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8th April 2013; By KnucklesSonic8
If someone were to ask you to recall HarmoKnight's wit and classy delivery, chances are you'd have similar trouble joining this interpretation with what you actually remember. To say little of its visual make and art style, trying to sift for any underlying presence of a distinguished quality is bound to leave you disappointed, because while HarmoKnight's strengths do come to light fairly quickly, so do its weaknesses. Both its sense of harmony and the management of its ideas are areas where the game demonstrates some shifty behaviour, and it's these unperfected tweaks that represent more of a growing pain than anything else.
When the world of Melodia is invaded by dark creatures known as Noizoids, a young apprentice named Tempo is given the chance to enjoy the limelight of becoming a fledgling superhero, an opportunity he doesn't first recognize. Under the care and direction of trainer Master Woodwin, all he and his rabbit pal Tappy are told is to meet up with a heroine who will then guide them to Symphony City to bestow a special staff to the world's true, unsung hero. Little do they know that Tempo wields the strength and bravery required to take on the fearsome force, gather all of the world's Royal Notes, and rescue a royal figure from the Noizoid leader's evil clutches.
Recognizing the importance of companions (with a line taken straight out of The Legend of Zelda), the two youngsters are joined by other Melodians on their quest, while also meeting up with others who bear a minor role in the overall story. With that being the case, HarmoKnight uses an RPG-esque element of character gathering and having a loose party member system where unique abilities are called for in some levels. Predominantly, though, HarmoKnight is a rhythm game with action and platforming elements -- more emphasis lying with the former.
Controls are limited to jumping and a swing of your staff (or attacking with a different weapon when using other characters), with an optional charge attack possible for advanced players to master and thereby add to their totals. Music notes are scattered across mostly 2D planes and have set positions so as to connect with beats in and the overall tempo of the song, which serves as the backbone for a respective level. Combining with these are unconcerned enemies in the form of animals (e.g., frogs), insects (large gnats) and musical instruments (tambourines that dangle in imitation of spiders). Even while these are referred to as "enemies," the armies you'll encounter take on pleasant dispositions, and really this friendliness translates to all aspects of the game. On another note, the presence of Noizoids in all forms functions as the main point of contrast against a world that would otherwise remain hostility-free if left alone.
Tackling mini-bosses and bosses will be done outside of the main stages and with added adrenalin, involving memorable ground and aerial encounters where acrobatics and patterned actions are but common behaviours in the extended back-and-forth that ensues. You'll be seen leaping from cliffs, diving down waterfalls, snowboarding down sloped paths and engaging in other escapades, all while fending off minions sent out in defense of large ships, robot dogs and even a queen bee that you'd think has been subject to mutation of some sort. How it works is that for every attack phase, you'll be shown a pattern that must be repeated back using the same button inputs with proper timing. The process of having audio clues provided prior to each string is fairly systematic and leaves no room for surprise, unlike how the standard stages operate.
In addition to music notes and physical enemies, all stages feature drums, cymbals and musical triangles off to the side, some of which are planted atop tall plant stalks that require an early, preparatory jump before landing an aerial hit on time. These may not be integrated naturally to maintain the development of the tune with the stage elements you interact with, but having them there does add some sprinkling. To be perfectly honest, a lot of the interactions these demand feel forced and out of the comfort zone of what the game attempts to create, and almost becomes a point of contention as a result. But, with a similar honesty, it can be said that other physical traits exist that don't work completely harmoniously at all times and every corner.
Take for instance how character swaps are instigated. At some intervals, Tempo will come to a wooden sign that has him jumping out of play to make room for one of his allies, but this presents an interruption in the flow, putting the audio on pause while this temporary change can take place. It's not that you're suddenly hit with an onslaught of enemies directly thereafter and aren't given enough time to get the rhythm going again -- that would be far worse. Just from a progression standpoint, the process isn't handled to the finest degree that I personally came in expecting.
Timing windows are also designed with a strictness identical to the precision needed in Dance Dance Revolution for a Marvelous evaluation -- only here, it's either all or nothing. Now, you don't have a combo multiplier to energize, but even so, the importance of hitting all the notes succinctly and perfectly is so key that missing one even slightly can be damaging to your ability to track the music as it develops. Personally, I'm used to learning curves as a big fan of the genre and I do have a good innate sense of rhythm, but I discovered HarmoKnight's timing windows to be off in enough places that it became a constant concern, even when taking a second stab at levels.
