When you think Game Freak, you instinctively think Pokémon. It’s hardly surprising; the Japanese studio has been behind the million-selling franchise since day one, and the evergreen popularity of “catching 'em all” has ensured that the firm has little reason — or time — to explore other avenues. Apart from side-projects like 2005’s Drill Dozer, Game Freak has stuck with what it knows best — until now, that is. HarmoKnight is the first game to emerge from the studio since an internal restructuring took place which allows employees to work on projects in tandem with the usual Pokémon output, and is the brainchild of English staffer James Turner.
As the title suggests, HarmoKnight is all about music. Everything from the setting to the core gameplay revolves around melodies and beats, with lead character Tempo striking enemies and collecting notes in time to the backing track. Tempo’s movement is automatic; he runs without any input from the player. Interaction is limited to jumping and hitting (and occasionally dodging), all of which need to be done in time with the music. Pressing a button too early usually results in you either missing a note or taking damage, and once you've lost all of your hearts you have to restart the level.
The aim is to earn enough magical notes to pass the level; collect enough notes and you’ll earn a Royal note, and amassing enough of these is a requirement to get past certain roadblocks on the game's overworld map. Successfully striking enemies will earn you notes, as will hitting plants in the background which are predictably shaped like percussive instruments. Making contact with the latter is purely optional, and beginners are advised to ignore them entirely as they are often placed in locations which throw you off the beat and make it harder to get back into the natural groove of the level. Even so, if you want to bag that all-important Gold Blossom at the conclusion of the stage, you’ll need to focus on them eventually. You can also charge up Tempo's attack and receive two notes instead of one, but again, this is the preserve of HarmoKnight experts only.
In addition to the standard stages, you’ve also got boss battles to contend with. These adopt a slightly different format, with your enemy’s moves being choreographed before you’re called upon to respond. For example, a boss might hurl a set of projectiles at you which requires a sequence of button presses to successfully repel. During some of these encounters, you also have to move Tempo using the D-pad — in time with the music, of course. Other boss encounters feature dance contests, where you’re shown a combination of moves and must replicate them perfectly.
The degree of variety on offer doesn’t end there, however. Additional characters are introduced which call for slightly different gameplay tactics, and there are levels where you’re racing in a mine-cart or flying on the back of a helpful steed. The music-based gameplay underpins all of these arrangements, holding together the experience like some kind of aural glue. There's the constant temptation to deviate from the music and become a little more creative with your attacks and jumps, but the audio quickly snaps you back into shape and before long you'll feel your entire body swaying and moving with the soundtrack.
Ironically, the actual music in HarmoKnight is something of a mixed bag; certain tunes possess an infectious beat which greatly aids your progress, but others barely register and can often make it difficult to spot cues for when you should be swinging your weapon or leaping over an incoming hazard. These moments can result in mild frustration, but HarmoKnight doesn’t pose a stern challenge; an infinite stock of lives means that dying simply results in you having to start the level again, and it’s possible to mess up quite badly and still gain enough notes to progress.
Indeed, completing HarmoKnight’s seven worlds (and bonus eighth) won’t take all that long, but the game is far from over by this point. By scoring a Gold Blossom on any level you unlock the ability to replay it at a faster speed — a challenge which is aimed solely at expert players with a keen ear for music. Speaking of which, HarmoKnight is one of those titles where possessing a natural sense of rhythm is a massive bonus; musical timing is key to success, so if you’re completely tone deaf and struggle to map out a beat, you might find that it takes a little longer to slip into HarmoKnight’s groove.
Visually, HarmoKnight is a thoroughly attractive game and makes excellent use of the 3DS console’s auto-stereoscopic display. Certain levels showcase sections where Tempo moves in and out of the screen, but this aspect really comes into its own during boss battles, which are intentionally arranged to make maximum use of the 3D depth. The overworld map is 2D and calls to mind the maps in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, but there’s less room for exploration and you’re funnelled down a fairly linear pathway.
HarmoKnight manages to combine attractive cartoon-like visuals with engaging, rhythm-based gameplay to create an experience which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with genre classics like Vib Ribbon, Gitaroo Man and PaRappa the Rappa. There’s enough content and gameplay here to justify a full-price retail release, so the fact that Nintendo has delivered this at a lower price point for download speaks volumes about the company’s attitude to the gradual shift from physical to digital distribution. It’s not entirely perfect — some of the music is a little on the weak side and unless you’re a dedicated score-chaser, the longevity could be questionable — but while it lasts, HarmoKnight is a pleasure to play and experience. Hopefully Game Freak’s developers will be encouraged to step from out of the shadow of Pikachu and produce similarly unique and entertaining titles in the near future.