Rhythm games these days have become polluted with various different sorts of ways of following the tempo. Players can flick buttons to chart topping song selections, pop palms on drums, hop about on dance mats and even give the body a full blown workout through motion sensing dance. It's become a saturated and very much confusing market - just what defines a rhythm game? HarmoKnight, developed by the same studio responsible for the mainline Pokémon catalogue, Game Freak, brings the rhythm back to basics, using a simple concept that takes some investment to master. Part on-rails platformer, part call-and-response, HarmoKnight attempts to blend traditional rhythm mechanics with nifty reflex action. With the game being one of the very few non-Pokémon releases from Game Freak, does it stick to the beat or stumble on two feet?
HarmoKnight doesn't mark a departure from the Pokémon series for the Japanese studio, instead it's one of the company's smaller side projects as part of a new policy to inject unique ideas as internal pitches. Staff create an original concept, spend three months working on it on the side and then if approved, forms a fully-fledged game with a smaller team within the bigger Pokémon collective.
In HarmoKnight the player primarily takes on the role of an adorable young lad known as Tempo, accompanied by an equally charming rabbit known as Tappy. The pair are training when a large meteorite crashes into the planet of Melodia, bringing with it a legion of evil Noizoids that threaten the harmonic balance of the planet. Enter Tempo, who has some potential to become a legendary HarmoKnight, but doesn't quite know it initially. Armed with an evil zapping staff, the gamer embarks on an adventure into a world full of different musical themes in a bid to maintain the beat and fend off those alien beasts.
The gameplay concept itself is, on paper, quite a simple one. There are three different actions to perform: jump, attack and directional commands in certain levels. Make sure to tap the buttons to the beat and Tempo should make it through the level unscathed, forming a toe-tapping beat at the same time. Levels are divided into two distinctive flavours: an on-rails side-scrolling platformer where the music is followed to attack enemies and avoid obstacles, plus a call-and-response boss segment. The platform stages have a Bit.Trip Runner vibe about them, and in the latter it's a case of following a string of commands set by a boss and recalling them in order to move or attack.
Unlike the HarmoKnight demo, which has a fairly steep learning curve, in the retail release the path is fairly soft initially, cutesy and effortlessly charming, then pounces with relentless difficulty as Tempo progresses through the different worlds. From simply jumping and swiping enemies away in the peaceful hills, it will grow to become incredibly challenging, testing both memory and reflex in order to survive the journey. Leaping drums, scorching flames, swooping birds and bouncing cacti are amongst the various different obstacles on offer - each rewarding a note to collect as an indicator of just how well the player has stuck to the melody. Earn high enough and a Royal Note is gifted, something that acts as a key to blocked paths to progress. These don't come easy, however, often requiring a near perfect score just to earn a silver medal, yet the design is compelling enough to keep on trying despite some incredibly frustrating moments.
If the difficulty increase wasn't enough, the adventure also introduces a handful of assist characters, who agree to join the campaign and become available during portions of some levels to offer that dollop of variety. One is an archer that fires off arrows at foes in the distance, whilst Tyko and Cymbi - a tough man and his monkey - require two different attack buttons to get through. These segments do well to mix up the core formula, whilst keeping the focus solely on getting the button press in on time.
Once enough notes are earned, it's time to fend off a boss sequence that usually results in a form of chase or a timed dance number that follows the same simple concept as the platform sections - jump and attack, in addition to moving from side to side. A string of commands are given to watch, much like Rhythm Paradise or Space Channel 5, and then perform them to the beat in order to escape or attack the enemy. Again, sounds easy on paper but requires near-perfect timing to pull off. It's difficult in action, to a point where a sequence might involve: "Left, right, jump, left, attack, right, attack, attack, and attack." It takes a solid ear and patience to get right, but ultimately ends up in a rewarding smile once the critter is flung off in the distance and back to planet discord or wherever they spawned from.
Unlike many other rhythm games, HarmoKnight doesn't punish if the gamer is down and out. There is a health meter in each level, but there aren't lives or a Game Over screen - simply keep on trying until a boss is defeated or Tappy is reached on the other end of a level. It's all about collecting as many notes as possible, plus using tactics learned at later points in the game in order to sneak in more discreet notes to gain those high scores and gold medals. If so much damage is taken that a level is completed with just a single heart remaining, the award will be given based on how many notes were collected, rather than being penalised for blips en route.
However, there are moments where, despite relentless attention to timing, the game feels slightly off - flinging Tempo into a bottomless pit or taking damage where he clearly did avoid a hurdle. Some of the longer levels and boss sections, during later stages in particular, can be time consuming in order to memorise and overcome, having to be repeated from the very beginning.
Visually and aurally, the game is a bright and bustling adventure. It's got that WarioWare vibe in design - slightly kooky and brimming with cartoon charm. It may not be fully graphic-intensive, nor have many moments where the 3D effect really stands out, yet offers a neat and vibrant world to explore. Each of the different worlds are contrasting in design both in look, the enemies and sound design. It shifts from traditional orient to a riff-heavy rock vibe, a waltz driven castle and soothing tropical themes. The soundtrack itself does ooze plenty of rhythm, yet doesn't have anything that particularly stands out in the same sense as Game Freak's previous work. Varied and well composed, but could perhaps have done with a bit more boost to complement the world design on a stronger level.
Once the main game is, with a fair bit of perseverance, completed and the world returned to a state of harmony, there are a few additional things to leap into - a faster paced, more challenging speed for those unfazed by the initial timing, the opportunity to replay levels for gold rank and hidden Pokémon-themed stages for that sprinkle of nostalgia. In HarmoKnight the replay value mainly comes from the challenge and whether the adventure appeals enough to keep on beat till the very end.
A thoroughly enjoyable experience from start to finish, HarmoKnight offers a simple concept to understand and enough challenge and variety to keep players involved. It's a charming, fun and well-presented experience that shows a lot of care and attention to the little details. There are some quirks in the design, particularly in the later sections, but the package as a whole is a rewarding and a worthy download for anyone's digital Nintendo 3DS collection.
It is one fab package, haven't played Thief yet, but played Rhythm Paradise and Heaven. Really great package and one of the best on the 3DS eShop methinks!
Just downloaded it the other day myself and have been playing it a lot this morning; don't let the demo put you off, it's the tip of the iceberg and the game continues to keep throwing new clever things at me on almost every stage. Really good fun and a great example of GameFreak's talent! It's almost a shame they're locked onto making similar Pokémon games forever, this game proves they have a lot of good creative ideas.
Nice review jeebs!
I'd agree - the demo is great but they've mixed up the levels in it. The bee level in the demo actually comes a lot later, same with the Poké-one - bits of the plot are also trimmed in the demo so it seems a bit more random and the difficulty very steep. The pace is a lot more progressive in the actual game!
Hopefully the rave reviews of this will spur them onto making equally unique games, even if smaller eShop projects!
( Edited 30.03.2013 17:42 by jb )