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Harmoknight review: Out of step

Heidi Kemps

I love Game Freak. The studio's rise from being Satoshi Tajiri's one-man doujin strategy guide production house to creating Pokémon, a franchise beloved the world over, is both incredible and inspiring. But Pokémon's success also came with a cost. Before addicting a generation to pocket monsters, Game Freak made games of all different genres across multiple platforms – the awesome action/puzzler Mendel Palace for the NES, Jelly Boy and its sequel on SNES, and my personal favorite, Pulseman – a Mega Drive title I rank among the best 16-bit platformers ever made.

Since Pokémon took Japan by storm in 1995, however, Game Freak has devoted the vast majority of its resources to making more critters for us to catch. It's only made three non-Pokémon games since, most recently 2005's distressingly overlooked Drill Dozer on GBA. Now, 8 years after Drill Dozer, we've finally got another new and original Game Freak IP in Harmoknight. As a longtime fan of the developer – and someone very hungry for something new – I was eager to get my hands on this one.

Gallery: HarmoKnight | 8 Photos

Harmoknight is striking right from the get-go, presenting you with a vividly-colored setting that feels like a callback to cartoony Famicom box illustrations from the mid-80s. This colorful world of music is inhabited by Tempo, a fighter trainee studying under Master Woodwin, and Tappy, Tempo's talking rabbit friend. When a noisy alien menace rocks the land, Tempo must search for a Harmoknight to wield a weapon of legend and defeat the invaders.

Harmoknight is an auto-scrolling platformer with very simple controls: B to jump, A to thwack things, and varying combinations thereof. The goal in each stage is to collect as many notes as possible, either by snatching them from the air or whacking enemies and objects with the correct timing. Collecting enough notes will yield a Royal Note for your collection. These are necessary to unlock parts of the world, so failing too many stages will halt your progress. Naturally, you'll also have to avoid death: Miss too many cues – or fall into an instant-death trap – and you'll have to restart the stage from scratch. The timing needed to collect notes and smack foes is very, very closely tied to the background music, so you'll need to pay attention to the rhythm or wind up taking a lot of unnecessary damage.

The controls are easy enough to master, the music is upbeat and cheerful, and the art style keeps you happily bopping along, but the level layouts are disappointingly simplistic. You might run across a few divergent paths or obvious secrets but, once you've earned a Royal Note, there's not much incentive to revisit levels. Occasionally, the camera angle might switch, though this doesn't significantly alter gameplay and feels more like a distraction than anything else. You'll also meet sub-characters like Lyra and Tyko as you progress. These characters change things up by introducing more complex and interesting mechanics like distance targeting and dual-weapon play. It's disappointing, then, that these mechanics (and other fun stage gimmicks, like a cymbal-equipped mine cart) come into play rarely, usually for mere fractions of a stage.

Then you hit the boss encounters, which throw all of that platforming out the window for something far less pleasant. Not unlike Space Channel 5, you're given a set of controller inputs that must me mimicked in the correct rhythm. Fail to do so and you lose health. Now take that concept and introduce overly long, unskippable cutscenes before and between sequences, along with randomly inserted instant-kill pits and attacks that force you to restart the entire encounter. These encounters are easily the most infuriating parts of Harmoknight, and I grew to resent them quickly. Not only do they cause you to die the most often, but they stand between you and the platforming you actually want to play.

Given the proximity of its release to Runner 2, Harmoknight draws some obvious comparisons. Both games are rhythm platformers but, unfortunately, Harmoknight most often fails where Runner 2 succeeds. Apart from a few brief sections with new characters or abilities, its basic gameplay never grows or evolves. There's little reason to replay levels, with Harmoknight's limited branching paths rarely yielding a tougher challenge or satisfying reward. The boss fights, rather than expanding on Harmoknight's solid platforming mechanics, opt for "Simon Says" gameplay that is altogether less entertaining and more frustrating. Runner 2 may not be available for 3DS, but it does share Harmoknight's $15 price tag, making it a better choice for anyone who owns one of its available platforms.

The Game Freak fan in me wants to heartily recommend Harmoknight, because it might mean more non-Pokémon games from the studio going forward, but my conscience is loudly overruling her. Harmoknight isn't a bad little tune, but its simple melody just doesn't have the strength to carry a truly memorable song.

This review is based on an eShop download of Harmoknight for 3DS, provided by Nintendo.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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