HarmoKnight makes a bold effort to answer an all-important question: What kind of games would Game Freak be authoring if they suddenly decided to stop pumping out profitable Pokémon installments every year or so? While it’s true that this Junichi Masuda-produced rhythm-platformer features a multitude of background cameos from popular Pocket Monsters and musical cues from that revered series, it stands on its own two feet as a blithesome, tuneful gambol that, slowly but surely, becomes almost every bit addictive as the celebrated developer’s crackerjack flagship property.
HarmoKnight shares similarities with other rhythmic rollicks like PaRappa the Rapper, Gitaroo Man, and Bit.Trip.Runner, but the game has a uniquely symphonic style all its own. The player is cast in the role of several canorous characters tasked with maintaining the harmonious order of their well-tuned world dubbed Melodia. Game Freak has always delivered standout character designs, and HarmoKnight is no exception. Silent hero Tempo is a memorable primary protagonist, slightly resembling Kid Icarus: Uprising’s sporty seraph Pit, and with an attitude that brings to mind the restless adventurousness of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s youthful cartoon Link. Tempo’s compatriots range from the beefy percussionist Tyko and his cymbal-smashing primate partner, Cymbi, to the arrow-launching female lead, Lyka. HarmoKnight’s visuals are commendable throughout, making appropriate use of the 3DS’s power; when the action switches from 2D side-scrolling to a 3D plane, the necessary realignment is smooth and devoid of much noticeable slowdown.
The amount of gameplay variety in the game is certainly generous, as its main characters each offer a distinct manner of beat-keeping that allows the proceedings to rarely dip into creeping repetitiveness. Tempo and friends are most commonly running automatically as they attack, dodge, and collect musical notes throughout Melodia’s 50-plus levels, each one leading up to an increasingly challenging boss encounter. While Tempo’s segments are generally standard platforming, Lyra’s sections are rascally rail-shooting with a lyrical tilt; the camera angle swings around so she can rapidly snipe any number of foes looming in the distance. Tyko and Cymbi are typically faced with much larger adversaries, as Cymbi rides atop Tyko’s shoulders creating a significantly wider offensive field. Each stage concludes with a tallying of your amassed notes and an awarded medal that usually results in a prized Royal Note. These are essentially keys that unlock pathways to surrounding territories on the overworld map, but that’s all they’re really good for. HarmoKnight’s anemic reward system is one aspect that could have used a boost in ingenuity, as it never truly gives devoted players the pat on the back they deserve for conquering the game’s indubitably arduous final areas.
In the moment, HarmoKnight’s soundtrack is quite satisfying, but most of its compositions fail to reach the distinguished degree of Pokémon’s most earwormy anthems. The eclectic score covers an array of genres, from Afro-Caribbean island jams to bouncy jazz and even a hint of heavy metal, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one of these arrangements slipping into your bathroom humming routine.
With a price tag of $15, HarmoKnight is definitely on the high-end of eShop-exclusive titles, but be grateful, for it easily could have been retail packaged and sold for upwards of $30 in stores. Its music isn’t as catchy as it could be, but this is nonetheless a vibrant little gem of a rhythm game with plenty of replay value; it’s easy on the eyes and a joy to play. Naysayers who hastily label Game Freak as “Those damn Pokémon guys” will likely be surprised by the multitude of dulcet delights the dependable outfit has cordially instilled into HarmoKnight.