watery texture alone, it’s still a wonderful snack that’ll more than tide you over in small sips.