The Japanese developer Game Freak may not be as iconic a name as Nintendo or Sega, but they’ve certainly made their mark on popular culture, as they’ve been responsible for all the main games in the gargantuan Pokemon franchise. In the developer’s long history, very few games have been unrelated to catching ‘em all, with the last one being the Game Boy Advance title Drill Dozer.
Now, the developer is stepping outside of its safety zone once again with the downloadable rhythm-platforming hybrid HarmoKnight for the 3DS. The result is a fun and charming title that is easy to get the hang of, but offers plenty of challenge and replay value for those willing to have their skills tested.
The story, told through a mix of text-only dialog and hand-drawn motion comic-like cutscenes, follows the silent protagonist Tempo, a young warrior in training who is forced into action when his musical home of Melodia is invaded by rowdy aliens called the Noizoids, who seek to spread chaos and dischord across the land. Tempo teams up with fellow warriors Lyra and Tyko, and sets out to take down the Noizoid leader, Gargan.
That HarmoKnight has a story at all brings back memories of earlier, quirkier rhythm games in the days before Guitar Hero, such as Gitaroo Man and PaRappa the Rapper. Indeed, the general presentation is colorful, cartoony, and light-hearted, with an appealing look overall. For a downloadable game, there is a noticeable amount of effort put into the overall production value.
Gameplay is fairly simple. The majority of levels have Tempo automatically running to the right as a backing music track plays, using the B or X button to jump and the Y or A button to swing your staff. You’ll use the jump to avoid deadly pits, spikes, and other environmental hazards, while the staff swing is used to swat away the numerous enemies running, hopping, and flying your way.
Numerous musical notes are also strewn across each level for you to collect, with extra notes being given for well-timed hits on both enemies and instrument-shaped plants in the background. All of these are timed to the beat of the background track, and even contribute additional layers of music to the overall song. It’s a nice way of feeling involved in the creation of the soundtrack.
Some occasional shifts in gameplay pop up in specific sections of specific levels, where Tempo jumps offscreen for a bit to let Lyra and Tyko strut their stuff. Lyra uses her bow to shoot enemies in the background, while Tyko and his cymbal-playing monkey sidekick, Cymbi, attack enemies on both the top and middle sections of the screen using two separate button inputs.
These are both fun, but if I have any major complaints about the gameplay, it’s that these side characters feel very underused. Across the dozens of levels that make up HarmoKnight, they’re probably only used around 3 or 4 times each for short spurts that don’t even take up an entire level. Dividing gameplay time more evenly across all three might have made for a more varied experience. Hopefully, if we ever get DLC or a sequel, this will be addressed.
A comparison that should be brought up is the similarity in gameplay between HarmoKnight and the recent Runner2. Both are auto-running platformers with heavy musical elements. I’d say that overall, each of them does certain elements better than the other. Runner2 has a variety of fun cosmetic extras such as unlockable characters and costumes, while HarmoKnight focuses its secrets on concept art and several extra levels. Which type of secret is preferable is definitely a matter of personal preference. Runner2 also offers a longer campaign, as HarmoKnight‘s can be bested in under three hours.
However, one advantage I will give this title is its integration of stage elements into the music. While each action in Runner2 did create a musical note, they sounded sort of random and not like a proper song, while each note you pick up and each enemy you hit in HarmoKnight is properly tuned to go along with the overall music at that specific point. It makes for a more immersive experience overall.
Also, despite the brief length of the main story, completionists will find a lot to go back to. The scoring system, based on how many notes you obtain in each level, can award you with silver or gold awards. Obtaining a level’s gold score unlocks an alternate version that goes at twice the speed, making for a significantly more challenging experience. Several unlockable levels, included some adapted from the Pokemon soundtracks, also provide incentives to perfect your playthroughs.
HarmoKnight is a very fun experience, and easily one of the highlights on the 3DS eShop service. At $15, it may seem a bit expensive for a download-only title, but completionists will get a good amount of play time out of it should they choose to go for all the secrets and medals. Hopefully, Game Freak will get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles again. As excited as I am for Pokemon X & Y, I’m also curious to see what other ideas they can offer.
This review is based on the 3DS version of the game.