Beautiful, but frustrating.
In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of difficult games. Indies like Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Don’t Starve, Super Meat Boy,The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, and even a couple of AAA titles like the Dark Souls series, games that harken back to those ’90s days when we didn’t have checkpoints, autosaves, or any way to save one’s game.
As a masochist fan of difficult games, this trip down Nostalgia Way has been a boon. In the days of games with opening sequences that train the player how to play — Yes, I already know that moving the right thumbstick will let me look around while the left one moves the character! — a game that uses the arguably questionable parenting technique of just throwing the kid in the deep end of the pool is quite refreshing. Sure, you’ll get beat to hell and you might feel like throwing your controller at the bedroom wall in pure frustration. But hey, it’s all in good fun. Sadly, this just isn’t the case for Moon Spider Studio’s first game, Harold. Oh, how I wish it were…
In Harold, you play a guardian angel-in-training, Gabe, who needs to complete his final exams before becoming a full-fledged guardian angel. For his exams, which involve a series of races through obstacle courses, you are chosen to help the gangly, accident-prone human doofus, Harold. You’ll need to make it through a series of obstacle courses relatively unscathed (and in the top three). Essentially, you get the only human unqualified for any kind of physical activity, let alone a series of dangerous obstacle courses. As his guardian angel, you must manipulate the environment, helping Harold reach the finish line while also holding back the other racers.
In the style of games like BIT.TRIP RUNNER, Harold is always on the move. All you can do as his guardian angel is make him jump and manipulate certain obstacles in the environment to make sure that Harold does not fall or get stopped. As you go through the courses, you gain “wing rings” which give you a “Puff Power” for every two collected. You can also gain a “Puff Power” by interfering with another racer, causing them to fall or temporarily injure themselves. These “Puff Powers” can be used to speed Harold up by shocking him with lightning (gotta love cartoon logic) or as forgiveness for Harold falling into a trap. If Harold is injured without any “Puff Powers”, game over and you’ll need to restart. You can only have up to three “Puff Powers” at a time, but you earn the ability to have four in a level by collecting all the stars in that levels Practice mode.
The first thing you will immediately notice about Harold is the visuals. The art style in the game is inspired by the hand-drawn Disney animated films of the 1990s. In fact, the design team includes members from such films as The Lion King, Princess Mononoke, and The Iron Giant and you can certainly tell because the game looks beautiful. Harold definitely shows the power of the Unity Engine and the hand-drawn textures make you wish this was getting an animated feature release alongside.
The story is cute, but seems a bit tacked-on. Gabe is a guardian angel who is smart as a whip, but has a rival in the rich girl whose daddy is a legacy graduate. While being the best, Gabe receives the worst in Harold and must figure out a way to succeed even with such diminished chances. The nice guy has to overcome obstacles when against the odds and a rich opponent. It’s like The Karate Kid, or Better Off Dead…you get the picture. You can tell it was a story written by animators and game designers to fit their gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, the gameplay mechanics is where Harold begins to lose you.
Harold‘s folly is in its gameplay. Mainly, the game chooses to work against you much of the time. First off, you must complete the Practice mode for each level before you get to race. I understand the first one being forced on the player, but forcing one to practice through every level before every race is unnecessary. Since the Practice mode has its own benefits to completion — you can earn a fourth “Puff Power” slot and learn all the secret passageways — that should give the player enough incentive to use the Practice mode. But forcing it becomes a frustrating, and often useless, exercise.
While you are able to learn how to get to the secret passageways, you are unable to play through them in Practice mode. So once you get into a secret passageway in a race, the game leads you to an area you have not practiced, making the entire action moot. What was the point of forcing a practice mode if it does not actually give the player any practice?
Then, when you make it to Race mode, you are treated to an opening cutscene in which Harold does something dumb, causing him to get a late start. Just in case you missed that, you get a late start to every single race in the game, without fail. A good game creates difficulty through obstacles for the player to overcome in an effort to halt progress. Harold simply starts you in the worst possible position every time. It’s like letting everyone else go around the board in a game of Monopoly once, then letting you roll the dice the for first time. I’m all for adding difficulty to the game, but putting up the same road block every time is transparent, uninspired, and just plain frustrating.
Then, we reach the point of going through a race. You use a gamepad (I used the typical Xbox 360 gamepad) to execute the “Puff Power” jolts, make Harold jump, and manipulate obstacles. You use the L and R triggers to switch between the obstacles on-screen. But as you progress, more and more obstacles need to be manipulated within a short amount of time for Harold to make his way across.
Many times, there are obstacles that you simply need not move because they are not in your area. A perfect example of this is anytime you are in a secret passageway. Though you are in a new passageway, the game highlights the first obstacle in the main passageway. Since the secret passageways tend to be faster than main ones, you are forced to quickly switch to the obstacle that you need to move before it harms or stops Harold. But, since you were not able to play this passageway in the Practice mode, you have no clue which is the fastest way to get the triggers to move to the obstacle which you need to manipulate. So, more often than not, you mess up, lose a “Puff Power”, and are sent back to the main passage. What’s worse: there are no checkpoints. When you screw up and have no “Puff Powers” left, you need to restart.
Harold simply belongs on a mobile platform. Unlike the BIT.TRIP RUNNER games where the player controls character movement in a non-stop platform runner, you control the environment in Harold and a gamepad is just not the way to best control it. I even tried unplugging my gamepad and just using the mouse, but the gamepad is required. This is a game that yearns for a touchscreen interface. Harold is a mobile game unknowingly tied to a PC platform, requiring a console controller. It is also a race game that has you interfere with the progress of other racers and Moon Spider Studio did not think to add competitive multiplayer. It appears Harold has an issue with self-identity.
As a ’90s kid who grew up on platformers and cartoons, I hoped Harold would be a great first release from Moon Spider Studio. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad and is definitely a worthwhile effort. I actually look a great deal forward to the team’s next game. Unfortunately, Harold is a beautiful game that just seems uncomfortable in its own skin.
Disclaimer: Steam review code provided by Moon Spider Studio through Sandbox Strategies.