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Initial excitement about HarmoKnight is entirely justifiable considering it's an affordable rhythm game on the 3DS with a charming aesthetic. Then you realize that this is a game developed by GameFreak, a little ol' studio that hasn't developed anything beyond Pokemon games for almost fifteen years, and suddenly, whoa, HarmoKnight expectations just shot through the roof. The Pokemon company is making another game? Who let them out of their cages?
GameFreak could just as easily have made HarmoKnight a Pokemon spin-off title, a mediocre music game with Pikachu in the background. It would have sold millions of copies, but it's a testament to their belief in the title that it exists as an entirely new IP. Deservedly so, too, it turns out. HarmoKnight retains that spirit of unique, accessible and straight forward gameplay Game Freak has dedicated their craft to with Pokemon. But HarmoKnight also stands on its own and will certainly spawn its own faithful community -- though likely less fanatical.
Poppin' notes and jumpin' Noizoids, Tempo's quest to earn the title of HarmoKnight begins much as it ends – with a smile.
Melodia and the Noizoids
To become the HarmoKnight, our hero Tempo takes up a magical staff with the power to both smash in enemies' faces and also deflect sounds. Oddly enough, this power is suited perfectly for the task of protecting Melodia when it comes under attack from the vicious Noizoids. These berserk monsters spread across the land after a Noizoid meteor falls from the sky, led by ridiculous looking Gargan who totes sub-woofers for shoulder pads. What begins as an apprentice's quest to return a magical staff to the kingdom's castle turns into princess-rescue and epic adventure the only way Melodians know how – through the miracle of music.
If you couldn't already tell, the backbone plot of HarmoKnight is rather hackneyed. It's suitable as a structure of progression, but beyond that the depth is lacking even for a downloadable title. However, through the thin narrative HarmoKnight is able to introduce us to a multitude of diverse characters and unique settings that embody the charm and wonder that pervades the entirety of the game. A smirking Tempo riding upon a friendly musical bird, a dancing mer-mistress of the sea, a clockwork tower with moving gears and ghosts; it's all quite enamoring.
When layered in with the game's delightful soundtrack and sound effects, a spark of magic occurs and Melodia truly comes to life. It's no stretch for me to compare it to my first days with Super Mario Bros. 3, of which I can still recall individual levels and the music that played in the background. There too did I give in to the rhythm, worried less about the nature of the Mushroom Kingdom so much as the pacing and flow of the experience.
At face value, HarmoKnight doesn’t hold much depth, but it’s there, hidden not in the details but in the feel of the experience. Melodia has a quality I find quite nostalgic, where its personality is not programmed, designed or created by any developer at GameFreak. It's a quality found only in the absence of those things, in the gaps better filled by imagination. That's painfully obtuse, but it's really the only way I feel comfortable describing the feeling.
In motion, HarmoKnight is just as difficult to describe. The majority of the game can be played with one hand, perhaps with one finger. Beyond a few levels requiring directional movement, the game in its entirety is just a series of timed jumps and strikes. Every objective is associated with the rhythm of the soundtrack, and every required action typically has a unique sound effect that will warn players as to what type of action is imminent. As such, most levels become a mixture of reaction time and muscle memory, with little to no planning, or even thoughts, required in general. Some might call it casual, but I prefer to consider it palatable.
Each level will have Tempo collecting music notes, which are both strewn about the level individually as well as placed inside of enemies and objects that will need to be struck. Every action is specifically designed to accent the music in the background. Hopping to get a music note or smacking a warthog in the face will elicit a sound that should either fill in part of the soundtrack or accent it in some way. At certain moments, sounds come together in unpleasant ways, but generally the game is in essence audio silk: smooth.
As with many music games, issues can arise due to the dissonance between a player's eyes and ears. What might look like a perfectly timed jump may in fact be incorrect, simply because the camera angle shifted slightly and you trusted your eyes instead of your ears. Half the blame should also fall on GameFreak, because there are a number of inconsistent objects in the game that won't match up with either of your senses. For instance, I could almost perfectly run one of the last levels in the game, but a single bird in the beginning that I would miss 99/100 times for no reason I could discover. As a result, I broke my 3DS and cried myself to sleep three nights in a row. Err, well, I was at least really frustrated.
Progress is accomplished in Super Mario fashion, where completing a level will unlock the next one on the path. Each area has between three and six levels, a boss fight or two, along with a few story queues and then the next area would unlock totaling more than fifty unique levels. The base game can be completed in only a few hours, but with plenty of cause for replaying nearly everything. Don't go back to the clock town, however, unless you're a masochist.
After completing a level at a gold skill tier, which requires a majority of notes collected, that level's “Fast” mode is unlocked. Fast mode is the same exact stage only at a much increased speed. Completing both speeds at a gold skill tier will unlock a piece of concept art, and yes, all of the game's stages can be completed this way. A secret area that's both engrossing and challenging can also be found in the game, but I won’t get into that. Perhaps more content can be unlocked after all levels are completed at all speeds, but I haven't mustered up the courage to get there yet. Mirror mode with a backwards soundtrack, perhaps?
The first playthrough of HarmoKnight is, for lack of a better term, easy. So. Easy. Basically, after the first few stages, I was comfortable with the button timings. Then it was just a matter of figuring out GameFreaks' quirks with regards to camera angles and confusing sound effects. To be fair, the clock tower levels were a bit tough, with their shifting song tempos, but let us speak no more of that damned place. Don't let that dissuade you, however, as the Fast mode levels definitely add a new level of challenge across the whole game. And don't forget the secret area. Essentially, the game only really gets going after the first run is completed.
I do have one specific area of dissatisfaction, however. A majority of the content in HarmoKnight is used over and over again, occasionally with a slightly different skin to change its appearance, but most often just the same ol' recycled content. The wolf mini-boss that Tempo happens upon in the first world will reappear again later, and then again and again. In fact, most of the boss encounters boil down to the same experience. As much as I'd love to go back in and 100% the game, it can get rather boring. Even at downloadable title prices, I wish GameFreak had worked on differentiating gameplay from world to world.
What HarmoKnight is, is an affordable rhythm game that was likely made by GameFreak in the off hours between Pokemon titles. A brilliant design can be found: triple-A stuff, but the scope and scale of the game have clearly been limited to a degree. Even knowing the downloadable form of the game, I wish a there was a bit more meat on the bones of HarmoKnight.
All of the content therein, however, is fantastic. Beyond a number of brief frustrating moments, I enjoyed my time with the game very much. HarmoKnight possesses a certain charisma that game developers spend years searching for, a charisma that paints a smile on your face that never goes away until you set the 3DS down. HarmoKnight certainly isn't a robust experience, but is it delightful, addictive, and most of all fun? Yes, yes, and absolutely yes.
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