Harold is a game that is difficult to categorize, mainly due to its rather unique premise. Part puzzle game and part auto-running platformer, its originality is definitely one of the things that stands out most. As it turns out, though, the premise is also the game’s biggest problem, as it results in a fairly difficult and sometimes frustrating experience.
The story, told via cutscenes between levels instead of during gameplay, focuses on Gabe, a guardian angel in training who is given the unfortunate task of helping the titular Harold, a lanky and out-of-shape geek, win a series of races. The cutscenes and overall plot aren’t terrible, but at the same time, they aren’t anything special either.
In fact, the most interesting part of this experience is undoubtedly the gameplay itself.
Aside from being able to make Harold jump, all of his movement is automatic. On top of that, two different core mechanics serve as the basis for how Gabe can help Harold win. The more interesting one is the ability to interact with various parts of each level, which can help Harold avoid obstacles, progress through the race faster, and also temporarily trip up opponents. In action, it ends up being similar to Rayman Legends, which uses Murfy’s touch-based abilities to move obstacles out of Rayman’s path.
The other core mechanic, known as Puff Powers, is a rechargeable ability triggered by pressing two shoulder buttons, which zaps Harold with lightning and causes his running speed to dramatically increase for a brief duration. A meter at the top of the screen shows the amount of zaps you can use, and it can be refilled both by picking up floating halos strewn throughout each level as well as sabotaging competing racers. A careful balance must be struck when it comes to Puff Powers, as they also double as a life bar for Harold. If he runs afoul of a stage hazard during a race when the meter is empty, the level must be restarted from the beginning.
The levels in Harold are divided into three types: Practice, Race, and Challenge. Practice levels get rid of the racing element and task players with getting Harold across a brief path flawlessly, with the added goal of collecting all three stars contained in each sub-level. Race levels put all the elements mentioned earlier into practice and require Harold to finish in 3rd place or better, while Challenge levels serve as an endurance run of sorts, challenging players to reach the end of a longer level without getting hurt and grabbing dozens more stars in the process.
I would argue that the Practice levels are probably the game’s highlight. They’re compact, and not very frustrating when you have to retry one, as you have unlimited lives and each one only takes a few seconds. The other two level types are sometimes a bigger source of frustration, since the game ramps up in difficulty. The way that things are laid out gives you only a brief period to realize what each interactive stage element is and what to do with it, and after about 1/3 of the way through, the difficulty takes a noticeable spike up. Since there are no checkpoints in Race and Endurance levels, I found myself having to retry them to a point that got rather tiring due to the trial-and-error heavy elements they contained.
As far as presentation and performance, Harold runs fine and looks pretty to boot, thanks to the stylish hand-drawn look that accompanies its side-scrolling gameplay. I will note that, while the cutscenes revolving around Gabe and his fellow angels ran smoothly, I noticed occasional screen tearing in the ones that revolved around Harold.
While the character sprites are expressive and meticulously animated, it can be a bit hard to really appreciate them, both because you have to simultaneously focus on stage interaction and the fact they can feel a bit too zoomed out. The soundtrack is also nice, especially the dynamic choir that will only chime in when you start doing particularly well in a race.
Harold is certainly a unique game in terms of how you play it, but that also ends up being to its detriment, as I found it to be an increasingly frustrating experience the more time I spent with it. If you like the idea of overcoming a tricky challenge and get a sense of satisfaction from those victories, there may be some merit to checking this one out. Anyone with a short temper, though, might want to hold off.
This review is based on the PC exclusive, which was provided to us.
Harold is nice to look at and has a novel hook to its gameplay, but its trial-and-error heavy mechanics will definitely turn some off.