Game Freak does Pokémon. That's just the way it is. The studio's been synonymous with Pikachu and his pals for past seventeen years now and considering its last non-Pokémon game was eight years ago (Drill Dozer on the Game Boy Advance) it's little wonder gamers associate it with nothing else. Harmoknight wants to change that.
This 3DS eShop title is the latest from the home of Pokémon and there's nary a Lickitung, Lillipup or Lucario in sight (save for a couple of bonus levels). More importantly, it's fun to play, proving that Game Freak can still do quality without Quilavas.
Harmoknight is a rhythm platformer in which you play as Tempo, a young lad who's been given the task of saving his planet, Melodia. A group of monsters called the Noizoids have invaded the land and took the scintillating original step of kidnapping its princess.
In a game that's happy to crowbar in any old music reference, it may not come as a surprise that Tempo is armed with a large musical note that he can swing around like a baseball bat.
As he runs through each level (he runs automatically and the speed can't be controlled), you have to make him swing his weapon and jump to the beat of the music to defeat enemies and collect the musical notes scattered throughout. The more notes you collect, the better. The game, then, is controlled for the most part with only two buttons - one to swing and one to jump.
It's not a brand new concept - the DS game Maestro! Jump In Music was similar and 3DS games like Rhythm Thief, Bit.Trip Saga and Theatrhythm also feature rhythm-based gameplay - but it's certainly a stylish take on the genre. Tempo is an appealing character with a expressive face and the chunky cartoon graphics and enemy animations are wonderful.
It's also harder than most rhythm games to get the hang of, thanks to its unforgiving timing. If you're just a split second off with your swing you won't connect properly with an enemy and will either weakly knock them off stage without collecting a note for your effort, or miss them altogether and take damage.
The bonus background instruments (from drums to cymbals) are even less lenient, so expect to be frustrated with plenty of missed swings before you finally get used to it.
The concept of running from left to right, hitting and jumping could have proven to be too repetitive, so Game Freak keeps things interesting in a number of ways. Each of the game's eight worlds has a different musical style (marching band, rock, calypso, metal etc) to suit its mood so, just as the levels start to feel samey, the boat is suitably rocked.
A couple of helper characters are also introduced along the way to freshen things up - they take over during certain levels and change the gameplay slightly by having you attack high and low enemies or launch arrows at enemies in the distance (all still to the beat, of course).
The addition of boss battles and dance-offs also change things slightly, essentially serving as 'watch and repeat' mini-games in the style of Space Channel 5. While these aren't dull by any means they're still slightly weaker than the normal reaction-based platformer stages.
Harmoknight's only significant setbacks are its length and its difficulty level. Each of its 50+ stages (including a handful of special Pokémon-themed stages) grade you depending on how many notes you collect. But the problem is that the threshold to achieve the top honor is too low, meaning once you get used to the game's strict timing it's possible to make a fair few mistakes in a stage and still get the highest accolade. Tense it is not.
It's not like there wasn't replay value here to be unlocked. The platforming stages are satisfying to play and presented in such pleasingly bite-sized chunks that the only reason why you won't return is you already have the top achievement. By the time you finish the game - which takes roughly three hours - most of the levels are done.
Thankfully there's also the option to play them in 'fast' mode (the exact same levels played at a much quicker pace) as well as five hidden birds that, when found, unlock the hidden eighth world, but when all is said and done you're talking around five or six hours' gameplay for your £12.99 with little replay value once all the gold flowers have been earned.
It may sound contradictory to suggest that the game is both too unforgiving (with the note timing) and too lenient (with top grade thresholds) at the same time, but this is proof if it was ever needed that two opposing problems don't cancel each other out.
But such problems won't be what you will remember Harmoknight for. It is a charming game, packed with colour and a rhythm platforming mechanic that takes a while to get used to but is rewarding once you're in the swing. It's a little too short considering it's one of the most expensive download-only 3DS games, but those six hours you'll spend with it will press all the right buttons.
A cheery, colourful rhythm action platformer that's only let down by its limited lifespan. If you can afford to part with £12.99 for a three to six-hour experience and don't mind getting used to its harsh timing, you'll have a great time with it.
- Bright, colourful graphics and cheerful music
- Rhythm-based gameplay is satisfying
- Pokémon bonus levels are a nice surprise
- It's all over a little too quickly
- Unforgiving timing takes a while to master
- Boss battles aren't as compelling