Dash a note off.
Maybe there is something more than Pokémon—at least that's what developer Game Freak thought when it decided to allow its designers to work on something, anything, else. After all, making sequel after sequel of the same franchise isn't just repetitive to fans, and eventually the inner, artistic need to develop a new title becomes overwhelming. The result of this repressed creativity is HarmoKnight, an all-around pleasant platformer that combines rhythmic elements with "endless runner" gameplay into a happy-go-lucky downloadable title for Nintendo 3DS.
Playing similar to the indie hit Bit.Trip Runner by Gaijin Games, HarmoKnight pits the player in the spritely shoes of Tempo, a young apprentice who must traverse the precarious world of automatically scrolling levels. With the aid of his trusty tap-dancing rabbit Tappy, he must collect floating notes and whack oncoming enemies with his trusty staff in time with the music, making sure not to lose all of his health hearts or fall into a pit of no return. If Tempo finishes the level with enough notes in tow, he is awarded a Royal Note which can destroy evil meteorites planted by Gargan, an alien leader of Noizoids who want nothing more than to conquer the world.
Suffice it to say, the plot follows the common tropes of saving the damsel in distress from the malevolent conqueror, but that's not what HarmoKnight is about anyway. It's about hitting every beat and focusing down to the point where everything seems to flow naturally from your fingertips. The difficulty of HarmoKnight lies in racking your brain around all the various cues: gaps that require a well-timed jump, the drum and cymbal plants in the background, spiked boulders, firey rings and jets, and enemies that can bounce in, fly in, fall in, leap in, and generally bungle up your rhythm.
As Tempo progresses through all eight worlds, levels only become more complicated and thereby more frustrating. While the sections featuring Tempo's party members (whom shall remain nameless so as not to spoil it) are actually more of a breather than anything else, Harmoknight soon throws elements into the mix that are wildly difficult to catch onto as they come your way. Everything from elevation and camera angle, to speed and time signatures, can change at a moment's notice. By the time you reach the bonus world in the post-game content, you'll have to rely on memory, trial and error, and self-control so as not to throw the 3DS into a wall (probably off the beat). At a certain point, HarmoKnight doesn't test rhythm or reaction time as much as it does patience and unwielding persistance.
That said, completing the levels required to reach the ending isn't ridiculously challenging, and boss levels primarily test short-term memory, at best in the same way as a round of Simon would with a sequence of eight colors. The threshold for getting a Good or Great grade at the end of a level is lenient for the most part. Aesthetically inoffensive, the environments have bright, vivid coloring and joyful melodies, particularly the bonus stages that are based on tracks from Pokémon. (Nice leverage there, Game Freak.)
On the downside, Harmoknight hits a few sour notes. If you're not naturally gifted with rhythm, you might find the lack of a practice mode irritating. Worse, progression is strictly linear, forcing you to clear every preceding stage to pass a checkpoint. On the flipside, for rhythm experts there doesn't seem to be a rating above Great—say, Perfect—which would have extended the replay value, though Sky Roost is devilishly challenging. It took me at least 40 tries to get through the Final Trial (I mean, the title does start with the word "Harm"), but I finally did it and I couldn't be any prouder of myself.
Harmoknight has that deceptively simple, cheery, Rhythm Heaven-like quality that belies just how addictive it can be. Though it's not particularly innovative in any way and the story is rather throwaway, its flaws don't significantly mar what is still an effervescent and enjoyable experience. For a downloadable title priced at around $15 for the 3DS handheld, it notably strikes the right chords.