Gamersyde Preview: Harold
Harold, not a name that will tell you much for now, and yet, this game might turn out to be one of the greatest downloadable titles of 2013. You know us here at Gamersyde, we like great ideas and there is no denying that the independent scene is probably the best place to find some these days. So, when we were offered a hands-on preview in Olivier Derivière's studio, it was impossible to say no to such an opportunity. That's not all though, since Loris Malek, president of Moon Spider accepted to give us an exclusive interview over the phone. We are currently working on a written version of it so you can learn more about his ongoing project. For now, it is time to discover our very first impressions on a game people will be talking about quite a lot in the next six months.
Gabe knew well
It's a tricky article to write—how not to let my enthusiasm for the game ruin your expectations for the game while at the same time keep this preview what it's meant to be, a preview. This is really a double-edged kind of excitement, as it can also lead to the biggest disappointment. First, by simply finishing the race, then by giving a shot at reaching the podium, it definitely means something is exciting is going on—this game manages to captivate your attention in just a few second while at the same time make you want to improve yourself. I have a lot to tell you about this game, so make yourself comfortable, keep an open mind if you don't usually pay attention to downloadable games, and let's start with the beginning, shall we?
It may be surprising to you, but there is an actual story in Harold, a story focused, not on that strange four-eyed nerd, but on his guardian angel, Gabe. Because that's who you will become, a young apprentice who happens to be very gifted in his school. So gifted that his classmates and teachers are not particularly fond of him. Well, it is true that he can be a bit annoying since he does not really work much to be so good. After all, what's the point when success comes before work? But when the day of the final exam comes, the main character suddenly realizes it might not be so easy to become a guardian angel officially. Why? Mainly because it consists in assisting a human being during 12 races and Gabe's luck runs short when he picks Harold, the least talented of the bunch. The red-haired runner still has something up the sleeve of his vest, he can run faster than anyone else. A pretty simple pitch for sure, but the story will be told though 2D cut-scenes very reminiscent of Disney and Ghibli, with all the humor you'd expect from a cartoon, and from what I have seen it all works well.
Never run faster than your guardian angel can fly
It's all very nice to know there actually is a story behind Harold, but I think it's high time I give you some explanations regarding gameplay. I reckon watching the first official video did not particularly help you understand what was really going on. After getting a chance to play it myself, it has become clear to me that Harold is a game that is better played than watched. The kind of title which is hard to let go of once you've got the hang of it really. I don't believe you can truly understand all its potential without trying it for oneself. The two small tutorials I started with led me to think that things would go pretty smoothly for me: the A button makes Harold jump instantaneously while the combination of LB and RB allows for a short boost. Of course, before you can use the turbo, you first need to collect enough wing rings, two of them being necessary to be able to strike Harold with a lightning bolt in order for him to accelerate. But things get even more subtle, as these wing rings also serve as your life meter. "Why would there be a need for a life meter?" you will ask. Well, basically because the races are full of different obstacles, making them your first opponents.
The road to the finish line is paved with a good number of traps and ordeals, so you'll see the game over screen a lot. Every time Harold falls into a pit, crashes into a wall or gets eaten by a crocodile, you lose two precious wing rings. As long as you still have wing rings in store, you can keep going and try to finish the race, hence the necessity to choose the right path to collect as many of them as possible. Because the wing rings are indispensable to victory (without them you can't boost and without boost you can't win), there is a whole tactical dimension to the races. You are always tempted to take risks by using your wing rings, but going faster makes the passing of obstacles trickier obviously. Your reflexes will be put to the test like rarely before, especially if you want to win. As a guardian angel, your role is to help Harold pass all the obstacles in his way by interacting with them. Whether it's a handle to turn with the left thumbstick, a platform to move, or a bridge to lift up, you will always be very busy. The game is even more fun because almost each action takes a specific command to input: say you want to cut a rope with a pair of scissors, you'll have to quickly go left-right back and forth until it's done. Another example, if you wish to knock out a crocodile, you will need to move the hammer down. The two triggers allow to choose which obstacle you want to interact with when there are several on screen, while the left thumbstick activates them.
