Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop, £12.99)
Developer: Game Freak
Game Freak have developed a new IP.
It's actually a fairly big deal. Nintendo's first-party studio haven't made anything not Pokemon-related since Mario & Yoshi in 1991 (unless you count Drill Dozer, which never released in the UK), and have never attempted a downloadable title before, making HarmoKnight a bit of an anomaly to say the least.
But here it is: an eShop rhythm game where a young lad and his rabbit pal need to save a colourful musical world from ravening evil Noizoids. By smacking them in the face with a great big quaver. The premise is as gleefully daft as you'd expect from a studio who've spent years glossing over small children leaving home and engaging in brutal animal-on-animal cage fights, but it's also as fun and polished as Game Freak's pedigree suggests.
In gameplay terms, HarmoKnight resembles a cuddlier version of BEAT.TRIP Beat in more than one respect. It's an 'auto-runner', so cutesy-pie protagonist Tempo barrels across the screen from left to right as a range of hazards, enemies, collectible notes and platforms hove menacingly into view. Each perfectly-timed jump, collectible or staff smash corresponds to a note of the catchy melody, which plays out as you complete the level. Unlike the masochistic stylings of Runner, however, you can take a few hits before being forced to restart from scratch.
A couple of different characters crop up from time to time, leaping into the stage and offering a slightly different take on the action. Lyra the hunter requires you to fire arrows and duck projectiles in time with the melody, while a strapping warrior-type chap charges through the stages with a monkey on his back. A literal monkey, mark you, that can hit incoming flying foes with his cymbals if you're fast enough. Combined with enormous 'Simon Says' boss battles, merrily dancing octopi and some challenge arenas, there's a deceptively impressive amount of variety on offer here.
HarmoKnight is a case of a simple concept that's executed brilliantly, and imaginatively to boot. Once you've gotten used to matching the melody of the song rather than the underlying beat (something that will reduce you to an incandescent ball of pure sweary anger on later levels until you sheepishly realise that you've been keeping the wrong time), the unpredictably-changing challenges become an addictive joy to push through and replay. The challenge curve may be shallow, but some tasty later levels provide some satisfying punishment, and there's always 'just one more note' to go back for.
Quantity is also in abundance, with fifty levels to run through, many of which offer alternate routes to find and a harder 'fast' mode that doubles speed and pitch. Completing each world even unlocks a Pokemon-themed bonus stage that features a familiar track from the franchise.
Game Freak's eye for colourful art direction (which has arguably been hamstrung by having to design hundreds upon hundreds of different Pokemon every few years) makes HarmoKnight a vibrant and visually distinctive feast for the eyes; full of crisp detail, sharp backgrounds and some imaginatively-designed critters that we'd love to see in Pokemon X and Y. Stuff Xerneas & Yveltal, give us a World War II battleship crossed with a hammerhead shark please. In keeping with the playful premise, HarmoKnight's world is a whimsical and saccharine sweet affair, but one that becomes enormously good fun to revel in once you've embraced the silliness with open arms. After all, the first character you meet is a cuddly talking rabbit mentor called Tappy, who sets the tone rather nicely. After playing any number of po-faced shooters since the start of the year, this is exactly the shot of unapologetic innocent fun that we've been crying out for.
Activating stereoscopic 3D makes the 2D plane easier to discern on standard platforming levels, adding extra depth without ever becoming distracting or nauseating. If you've ever played a Pokemon game before, you'll also be keenly aware that Game Freak score some seriously catchy tracks to boot.
For the price, there's very little to complain about, but a few grievances come to mind. Though the vast majority of HarmoKnight's all-important tunes are upbeat and toe-tappingly enjoyable, they're not hugely memorable, and pale in comparison to the Pokemon bonus levels. The simplistic scoring system also robs the experience of a fair bit of replayability, since gold medals are given out far too leniently, while there's no reward for getting a perfect run on any given stage. Coupled with a lack of leaderboards, I can't help but feel that the opportunity for real competition - whether against your friends or your own abilities - was slightly squandered.
But it doesn't matter, because for the duration, you'll be hard-pressed to suppress an enormous Cheshire grin. Just try not to freak out the other passengers in your train compartment.
- Addictive rhythm gameplay, great fit for a portable platform
- Vibrant visuals and imaginative art direction
- Playful, whimsical and flat-out fun
- Tunes aren't particualrly memorable, though catchy
- Needs leaderboards and a more robust ranking system
- Pokemon levels are tantalisingly short
The Short Version: HarmoKnight's compelling rhythm gameplay is as playful, whimsical and polished as you'd expect from the creators of Pokemon. For £12.99, it's hard not to recommend this big, silly slab of toe-tapping fun.