It’s a weird year when we see the release of two separate rhythm-based auto-scrolling platformers. Even weirder still, then, is that both HarmoKnight and its cousin, Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, are stellar in many of the same ways and distinct enough in others to justify a parallel existence.
Developed by Pokemon (and Drill Dozer, and Pulseman) studio Game Freak, HarmoKnight stars a young boy named Tempo, as he runs and jumps along levels, swatting at things with a large music note. Timing is crucial, as if you don’t do the actions on the beat, you’re going to lose health.
That’s the first point that makes HarmoKnight distinct: missing something isn’t instant failure. You only have a small number of hearts for each level, but you can hit optional eggs to get more, and even without that, it’s much less punishing. This is good, for two reasons: one, the movements here are just a bit less precise than in games like Runner, and two, portable games often get interrupted by outside forces, and it’s horrible when your entire run is ruined when you get bumped into or there’s a loud noise.
Game Freak loves taking themes and running with them, and HarmoKnight is no exception. I mentioned that Tempo wields a giant note; this musical theme extends to basically everything else in the game. Lyra is an archer with a harp; she comes in every once in a while and breaks up the gameplay, though it only really changes presentation of when to press the buttons. Your teacher is Woodwin, who just so happens to play woodwind instruments. Your buddy is a rabbit named Tappy. He’s a tap dancer.
Much like Runner2, HarmoKnight uses a Super Mario World-like map to connect the levels, and allows you to keep going even if you don’t have a perfect run. You still have to do well on enough levels to earn the notes required to move forward, but generally you can power through a few trouble spots and still progress.
Occasionally you’ll run into special boss or miniboss levels, which turn the game into something of a copy-the-rhythm game. Bosses, be them waves of enemies and obstacles or single enormous monsters, give you prompts that you must replicate. These levels aren’t bad, though the last notes of a wave become must-hit to clear, regardless of how well you’ve done up to that point. This does seem fair; if you miss the killing blow, it’d be weird to show you finishing it off anyway.
The game sticks around basically as much as you want it to. You can blast through the worlds in a few hours if you’re talented, but you’ll find more challenge in the harder versions of each level. If you’re a less intense player, you can backtrack occasionally to get the notes you need to progress, and you’ll enjoy the unlockable bonus levels (including the Pokemon theme).
HarmoKnight definitely feels like a Nintendo take on the genre, and manages to be more than a bite-sized downloadable from the company. It helps to bring along some headphones when you take it on the road with you, but if you can handle the rhythm, it’s probably worth it.
Pros: Fun rhythm with optional challenge, Game Freak personality
Cons: Sometimes-frustrating timing issues, few frills