Just as actors may worry about being typecast, the same thing can happen to games developers too, from time to time. After all, if you're a creative type, the chances are there'll eventually come a time where you want to try your hand at something a little bit different. But few developers have been more typecast than the Japanese studio, Game Freak. After dabbling in a few different genres towards the beginning of their life, Game Freak stumbled upon a little idea called Pokemon - and the rest, as they say, is history. Following the immense success of Pokemon Red and Blue in 1996, Game Freak have been working diligently on almost nothing but Pokemon games ever since, with little chance to experiment in different genres or stretch those creative wings. Until now.
Set in the musical world of Melodia, HarmoKnight follows the tale of a young man called Tempo and his rabbit-y friend Tappy, as they investigate the origin of some strange meteorites that have crashed into their world and upset the local wildlife. When the princess of the nearby Symphony City is kidnapped by the evil alien Noizoids, it's up to Tempo and his friends to band together (I see what you did there - Ed), and send them back from whence they came, in what's essentially a musical platform game.
The regular levels see your character, Tempo, automatically running from left to right across the colourful, musically themed stages, collecting notes as he goes, in time with the tune playing in the background. But while Tempo automatically runs, he's too stupid to jump or whack things for himself - so this is where you come in. The goal here is to collect as many of these notes as you possibly can, by helping Tempo follow where the notes go. See a note in the air, and press a button, and you'll jump to collect it. Whether you're leaping over chasms, making the executive decision to switch to a higher platform, or whacking enemies out the way with the help of your legendary staff (which is essentially a giant purple quaver (of the musical variety, not the crisps)), the whole idea here is that your actions, and the decision you need to make, are in time with the music. Hit an enemy, or land a jump perfectly in time with the tune playing in the background, and you'll earn some bonus notes - if you manage to whack a drum, cymbal, or triangle flower as you wander past, you'll earn even more. The more notes you pick up in a stage, the better your rank at the end of the level (either a blue, silver or gold flower emblem on the map).
At the end of each group of levels you'll come across a mini-boss fight level on the map, represented by a purple spiky outline around the level on the map. These boss fights work slightly differently, although they're still rhythmically based – throwing a string of enemies and commands at you in a specific pattern, you'll have to memorise the button presses, and repeat them back, Simon Says style - jump, jump, left, whack. In a similar way to the regular levels, each enemy you hit earns you a musical note, which add up to give you a rank at the end.
From time to time, a slightly different sort of level will be thrown in to spice things up, too. Whether you're barrelling through a cave on a mine cart, or taking control of a different character - an archer called Lyra, who can fire arrows at targets as they scroll across the screen, or a hulking brute called Tyko and his monkey sidekick Cymbl, who attack enemies on two separate levels with rhythmic presses of the A and B buttons - things don't get deviate too far from the standard formula, although the variety is appreciated.
Every so often, you'll come to a group of meteorites blocking the road – which require a special Royal Note to remove. Unfortunately, you can only get these Royal Notes by doing rather well in a stage - which brings us to our first niggle. In order to open up more of the map (and more of the levels), you'll need to get a Royal Note from each of the levels, which requires you to have earnt at least a silver medal on each stage. If you haven't done well enough, you won't be able to progress through the game until you've managed to bump your score up high enough to earn a silver. And despite there being only a single Royal Note in each stage, there's no easy way to tell if you've got the one from that level or not from the menu – all it would have taken was a simple symbol or something.
But perhaps the biggest problem with HarmoKnight is that the music just isn't that good. The key to any music-based game is the quality of the songs you'll be playing along to - and it's the area where HarmoKnight is most sorely lacking. If you're expected to press buttons in time with a tune, the tune needs to be catchy enough that you'll remember the various sections, and be able to predict what's coming next. It's something Rhythm Paradise perfected on the Wii, and something HarmoKnight gets so horribly wrong. The tunes here are dull, samey, and not all that catchy at all. At times, it often sounds like you're playing along to nothing more than a beat and some occasional, quiet bleeps and bloops. While the bonus levels, which have you playing to tunes from the Pokemon series liven things up a bit, they still aren't up with the insanely catchy songs from the likes of Rhythm Paradise (which are now stuck in our head writing this review).
Sometimes the timings can seem a bit off too, something that's not helped by how tricky it is to find your footing again once you've lost your beat - as the tune's formed by you picking up notes and whacking enemies, if you miss too much, it's not always obvious how to get back into the groove again. Some enemies and objects are particularly unforgiving too, needing to be hit or dodged way earlier than you anticipate – and while Tempo may scoot through unscathed because you've at least pressed the button, if you don't get the timing spot on, you'll have missed the note.
However, the elephant in the room is the size of the price – weighing in at a whopping £12.99, HarmoKnight is amongst the eShop's most expensive games, but the price really isn't reflected in its quality. Were it released in the heyday of the Xbox Live Arcade, you get the impression it'd be 800 points (~£6.80). Perhaps Nintendo were hoping the Game Freak pedigree, and the addition of Pikachu's face would help shift it (it certainly worked with us and the Pikachu 3DS XL), but it's a price point that may well end up working against it, as people are naturally less willing to take a risk on something anomalously expensive - especially as the demo throws one of the harder boss fights of the game at you.
But HarmoKnight isn't a terrible game – it's just nowhere near as good as it should be. It's cute, colourful and fairly easy to pick up and play, but the lack of any memorable music robs it of the personality it really should have had. For a game which mostly revolves around tunes, that's not an insignificant problem, especially when you consider it's one of the most expensive downloadable games on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.