When people talk about Game Freak’s, what usually comes to peoples minds is Pokémon. However you may probably be surprised to learn that Game Freak’s has a pretty long history before Pokémon began. Even to this day, they continue to churn out titles outside of their beloved go to franchise every now and then. HarmoKnight is one those titles where Game Freak’s took a step outside of their comfort zone and not only made a new IP, but also stepped into a new genre for themselves. Here are my thoughts and experience on Game Freak’s 2012 release of HarmoKnight.
In HarmoKnight, you play as Tempo, accompanied by his rabbit companion Tappy. One day a meteor falls upon their world of Melodia bringing with it the evil Gargan and his army of Noizoids who’s soul purpose is to destroy Melodia. Tempo discovers a legendary staff in the shape of a musical note. Instructed by his Master Woodwin (notice the pattern in naming here?), they journey to Symphony City to bring the staff to Princess Ariana, in order to get the staff in the hands of a HarmoKnight who can unleash the staff’s true potential and save Melodia once and for all.
HarmoKnight plays like an on rails side scroller. Tempo runs across the stage automatically. Your goal is to collect as many musical notes as you can and reach the end of the stage without losing all your hearts. You are able to jump by pressing B to avoid obstacles and collect musical notes. By pressing A, Tempo swings his staff to knock enemies out of his way. In HarmoKnight, music is everything, as you will learn quickly, The timings for Tempo to jump, attack enemies, and even simply collect musical notes matches the beat of the music. Every time you collect a musical notes or whack an enemy, sounds of different instruments flourish in the stages music track adding another layer to the music. There are also cymbals, drums and triangles that Tempo can hit to gain extra notes and each provide their own elements to the stages music. Tempo is fun to control, and the simple controls make it super easy to get into the game quickly and start going for high scores immediately.
What I love about controlling Tempo is his actions perfectly match the music you hear. This means the more enemies you hit and jump over leads to a more complete sounding track. Even running perfectly along a string of musical notes unveils a brilliant melodic layer of the music that you wouldn’t hear otherwise if you were to miss these notes. The game controls so well sometimes that you could theoretically close your eyes in some sections and forego the need for some of the visual queues. It shows how well the rhythm aspect of the game is executed. All this combined leads to the player striving for high scores and makes it fun and not a chore.
There are some occasional moments where timing needs to be ultra precise. Normally this is fine, but what I find is sometimes the visual queue offered does not seem to entirely sync up with what you hear, leading to a badly timed jump or attack. This can be frustrating when it happens, especially in some boss fight moments, but overall it’s not a game breaking problem, but just a minor annoyance since it isn’t too common. What I did find neat is in a certain boss fight where timing didn’t seem to line up to the animation, I had to completely close my eyes and just listen to the music. By knowing the actions I needed to execute ahead of time, only then was I able to pass this part, whereas every time I was relying on the visual queue, I would fail that obstacle. It’s definitely a problem with the visual queue, but it just goes to show how well the music is in sync with the actions you make.
Along your adventures, Tempo will meet other playable characters and offer a slight variation in how parts of the stage are played. Lyra, a soldier of Melodia who uses a harp as a bow, controls in a similar fashion. The key differences with her is she is strictly used for shooting enemies from a distance. When in control of Lyra, the camera shifts back and down a bit giving an upward view of the stages back drop. Here, a reticle marks where her arrow will land, and as enemies line up in the reticle, you press A to launch an arrow taking out enemies. Lyra does not have the ability to doge enemies, so her portions of the levels are a bit simplified.
Another playable character you will meet is Tyko, who is accompanied by his monkey friend Cymbi. Tyko and Cymbi rely on percussion as their forms of attack. As they move along the stage, by pressing A, Tyko is able to attack enemies on the ground, marked by a reticle as well. In similar fashion, by pressing X, Cymbi uses his cymbals to attacks enemies higher up marked by another reticle.
Lyra and Tyko are controllable in certain stages and only for section of those respective stages. This means you will start the stage as Tempo, and as a certain point, the characters are swapped out up to a certain point and you then finish the stage as Tempo. Although, this provides variation in the gameplay, I did find controlling Tempo a lot more enjoyable. Lyra and Tyko control just fine, however with the assists of their reticules and the lack of being able to dodge or jump over enemies leaves their sections of the stages far simpler than the rest of the game. Where other parts of the game offer greater variety and challenge through playing as Tempo, the Lyra and Tyko sections simply come and go and are rather easy to get through. One small problem I did find is Lyra’s and Tyko’s attacks didn’t always seem to time perfectly with the music, even though I was successfully hitting enemies, what I was hearing from the music didn’t seem to match the timing of the animation. This didn’t cause any problems for these sections of the stages because they are not nearly as difficult as the rest of the game, but because this is a rhythm game, it did stand out to me since this game is all about timing and the music in the end.
Outside of the playable stages, you traverse the world in the world map through each of the games worlds. Each are mapped with several stages and boss fights. Every time a stage is completed, the musical notes you collect are used to tally up your final score and help bloom a flower that determines your rank. If you are not able to collect enough notes, the flower does not bloom and you are given a “So so” ranking (Gotta love that naming). If enough notes are collected, a silver flower blooms, earning a “Good” ranking, or a golden flower blooms giving a “Great” ranking if even more notes are collected. If the flower blooms, the player is also awarded a Royal Note, which are used to open hidden sections of the world that are blocked by meteorite fragments. Each fragment requires a certain amount of Royal Notes to be collected before moving past it. There is no additional ranking or items awarded for getting a gold versus a silver flower, however I found much enjoyment in replaying each and every stage until I earned a gold flower. It was also not too time consuming and is doable by most players. The stages are also at a nice length where they aren’t over too quickly and don’t drag on too long. This makes this great for quick pick up and play sessions if you want to knock out a few stages every now and then.
