Every now and then a game will come along that is incredibly memorable. Though the game itself may have its share of flaws, its overwhelming sense of charm will promote it to a higher status – and such is the case with ‘Harold’, the debut game from Moon Spider Studio. Styling itself somewhere between a side-scrolling platformer and a racing game, this interesting mix of gameplay is refreshing and fun, but hard to master.
Playing as Gabe, a guardian angel-in-training, he has reached his final exam. Tasked with helping a mortal partner down on earth win the racing tournament, Gabe only needs to place third to achieve his scholarship. Though he is an incredibly talented student, things aren’t made simple for Gabe as he find himself in charge of protecting Harold – the weakest, slowest, and stupidest contender. As far as storytelling goes it’s a pretty simple affair, with predictable and rather generic plot developments cropping up throughout. Gabe ends up going toe-to-toe against a rival, and more odds keep stacking up against Gabe as other forces try to sabotage his chances. Things become more intense as you progress through the races, but the whole story isn’t likely to grip you in any way. That said however, the cutscenes are charming and funny – adding more than enough context to the progressing gameplay. The story itself isn’t played too heavily upon, with short cutscenes only being placed between races, and the plot never becoming complicated. Feeling like more of a Saturday morning cartoon than a Disney movie, this format fits well with the simplistic nature of the plot and the games light-hearted tone. However, that’s not to discount the quality of the game art though, as the hand-drawn visuals and animations are simply stunning.
The heart of Harold’s charm is found within the visual presentation, of which is nothing like you’ve ever seen in a 2D game before. With animators and artists who’ve worked with Dreamworks, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli all contributing towards this game, it is to no surprise why it is so beautiful. The environment art, the animation quality, and the art direction is utterly flawless, and it’ll be hard to find a better looking game. It’s clear that the art in this game was a labour of love, and the variety of lavish locations and subtle detailing invokes an overwhelming sense of joy to whoever finds themselves playing this game. No matter how many times you might find yourself repeating the same race over and over again, the art never loses its touch and is one of the biggest hooks amongst the often challenging gameplay.
Requiring a controller to play, ‘Harold’ makes extensive use of the left analog stick to control each environmental hazard, while the shoulder buttons are used to toggle between which parts to manipulate. The left analog stick is sensibly used in different ways, with each specific movement correlating with the piece of environment you want to control. Harold can also be controlled (albeit in an incredibly limited fashion) by being able to toggle a jump. As you might have gathered, the control scheme is very simple to wrap your head around, but players will often fumble as they struggle to cope under the pressure and speed of a race. Some traps may seem rather unfair – favouring fast-responses over careful execution, but the game tries its best to keep things simple and focussed. Though working the traps and hazards is a breeze (on paper at least), the game tries to spice things up as you progress, and in the process manages to overcomplicate itself a little. Shortly into the game, Gabe is given the ability to look at what’s coming ahead during a race, and manipulate the environment ready for Harold’s arrival. Though this can be useful, it’s really difficult to use effectively since as the player has no control over Harold when the camera has jumped to the next set of obstacles. Not only this, but the abrupt switch to a different location can be incredibly jarring at times, making it difficult to soak in the next area and make full use of the opportunity. Fortunately this feature isn’t key to your success, and you can complete each course without ever using it. There are however some instances where it makes life a lot easier, so it’s a shame that the feature itself isn’t that well implemented.
The bulk of Harold’s gameplay offering is found within the races, as you would expect. Placed against 5 other AI-controlled competitors, you must use Gabe’s powers of manipulation to take control of the environment and ensure that Harold remains out of harm’s way and moving at speed. Being so un-athletic, Harold stands no chance at getting to the finish-line without the player babysitting him at every step. In order to gain speed, players must use their ‘Puff Power’ in order to electrocute him and send him temporarily speeding ahead. Collecting this along each track isn’t too difficult, but players ideally need to be in constant supply in order to finish in the top three, adding more challenge to the proceedings. Adding further difficulty to each race, Puff Power is also used to bring Harold back onto the track after falling victim to a hazard, adding an element of risk and reward into the mix. If Harold gets hurt by something and he has no puff power at his disposal, it is ‘GAME OVER’. There are no checkpoints to be found along each race, so players are forced into learning each track and being precise with each move they make in order to avoid starting over again. Players are also encouraged to eliminate fellow competitors during the race to earn additional Puff Power through using the track hazards to their advantage. Though it can be difficult at times, the reward is worth it, especially during the much more difficult tracks of the second half. This high-risk of failure is certainly an interesting design choice, especially as players need to rely on using Puff Power to speed ahead in order to catch up to their competitors.
