The developers known for Pokemon are releasing a new game that combines rhythm and auto-run platformers with a dash of adventure. Does HarmoKnight live up to its pedigree?
HarmoKnight is a nice twist on a rhythm game, the likes of which I haven’t played before. Of course I’m familiar with things like Guitar Hero and even Rhythm Thief and Final Fantasy Theatrhythm, but HarmoKnight is not quite like any of those games. Instead it takes a side scrolling auto run game and combines it with the expertly timed jumps of a platformer while introducing a story, overworld and companions that would be at home in any RPG or adventure game. What you end up with is a game that simply works on all its levels with a potential for Nintendo that is hard to understate.
Your protagonist is Tempo, a spunky young kid who finds a magical staff (that is literally a note staff) which belonged to the legendary HarmoKnights, bygone protectors of his land. He is tasked by Master Woodwin with taking it to the princess of the realm so she can find someone worthy of wielding it, which will of course inevitably lead to saving the world from the evil Noizoids. As you can tell, from the names and the plot, HarmoKnight’s world is entirely built thematically around music. It’s an obvious approach for a rhythm game that at first seems entirely cliché, but once you’re done rolling your eyes you might actually become a little taken by it. We’ve seen this before in games like Brutal Legend, but this is a decidedly more cartoonish approach that is based around multiple genres of music rather than just rock. Most characters are named after some sort of instrument or musical term and, if you look closely enough, the land itself is shaped like various instruments and notes.
Though the story isn’t a masterpiece it moves the game along and I for one found myself fond of Tempo and company by the end of the game. Tempo in particular has certain moments of attitude, like a triumphant laugh at the end of a boss battle, that feels like it fits in perfectly with the mascot platform characters from bygone eras. It will really all depend what you think of the cartoonish art design and graphics alongside the musical motif that permeates the experience. This plays well with the cartoonish art design and graphics within the game. Everything is clean lines and filled with color, mimicking something you would see on a Saturday morning cartoon. Some might be turned off by what they feel is “kiddy”, but if you can look past that I think you’ll find a mostly endearing world that sometimes just gets wrapped up in its own premise.
You’ll pass through 7 worlds whose designs and level layouts are inspired by various music genres. For instance: one of the worlds you’ll journey through is all about rock and as such there are jutting guitar shaped mountains and amps scattered about. Within each level in that world you’ll focus on mastering original tracks that evoke that genre of music. As previously stated, you’ll clear these levels typically by auto running through them collecting notes and pressing B to jump and A to strike enemies. Nailing notes will cause those notes to play and there are also notes to be had by striking drum bushes or various other things in the background. Enemies and obstacles will attempt to stop you from reaching your goal by taking away your hearts. Losing all your hearts ends up meaning starting all over, so giving the baddies a sound walloping not only keeps you alive, but can also earn you additional notes.
Instead of pounding you over the head with cues saying you hit a perfect on that last note you will intrinsically be told through sound. Striking an enemy a hair off will result in him being dispatched, but you won’t get the satisfying strong note thud that you get from hitting him with perfect timing. The same goes for hitting the drum bushes or the chime leaves. While you can certainly beat the level through finely honed reflexes alone, it’s listening to the rhythm of the song and responding at the right moments that will let you perfect a level. There are moments even when the camera pans in closely, which at first I thought was a problem with the game. Turns out it’s so it’s harder to see what’s coming, which tests your attention to patterns and rhythm and leaves reflex by the wayside. When this happens it doesn’t last long, but it certainly raises difficulty and makes sure you are paying attention.
There are a few other types of levels that you’ll run into, primary among them battle sequences. Within these, instead of just autorunning and responding to the song and your environment, you will instead be dodging things and attacking enemies to specific button sequences. If you are fighting a boss it might ask you to hit 3 times then jump in a specific rhythmic sequence or to dodge left, right, left than hit. Successfully hitting these at the correct time will result in finishing off your enemies and you winning the level. Along the way you’ll also run into two companions who will join you in their quest, both of which add new ways to interact with the level. One has a bow and will be like nailing notes on Guitar Hero as she runs baddies scroll across and hitting them with good timing will result in a satisfying connection with the enemy. Another companion has drum sticks that he pummels enemies with while a monkey that rides on his shoulders can damage enemies with cymbals, each controlled by a specific button. The companions are a welcome addition, and provide a bit of variety to levels, but are used far too few times. I almost wish they would have had a choice to play through as any of the characters and have arrangements for each of them. It would have added longevity to the game as well as allowing characters to play as they want. As it is they are only featured on a handful of levels and it really is a shame.
As you complete each level you’ll earn a ranking from it and a Royal Note which is like a currency to unlock certain levels throughout the game. Doing well in the levels will net you with a golden flower blooming, which enables you to play back through the song at a faster and more challenging pace. This is a good thing since the game overall will come off as a little easy to rhythm fans with platforming skills and you can mostly breeze through the main campaign with a few levels towards the end that might hold you up. However, collecting all the hidden song birds within some of the levels will lead players craving greater challenges to hidden goodies. For those seeking even more to do you’ll also unlock bonus stages that can be accessed via a level select and these all feature Pokemon songs. The last song of the Pokemon track on fast is absolutely devilish and will give even the most skilled of players some trouble. All of this adds up to a game that is really easy to pop in and play whenever you have some downtime and vastly increases replaybility and portability.
The tracks themselves are original compositions and they are mostly well done video game music. Most genres are covered here, from more jazzy affairs to rock anthems and carribean music with varied compositions throughout. Of course, there are a few stand outs among the songs with the island music and rock anthems being two of my favorites. Overall the music matches the tone of the game well and if you’re like me you will find yourself humming the tracks to yourself long after you’ve powered off your 3DS.
That being said I’m excited about what Nintendo COULD do with HarmoKnight. With this game, they’ve essentially established a universe that they can fill with everything musical. I could easily see them supporting something like HarmoKnight for a long time with DLC of tracks from their other blockbuster franchises. What Nintendophile wouldn’t want to play through the Zelda theme in this way or play through some Kirby themed worlds? Please keep in mind this isn’t in the works currently, it’s just what I feel could be a natural extension of the game (PLEASE NINTENDO. PLEASE!). Either way, don’t be surprised if we see more of Tempo (assist trophy in the next Smash anyone?).
It’s unusual for a company to commit a studio like Game Freak to a downloadable game, even if it is just a portion of the team. However, it’s clear that Nintendo made a good call here as HarmoKnight is a gem among these types of titles and honestly could have fit into a full retail release if Nintendo saw fit to do so. As it is though it stands as a fantastic value for the $15 dollar asking price. Not only is it a high quality rhythm game, but it’s the first game in its genre I’d be willing to recommend to fans outside the genre, mostly thanks to its reflexive platforming. Endearing graphics, portable sensibilities, hidden unlocks, and a high amount of polish make this download an easy decision.
Does HarmoKnight live up to its pedigree? Absolutely.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.