Visually the game looks good for the most part. Traversing the the 3D segments of the game, the character models look good, are animated well, have cute facial animations and enemy design is varied and bosses look quite impressive which is helped with some great camera work. Enabling 3D helps visually in stages as key things like enemies and musical notes pop out at you making easier to spot key items. Again in boss fights, I really like what the 3D feature adds because bosses are animated so well and the experiences are quite cinematic that having the enemies zoom passed the camera gives a nice sense of the depth.
Where the game looks odd visually is in it’s 2D aspects. I find these parts look something more from a cheap children’s coloring book. The character sprites seen in the overworld have odd looking faces I find, and in the menus and the overworld, I find the colours used to be a little off. They are a bit too vibrant, or neon for that matter. I find the green and pink colors stick out way too much making for these parts not so visually appealing. The story is told through simple cut scenes and dialogue boxes using a mix of sprites and simple 2D animation. They work to get the point across but nothing will blow your mind.
Now being a Rhythm game, the music has to be good, otherwise what’s the point in basing a game on music? No need to fear, the music is quite fun and catchy. There is a great variety to the music encounter in all the different levels. You have your standard adventure style sounding tracks. Later on when you get to the mine cart levels, you are treated with more frantic music that stress the fast paced feel of these levels. In other parts, you are wandering through a clock tower and all the sounds resemble those of a clock. It feels as though every world has it’s respective theme and the music always suits the stage and the visual aesthetics they bring. Boss fights bring more dramatic sounds to the table and with the cinematic elements combined get your pumped and really into the fight. What is most satisfying about the sound track is how well it ties into the in game actions. When you whack and enemy on queue, there’s so much satisfaction you get from timing it right and hearing how the soundtrack changes. Although it is a platformer game, you feel as if you are in control with the music.
The game offers a good amount of diversity and challenge in it’s level design. Most stages are pretty linear, but some offer multiple paths that you can choose to take. You will see different platforms each leading to slightly different parts of the stage. Sometimes one path may offer an easier alternative but not reward you with as many notes. You will also traverse many different worlds that are themed differently and sometimes offer a unique twist on how the stage is played out. Of course you have your regular stages where you hit and jump over enemies and reach the end of the stage. There are other stages where you ride a mine cart and these zoom through the stage at an alarming rate. Your timing is key here as there are numerous enemies placed in your path and given the frantic pace of these stages, you will find your self jamming away the A button to keep up with the stage. You are offered a break in the action as your cart sometimes needs to slowly climb up slopes, but once you go over the top, you are back at full throttle and it’s time to get in gear. It’s challenging yet very riveting. Other stages like the one shown below are themed after clocks, and the musics tempo changes suddenly. Some parts you are going at a normal pace, where others it slows down and you need to adjust your timing accordingly. Some stage offer repeated segments and have the camera close in to Tempo limiting your view of what’s coming up and have you memorize the patterns as they repeat over and over. All these help mix things up and really offer variations in the challenge and keep things feeling fresh and fun as you keep progressing. There is never a dull moment in HarmoKnight as you never know what the next stage will bring.
Boss fights are where I find the game truly shines. These work a bit differently from your regular stages, where you still tread along automatically, but instead jumps and attacks are marked with Quick Time Events. The way the fights flow is the boss will unleash a flurry of attacks, each marked by a certain event. The game will show a brief scene where the boss, as an example, will launch two fireballs and a boulder at you. The scene will indicate with precise timing that you need to hit the two fireballs and then jump over the boulder. Control is given back to the player and you then execute the commands in the correct order and with the correct timing. This repeats throughout the fight and several variations of the bosses attacks are presented to the play. The challenge ramps up as you progress from one boss to another and some of these sequences can get pretty lengthy and move fast, so it’s key to always be on your A game here. This is all done in a very cinematic fashion where the cameras is always shifting and panning around you and the boss creating very intense moments. Combined with the exciting music, these fights are a blast to play. The cinematic elements really make these fights so enjoyable and lead to a great climax at the end as you take down your enemy. As mentioned earlier, the boss designs are very cool and animated very well that each has a great amount of personality and are equally menacing.
The game has a huge amount of charm. As bad as some of the 2D sprites look, the characters and enemies of Melodia are very likable. The animations and facial animations seen in the 3D segments go along way to show off these characters in their best light. What also stands out is the influence of Game Freak’s beloved Pokémon franchise seen throughout the game. There will be bosses named after familiar Pokémon. Other stages will literally have a balloon of Pikachu floating in the back ground. The main antagonist Gargan, by name and design also resembles a very well known and powerful Pokémon.
All in all, HarmoKnight is a pleasant surprise from Game Freak. The company known almost exclusively for making Pokémon is able to churn out not only a game from a foreign genre that they’ve never delved in before, but are also able to make it a very fun and enjoyable title that boasts a lot of charm through it’s character and enemy design. It also features very well designed stages with a great variety of twists and turns that will always keep the player guessing and on their toes. This is all strengthened by the many excellent boss fights that highlight the games cinematic moments. All these elements combined truly marry with the wide variety of catchy music in the game to not only make it a game that is very pleasing to the ears, but also make it feel like you are really marching to the Rhythm. With only a handful of very minor problems to deal with, the game is very hard to not recommend to anyone who is a fan of musical and platforming games. At it’s $15 price tag ($20 CAD), it is priced very reasonably considering you can get through the game in a few hours and for those willing to go deeper into the bonus stages, this would be a pretty good investment. There is a lot of replay value for simply re-doing older stages again, or in doing them fast mode. All in all, I really enjoyed HarmoKnight, and would wish Game Freak’s one day would release a follow up title.