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Review: Harold

Feb 20 // Conrad Zimmerman
Harold (PC)Developer: Moon Spider StudioPublisher: Moon Spider StudioReleased: February 12, 2015MSRP: $19.99 The premise of Harold is centered in a school where angels are trained to become guardians of humanity. For their final exam, students are tasked with safely guiding a human as they race through deadly obstacle courses, working to ensure their human not only survives but is at the head of the pack. Players assume the role of Gabe, a top student who has coasted by on natural talent and needs only to place third in the final exam races to earn a coveted scholarship to Archangel Academy. In a cruel twist, Gabe has been matched up with Harold, a determined but physically inept racer. Where other angels are paired with athletes able to nimbly hop around obstacles, Harold will run straight into them and die without intervention, taking Gabe's hopes of higher education with him. Harold himself isn't so much controlled as he is prompted to act. In the vein of an auto-running platformer, he trundles straight along the path until he's compelled to jump by a button press or sent into a brief sprint with the expenditure of the "Puff Power" collected during the race (also used as extra lives for Harold). A sprint extends the length of a jump, but that's the extent of Harold's physical prowess, far from enough to safely navigate a course alone. To succeed, the player must manage Harold and his environment simultaneously to finish each of the game's twelve races. [embed]287901:57417:0[/embed] Each race is presented as a series of screens which Harold crosses from left to right, typically containing one or more objects that can be moved or manipulated for his benefit. There is considerable variety in environmental objects and how they're interacted with, using different applications of the left analog stick. Platforms can be pushed and pulled, quick flicks bash barriers with a wispy battering ram, and gears turn with rotations. Some objects, like wooden bridges and snare traps, won't stop Harold but offer opportunities to propel him forward more quickly. When multiple objects exist, pulling the triggers allows the player to switch between interactive elements. These objects are not only helpful to Harold, they can be a hindrance to the other racers. Every manipulable object has the potential to disrupt other racers and slow them down while additionally rewarding the player with more Puff Power for sprinting and mishaps of their own.  It's an exercise similar to plate spinning. Under the constant pressure of advancement through the course, the player has to remain mindful of Harold's position to time sprints and jumps, while ensuring that the coming challenges are prepared for his arrival. There is barely enough time to recognize what actions need to be taken before those actions must be performed, which makes it exhilarating to play when some confidence has been gained. As the courses become more difficult and introduce more complex configuration of objects, the game even grants the ability to pan ahead one race segment and get greater lead time on establishing the course. This is yet another plate. Moving ahead means leaving Harold to his own devices until the player returns to the prior screen or Harold catches up, further dividing focus. It also means additional opportunities to create interference for opponents ahead of Harold, which quickly becomes as important as keeping him alive if he's going to finish third or better. It would be horrible to leap into one of these races cold. Certainly, learning the intricacies of a course is one of the great pleasures of a racing game, but Harold is so demanding of the player's focus that running a stage without some knowledge of its contents would probably frustrate most players into quickly quitting. Moon Spider has wisely implemented a progression system which prevents this by putting the player through a practice mode on new stages before the race can be attempted. The practice mode presents the segments of the course individually as exercises, making sure the player can get Harold through each segment while also providing indications of optimal paths achievable by collecting the three stars on each screen. After completing a race, an even more difficult "challenge" mode becomes available for the stage in which Harold must navigate the course and collect stars while running at top speed. If Harold dies in this mode, that's the end of the attempt, making the stages extremely hard. Mastering a stage's challenge mode all but guarantees one has the skill to take first place in a replay of the main race, if desired. Harold is a satisfying challenge, but it may be a little too demanding of accuracy at times. I found rotating actions to be particularly difficult to perform evenly and had frequent issues getting back and forth flicks to register correctly. While I, as the player, am perfectly willing to accept the most responsibility for this, it's worth keeping in mind for the easily frustrated, especially as the game offers no means of reassigning controls nor allows for any input method other than a controller. Harold is also a looker of a game. Employing a hand-drawn animation style, it's bright and colorful, with exquisite detail. The visuals are almost wasted on a game where the player barely has a chance to observe their surroundings. Cutscenes before stages are not nearly as impressive from an animation standpoint, but do enjoy well performed narration and Harold's escalating pre-race mishaps are generally funny. Between its charming premise, beautiful graphics, and demanding gameplay, Harold is a winner in the end. Players who appreciate auto-running platform games should find it to be a fresh approach to the concepts found in such titles and a worthy challenge. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Harold review photo
Divine interference
Moon Spider Studio has released its debut title, Harold, an endearing and challenging race game about the most incompetent runner ever to need protection from a guardian angel. With some quick thinking, quicker thumbs, and an opportunistic eye, players guide the titular Harold to victory against all odds. Who doesn't love an underdog?

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