Harold as a whole is no stranger to extreme difficulty, and despite it being styled like a children’s cartoon, the gameplay doesn’t hold back in the slightest. Though the game begins as simple as possible with solid tutorial sessions between the first few races, things suddenly take a steep difficulty change as hazards become more varied, difficult, and complex. Players will need a lot of patience to stick with this game, especially in the later stages where the environments become hellish and take plenty of devotion and concentration to finish. This is unfortunately something that is likely to put a lot of people off, but those that enjoy a good challenge will likely stick with it through thick and thin until the credits roll. In order to succeed in most races, players need to avoid letting Harold fall victim to a single hazard, resulting in plenty of restarts before crossing the finish line. The races themselves aren’t that long, but it’s the journey leading up the completing them that takes the most time. Thankfully the game encapsulates the “just one more go” formulae of games such as Trials Fusion, meaning that no matter how difficult the challenge may appear, players will still find themselves persisting until they meet their goal. Players will sweat, cry, hurl abuse at their computer screens on a regular basis, but the reward at the end is just about worth it.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, as in order to unlock each race the player has to complete a series of training zones. With each zone demonstrating a new set of perilous traps and tricks from the coming race, this section adequately prepares players for what’s to come. Taking up the 3-star scoring system commonly found in mobile games such as ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Cut The Rope’, it’s a nifty and easy way of teaching the player how to deal with each key area of the next race. Players only need to finish each zone without getting Harold hurt, but achieving a 3-star rank in each zone offers players with an additional Puff Power for the race – something that is incredibly useful.
Though the ability to practice parts of the course is handy, the courses themselves aren’t totally one-dimensional as there are numerous paths to be taken, and even hidden shortcuts that players must find for themselves. Taking these different paths is incredibly advantageous to the player, but they are also the most dangerous and often require multiple attempts to overcome. This less linear design allows the tracks to open up a lot more, and offer more unique experiences alongside the fresh zones.
In addition to the races and practice sessions, a challenge mode exists for each race that has the player trying to collect as many crystals as possible along the track in one attempt. To spice things up a little, Harold is constantly speeding ahead from a Puff Power shot, and it’s an instant ‘GAME OVER’ if he gets hurt even once. Though these challenges offer something new to experience aside from the main bulk of gameplay, I found them largely to be uninteresting and ridiculously difficult. A few attempts at each challenge and players will likely ignore them, while masochists will revel in their rage-inducing brutality. Despite being a memorable game, it’s hard to say if there’s much replayability to be found here at all. The visual quality/style and original idea more than make for a memorable experience, but the difficulty and pain suffered getting to completion was enough the first time over. Who knows, I might want to delve into the world of Harold 6 months from now, but there is certainly no immediate feelings to jump back in.
Harold is a very surprising and incredibly memorable experience, it’s just a shame that there is little to none replayability to be found here. Though the game does overcomplicate itself as it introduces more features and more complex perilous environments, the charm of its stunning visual presentation does lots to keep the player persisting with it until the very end. If you are after a fresh and original game, you can’t go much wrong here. Don’t let its lavish and vibrant visuals fool you however, as this game’s brutal difficulty can reduce a grown man to tears.
- Stunning hand-drawn visual style.
- A refreshing and fun concept.
- Captures the “just one more go” formulae.
- Each track offers something new.
- Becomes a little overcomplicated as you progress.
- Brutal difficulty and learning curve.
- Little replayability.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.