One element players might be thrown off by is the Jump Drum. You have to learn that you have to do what basically sounds like a brief belly flop and then apply the pressure of the B Button to soar off it at the best height, as opposed to timing your jump just before you land. And, too, there's the fact that when timed directional movements are asked of you during boss stages, a response sound is only triggered when you use the +Control Pad as your input; the same does not apply to the Circle Pad for some reason. So there are some minor defects present. But of greater importance (and a greater damper) is that aspects to HarmoKnight's gameplay feel gimmicky in places as you progress.
As the game adopts more hurried tempos and quick-reflex pacing, additional shifts that were seemingly put in place to affect gameplay for variety sake start to enter and erroneously detract from the game's cohesion. The first of these culprits is the set of tower stages where the tempo abruptly changes in the direction of either extreme as you advance upwards, some being quite evil in when they take place (e.g., such as right before a gap between platforms) and the group of elements that subsequently follow.
Other cases present perspective modifications, as when the camera zooms in during stretches where patterns repeat but small curveballs are still thrown in once the beats are locked down to prevent an automation of sorts. One level (Sonic Storm) is especially guilty of this, seeing as its repetition even in a relatively reasonable span becomes a drag. These aren't rash decisions by any means, but the successions that unfold in connection with these alterations prevent gameplay from blooming or having a relaxing vibe accorded to it.
All that said, most of the actual stage variations are acceptable for the way they prevent the game from becoming formulaic beyond the daring boss encounters. Some have you traveling along a coaster inside a mine cart fashioned after a monkey toy, engaging in a samba-infused dancing session, or going around the inner ring of a stadium while following a mostly stagnant pattern. Tastes will naturally vary -- I found the coaster sections mediocre and less rhythm-oriented -- but again, these have value and are appreciated for what they are in the scheme of things.
Much of the game's art style is accentuated with the use of 3D, adding to the charm in bold ways. Granted, gameplay in its usual form may not witness very much change at all in the way of visual dynamics as you flip the 3D Slider to the high settings, but it does come into play in these situations in more subtle ways, such as when damaged enemies are deflected to the edge of the 3D Screen or certain musical notes requiring a well-timed attack are pushed to the back. But the animated comic book vibes seen in the cutscenes and the boss encounters are where you especially see the 3D leading, with up-close angles and other theatrics having greater depth and forcefulness. Overall, the 3D effect is one that freshens things up when used in a concentrated capacity.
As far as other presentation aspects, the entire world is very quirky and high in colour range, but the environments don't do much to stand out. What I enjoyed most was when the game took on a Broadway theme for a whole two levels. No further surprises are to be had, really, but that's okay. The mostly classical soundtrack is functional with some qualities that may get your ears to perk up through familiar tones, and the main map theme is treated differently with each new world you visit. Plus, as referenced earlier, sound effects are used to identify when an enemy is coming down the pipeline -- a welcome feature, to be sure. Looking outside the game, though, the soundtrack is not something you'll long to listen to; it just doesn't have that power.
Content-wise, you're looking at around three, perhaps four hours of playtime, with the duration being extended by replaying levels to better high-scores. Once again, the hard-to-master charge ability requires some discernment, but it gives advanced players something to toy with on future attempts. As well, fast versions are available along with bonus stages and hidden birds, so while a strong addiction is never harnessed, there is plenty at the helm to make a success out of the formula and keep the energy flowing. Whether or not you view the $15 price tag as a misapplied evaluation will depend much, I think, on your appreciation for rhythm games in general and your eagerness towards the concept, more so than the studio backing it.
For all that HarmoKnight tries to build on to assert its worth, the enjoyment is more fleeting and bounded. The package isn't packed down too tight that it can't breathe, as there are moments where the formula excels. The main highlight out of the entire affair would have to be the wild boss fights, which do a great job of affirming the game's adventurous roots and the more engaging tones that hover above the uncomplicated mechanics. But while I'd never accuse HarmoKnight for being too passive, its gameplay doesn't pan out exceptionally and it is due to a series of design concerns that the game hits some sour notes. What the game is held together by, plays at, and amounts to is sure to enliven some, but there was room for a more consistently graceful experience.
21/30 - Good
Gameplay 6/10 - Imperfect timing windows, some elements feel forced, flow interruptions, memorable boss encounters, not all stage variations work well
Presentation 8/10 - Dynamic shots and angles, charming with an entertaining art style, positive 3D use seen in some levels, soundtrack isn't too exciting
Enjoyment 3/5 - Delivery questionable in places, some good ideas that needed to be handled better, somewhat addicting but not strongly so
Extra Content 4/5 - Not over sooner than expected, multiple worlds each with a healthy number of stages, fun bonuses and secrets, very replayable
Equivalent to a score of 70% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System