Two years after our initial encounter with Harold and his creator, we were finally able to get our hands on the final game, which is scheduled for release tomorrow on Steam. Following our two, hopefully communicative, livestreams we're ready to deliver our verdict on this incredibly playful, new style of game. As usual we've included some videos in the article but we strongly advise you to start by viewing our replay (in English) to get a better understanding of how the game works and how it ties into classic cartoons and games of yesteryear.
Explaining the core concepts of Harold isn't easy despite a seemingly simplistic base. As Loris explained, everything stems from the concept of messing with standard platformer game tropes and the way people tackle such games. For years players have manipulated characters across platforms so why not instead allow them to take control of the stages instead? By reversing the relationship players have with the screen, Harold manages to deliver a unique experience that forces us to unlearn that which we've assimilated over the last 30 years. That's it. Take heed, though, with the advent of mobile gaming it might be easy to dismiss Harold as yet another me-too infinite runner game adapted to the PC and deprived of its tactile dimension - but it's far from that. The first thing Moon Spider wants players to understand is that this game is designed as the antithesis of smartphone games - this is not a casual, watered down experience. It's clear that Loris and his team, from the start, designed this game with experienced players in mind - those focused on the drive towards high scores and furious controller input (the game is not playable via keyboard). These are the elements that will make or break the game. It's a risky bet, especially on PC where the indie space is crowded, but Harold is giving it a proper shot nonetheless.
Rather than playing as the rather clumsy Harold, you find yourself in the role of guardian angel. Your goal? Help Harold reach at least third place on the podium. To do this you interact with Harold by, well, blowing him up with your trusty thunderbolt. Simply hitting the proper button combo carefully encourages Harold to pick up the pace. Using these power ups, however, requires players to collect enough rings or, perhaps more interestingly, toying with opponents and forcing them to fail. This is where another key element of the gameplay comes into play; environment interaction. As you run forward a number of hazards and obstacles will stand in your way and, using the gamepad, the player must interact with these elements using the appropriate actions. This isn't simply a matter of pressing the "A" button, rather, you must actually duplicate an appropriate motion for each obstacle. See a pair of scissors? Quickly slam the joystick in a rapid left-right motion. Want to turn a crank? Spin the analog stick as if you were turning said crank. It's in this concept that much of the rather brilliant challenge lies - the player must juggle a huge collection of actions without ever losing sight of Harold who tirelessly pushes forward not unlike one of the famous Lemmings.
So it's a bit of balancing act that you'll be engaging in as you blast through each of the twelve available races. This may seem a bit thin on the surface, but you'll become rather intimate with each of them as you spend a serious amount of time mastering them. These courses really aren't very long clocking in at just around one minute a piece but, not unlike a classic NES game of old, you'll need to learn each and every nuance in order to truly succeed. Just reaching first place in the initial three races took us a whopping three hours! Crucially, Moon Spider has managed to balance the game in such a way that players never feel unjustly punished. Failures come fast and often but, in every case, the problem lies with the player not the game. You won't walk away feeling as if you've been cheated. So, as with any great racing or platform game, we study the best path through the stage and learn how to execute. Hitting the top spot on the leaderboards will require serious memorization yet, despite this, an element of improvisation still shines through. You'll find new ways to reduce your time as you play and replay each stage.
There's also a bit of a challenge/training mode here. What's interesting about this challenge mode is that it actually breaks down each obstacle into a smaller, bite-sized challenge that allows players to sample each obstacle on its own. Not only does it help you learn the game but it offers its own ranking system, in the form of collecting three stars that makes mastering each piece fun on its own. Mastering these challenges also rewards players with an additional lightning power-up usable during the races. Also interesting is the fact that these stars begin to fade once the challenge begins forcing players to push themselves to operate at maximum speed. It’s an interesting idea that helps players acclimate to each type of challenge though we were quick to realize that mastering challenges does not guarantee victory in an actual race. As a result, you'll have to retry each race many times if you want to improve your performance and shine in the leaderboards. That's why the game's replayability is so huge for anyone who's motivated enough to perfect each event.
We’ve spent hours on the game already and have yet to meet our old nemesis frustration or fatigue. Well folks, that’s not all – just reaching the podium doesn’t mean you’ve unlocked everything there is to see in each race. Hidden within each map is a special secret shortcut. In addition to gaining a bit of extra time these shortcuts actually very seamlessly cut to a beautiful 2D animated sequence that depicts Harold in all sorts of bizarre situations. Very clever. There’s also another feature introduced later in the game in the form of “foresight” which makes it possible to look ahead down the race track and prepare objects before Harold arrives. Once you hit “B” the camera jumps ahead, while the music remains centered on the continually running Harold, and you can adjust any of the obstacles ahead of time. The music is used to indicate Harold’s location as it fades back in the closer he is to your current screen which is a clever way to give players his location information, we thought. Once you’ve manipulated the environment you can tap “X” at any point to return to your helpless runner.
As if that wasn’t already enough to keep us going, Loris and his team decided to up the difficulty a notch in challenge mode as we demonstrated on the livestream. This time, more than any other opponents or times, the goal is to complete the course in one life by collecting maximum (now blue) stars. In this mode Harold is stuck in “turbo” mode and stars are re-arranged. Mastering this will definitely require some serious work, no doubt, and should keep you playing this small indie game. The 10-person team at Moon Spider has clearly put a lot of love and care into the game on all fronts. Aside from its incredibly well realized gameplay mechanics Harold is strikingly beautiful with a nice marriage between 2D and 3D that left us beaming. It’s clear that these guys have some real talent and we’ll definitely keep an eye on their future projects.
We can’t finish this review without noting the remarkable soundtrack and sound effects work with music composed by Olivier Deriviere. If you don’t recognize the name, he has worked on a number of other recent projects including Obscure, Alone in the Dark, Of Orcs and Men, Freedom Cry for ACIV Black Flag, and Remember Me. In collaborating with Moon Spider, Olivier has managed to craft a soundtrack completely befitting the crazy world of Harold with a mix of gospel choirs and other strangely ethnic musical concepts. The music is not only extremely catchy but implemented into the gameplay mechanics themselves. When Harold first begins a race simple drums and beats follow the action, but as you start passing competitors, the music swells and grows in time with your mini-victories. This element really helps to keep the player engaged and pushing forward. When it comes to any high speed game music is critical and its given proper attention in Harold. Keeping the flow of the music is as important as keeping Harold alive in this game.
As much as we love it, we can at least admit that Harold isn’t necessarily for everyone. Loris said himself that each person’s tolerance for failure varies quite a bit so it’s difficult to say whether or not everyone can deal with the game's challenges. That said, we don’t especially enjoy indie games focused solely on difficult platforming, but in the case of Harold, we just couldn’t put it down. What is certain is that, for 15 Euro, you’ll never feel robbed by the game or the developers, who are truly committed to pleasing players. Visually stunning, musically brilliant, Gamersyde strongly advise you to jump on this one rather than waiting for the “inevitable Steam sale in a few months”. We can’t wait to see what this ten person team can accomplish in the future and we’ll be eagerly awaiting their next projects whatever they may be. In the meantime, we’re heading back to the races.