It's difficult to gauge the extent of a studio's talent when it's locked into making sequels in a single franchise over and over again. Such is the fate of Game Freak, bound to the mainline Pokémon series with criminally few opportunities to branch out. What a shame it is that the public often overlooks the company's small stable of original titles, such as Pulseman on SEGA Genesis and Drill Dozer on Game Boy Advance.
Hoping to give hungry young designers a chance to explore non-Pokémon avenues, Game Freak instated a new internal policy that allows small teams to work on a game concept independently with the potential to turn it into a full project. The first fruit born of that policy is HarmoKnight, a rhythm platformer that feels like a mashup of all the best bits of past rhythm genre greats.
An adorable and addictive good time, HarmoKnight demonstrates that Game Freak has a lot more to offer the world than just Pokémon.
HarmoKnight (3DS eShop)
Developer: Game Freak
Release: March 28, 2013
The beauty of HarmoKnight lies in its duality -- simple yet challenging, inviting yet demanding, generous yet punishing. In a genre that often expects perfection from all players, this game gives you the freedom to make mistakes without the fear of swift and brutal consequences. It's only as rough as you want it to be, allowing everyone to enjoy the adventure at their preferred pace.
Similar to BIT.TRIP RUNNER, your hero Tempo will march through the levels automatically; you merely need to press two buttons -- B / X to jump, A / Y to attack -- to overcome enemies and obstacles. You must time your movements to the beat, and the game is not afraid to throw off your flow. In particular, the percussiplants -- drums and cymbals that sprout from the ground -- are difficult to target by sight alone, while in certain levels, the tempo will increase or decrease suddenly. Grab a pair of headphones and keep your ears open!
The goal in each level is to collect as many notes as you can, either by picking up free-standing notes along the path or by whacking enemies and plants at the precise moment. Collect enough notes to earn a silver or gold victory blossom and you'll be awarded a Royal Note, which must be collected in each level in order to pass through barricades on the world map.
But the truth is that you don't need to stress about your performance too much. Missed a few notes? Didn't time your attacks properly? You'll probably still earn at least a silver. In fact, the only time I didn't rank in a stage was when I actively attempted a low-score run. Not even gold blossoms, the highest rank possible, are out of reach for the average player. There's plenty of breathing room for mistakes, and taking damage won't affect your score, so go easy and do your best. And if somehow you don't rank, proceed to the next level and return later for the Royal Note once you're good and ready.
If you wish to enjoy the musical journey without care for high scores, you are free to do so. But if you wish to challenge yourself and dig deep beneath the surface, you'll discover a wealth of scoring opportunities. The biggest game changer of all is the charge attack, performed by holding the attack button after swinging your staff once then released once a target is in range. If your attack connects properly, you'll earn two notes instead of one. Once you've mastered this skill, you'll want to return to past levels in search of optimal spots to charge your staff and maximize your score.
For an even greater challenge, earning a gold blossom also unlocks an increased tempo version of that level. You'll be surprised at how much more imposing even the earliest stages can be at such speeds, when half-note beats demand lightning reflexes and the time between an enemy's sound effect "tell" and its attack shrinks to mere fractions of a second.
Boss levels take on a whole different routine, playing out like Space Channel 5 -- the enemy will launch a volley tagged with button prompts and you have to repeat the commands in time with the beat. And while normal stages only require you to jump and attack, boss battles also incorporate dodging via the direction pad. A couple of "battles" actually take the form of a dance-off, in which the commands appear along a rhythm line similar to the one found in PaRappa the Rapper.
Unlike in other levels, earning the gold during boss encounters does in fact demand a perfect run. It seems strange that the rest of the game would leave plenty of room for error but then hold you to a much stricter standard for these segments. Furthermore, there are no secret techniques to earn extra notes in boss battles, meaning there is no incentive to replay once you earn the gold.
After completing the main campaign, there's still plenty more to do. In addition to the fast tempo level variants, there are five Pokémon-themed bonus stages dotted with giant Pokéball and Pikachu hot air balloons. And beyond the standard seven worlds is a special eighth world populated by levels that replace the leisurely pace and forgiving nature of the rest of the game with hardcore ruthlessness.
The linchpin of entire package is the remarkable presentation. One look at the cutscenes and character designs, you can't help but catch a whiff of Gitaroo Man. The main villain especially could have been pulled straight from the PS2 classic! Then there are the environments that pop with rich colors and soft edges, so vibrant they are that no matter how many times you replay stage, it'll look just as lovely as it did on the first visit.
One thing I haven't touched upon is the soundtrack itself -- ironically, it isn't as strong as you'd believe. Some themes are more enjoyable than others, but none will stick in your mind like rhythm game music ought to. It's also unfortunate that the same one or two themes are repeated in every stage in a world, a rather irksome trait in a game based around musical performance.
But as a whole, HarmoKnight is a wonderful bundle of charm and joy that doesn't really punish failure but rather encourages perseverance and dedication. There isn't even a "Game Over" when you die! Instead, the screen reads, "Oh Dear..." Reminds me of a mother who picks up a child who fell off the jungle gym, dusts him off, and gently urges him to try again. It's such a minor touch, but it's nonetheless uplifting. Maybe I'm sentimental like that.
It's been seven years since Game Freak last made a non-Pokémon title. HarmoKnight feels like the promising start of many wonderful new experiences to come, so I can only hope we don't have to wait another seven years for a follow-up.