Feel the rhythm! feel the rhyme! Get on up, it's Harmo time!
HarmoKnight is something of an experiment for Game Freak, a studio so tied to the Pokémon franchise that it finds little time for other projects. Its development restructures how the studio handles these new projects, and based off of how well HarmoKnight has turned out to be, I regard this experiment of theirs a grand success.
You control Tempo, a boy living in the peaceful land of Harmonia. Here, music is everything to the population. The clouds look like music notes, and cymbals sprout from the ground. Everything was hunky dory until the villainous Gargan crashes down on Tempo's land of Harmonia via meteorite, bringing his army of Noizoids with him. It's up to Tempo, a bunny named Tappy, and a few other friends to take down Gargan and his fleet of audio antagonists. The story is nothing to savour, and most cutscenes crawl by with no means of speeding them up, leaving you enough time to read it again before the next phrase is uttered. Nothing to be upset over, of course, but it only serves as a distraction from the real meat of HarmoKnight; the game itself.
HarmoKnight keeps things simple. As Tempo runs, you tap the A button to attack enemies with his magical staff, and B to jump over them, collecting the musical notes that litter the land. Each stage carries its own unique tune, and every correct action you take is in rhythm with what you hear. Enemies hop and bop with the beat, and you’ll always hear them coming. Everything about HarmoKnight feels natural, which is essential as the game requires very precise timing. There’s no range of success, it’s either pass or fail: you hit the note or don’t. Because you’re not necessarily punished for missing a note, successfully besting a level isn’t much of a hurdle. It’s all about how well you can manage to do, which is a terrific goal for a game of this nature.
HarmoKnight also excels in its presentation. As expected from a rhythm game, the music is superb. The soundtrack is bright and cheerful when its necessary, or menacing and tense if called upon. There's not a miss on the soundtrack, and the large bank of material makes it easy to go back and replay songs. Visually, the game is exceptional. This world of music is incredibly realized, and the detail is pleasing. The enemies come in many shapes and sizes, and their appearance fits the sounds they make. As you near the end of the game, liberties are taken with the camera as it spins and obscures the course ahead. The audio and video work hand in hand to engage, encouraging the player to fall into a trance-like state and become one with the music.
As successful as HarmoKnight is in its core gameplay, missteps is its variety. During his adventure, Tempo befriends two individuals; Lyra, and Tyko. While infrequent, the sections that cast the player as these characters lack any sense of identity. Sure, they look different- Lyra attacks with a harp and the camera angles behind her back, and Tyko has you monitoring enemies that attack from above and below- but they're not a true change of pace. They play very much like Tempo in that you tap a button to attack and dodge, but both employ the use of a reticule. In the Iwata Asks for HarmoKnight, the developers made it clear that they eschewed a reticule for Tempo deliberately, a decision I wholeheartedly agree with. The use of a reticule makes the game less about getting into the rhythm, and more about waiting for an enemy to show up inside a circle. The importance of music is pushed to the side, but thankfully, these two show up very infrequently.
Boss fights are another attempt to mix things up, but fall flat in attempts. Yet again, the focus shifts away from feeling the beat and puts it on prescribed inputs. The boss attacks are played out as button prompts, and you repeat the string to succeed. Much like using a reticule, it becomes very clear as to what you must do. You're being fed instructions, so that sense of wonder you feel in the majority of the game's levels is lost.
The game takes place across seven worlds (and an unlockable eighth that is composed of remixed music) which amounts to over 50 stages, each of which is an entirely different piece of music. The over world is presented like Super Mario Bros. 3 and is a nice hand-drawn contrast to the game's otherwise 3D visuals. Each world has its own musical theme, from calypso to rock and everything in between. Progress is made on a stage by stage basis. Perform well enough, and you’ll earn a Royal Note, a special item used to unlock future roadblocks. The bar is not set too high to earn one, so don't expect your progression to come to a screeching halt.
Instead of difficulty settings, HarmoKnight`s stages are made to appeal to players of any skill level. Aside from the notes and enemies, optional obstacles “grow” in the background. Hitting these will increase the player’s score, but doing so doesn’t come easy. They’re often placed in tricky spots, requiring players to have mastered the game before attempting to obtain them. The effort certainly pays off. Performing well enough to earn a Gold ranking allows players to play a sped up, and notably more difficult, version of the song. HarmoKnight is constantly feeding the player more content, always allowing the player to grow and improve. An interesting mechanic intended for high ranking players is the ability to "power-up" an attack. By holding down the A button, Tempo will pull back and not release his swing until you let go. When you do, if timed correctly the attack will net you twice the amount of notes you'd receive. It's difficult to use, and is intended for those with a firm grip on the game and its music.
HarmoKnight is a Game Freak product, through and through. While its nods to Pokémon are apparent in unlockable content and a Gengar-esque antagonist, the truth behind my assumption is actually buried a little deeper. Like the best our hobby offers, HarmoKnight is easy to learn, but hard to master. The Navin R. Johnson's among us will never hit a brick wall, while those more in tune with the magic of rhythm can still face quite a challenge. You get what you give, and HarmoKnight has a lot to offer.