Lord of the Rings
On paper, everything seems simple enough, or so I believed, but once the real action begins, things get pretty hectic right away. The simple fact that interacting with the obstacles does not only require the press of a button forces the player to think and act very fast, to be skillful and above all to never let the flow overwhelm him. It may look easy, but making circles with the left stick fast enough before moving a platform up in time for Harold not to fall to his death after a jump, cutting the rope coming next so you gain a little time over your opponents, all this right while using the boost, this is exactly the kind of situation in which you must keep a cool head in order to succeed. You are going to learn to do several things at a time at such a speed that the people watching you will probably have a hard time to follow. Thankfully, you can teleport to the next obstacle to prepare it for Harold, all you need to do is press B. However, once again, training will be necessary in order to use it efficiently. Indeed, when left alone, Harold keeps running, closing in on you as you're trying to take the right decisions. Needless to say that watching Olivier Derivière play made me wonder if I could ever play the game correctly.
But that's not all! Helping Harold also means you must do your best to give a hard time to his fellow racers, which means obstacles can and must be used against them to stall them as much as needed for your runner to pass them. If you manage to kill them (for just a short moment though), it grants you one wing ring, which is all the motivation you need to meddle with them. Now you can easily imagine that doing so requires you to act very fast, to never let your guard down and to keep a close eye (or ear as we will see later) on Harold. The B button comes in handy in such situations as going to the next obstacle allow you to trick the runner who happens to be ahead of you. Just make sure everything is in place when your protégé arrives or it might just be another game over for you. Taking risks is always rewarding in the game, which is why Moon Spider chose to include a shortcut in each of the 12 races, a secret passageway which will take you a bit further down the track, provided you manage to avoid the traps set there (see video below). Moreover, the races are built so that there always are different possible itineraries, all of them being more or less the same length in most cases. Their presence is a way to let you choose what type of obstacle you will deal with, though sometimes, they can also be timesaving.
Welcome to the Jungle
Playing Harold is quite a unique experience I must say. To tell you the truth, before trying the game, I had a hard time believing it was supposed to take between 6 to 10 hours to complete (depending on whether or not you want to finish first or you're content with the third place). I mean, how could it possibly be this long to finish with races that are supposed to last around a minute or so? When I sat down with a controller in my hands, I was pretty confident, even more as I had watched the gameplay video so I figured I knew the level well enough to blow my host's mind away. Little did I know that Harold would first want to teach me a lesson of humility. It's not that I wasn't playing well at all, it's just that the qualifying third place absolutely wanted to play hard to get. As a result, it took me a while to finally pass the finish line in the third position, more than 20 seconds behind the winner! Failing almost became my motto at some point, but it never got frustrating at all. Much like in RedLynx's famous title, the game can never be blamed when you miss, which makes you want to give it another try until it you finally nail it. Much like in Trials, not everyone will be good enough to get the gold.
By the time I could play one of the jungle races, it had occurred to me that the game was challengingly addictive and that I would need time in order to reach the proper level of mastering. I mean, Olivier Derivière demoed me the whole - crazy - jungle race, so I saw what to expect before even trying myself. But then, even after more than 30 attempts, I could never manage to go past the first half of the race without dying. The combination of obstacles was so hard that I realized that it was the kind of game in which players would just love to go on and on until they beat their own record, and then their friends'. I would probably have continued to play all night long if I had not been polite enough to let Olivier Derevière go home after two hours spent with him. But the worst was to come, when the next morning, I woke up knowing I could not keep playing the game for myself, that I would have to wait to try the two other tracks I got to see briefly. That's how I know that very few will be able to resist Harold, its bounding charm and its addictive gameplay. To think that the build presented was just alpha.
Ask for the Moon Spider
Even though we haven't seen much of the game yet, you have all noticed that a lot of effort has been put into the animations and the graphics, which use a subtle combination of 3D (for the characters for example) and 2D (for special effects, among other things). The press release did not fail to mention the résumé of some of the talented team members, forgetting to add that the studio is only composed of 10 people. Harold being their very first project, you cannot expect it to benefit from the same budget as, say, Rayman Origins, with which it is often compared. They have almost nothing in common though, despite what some will consider a similar design. Without undermining the work Ubisoft achieved on Rayman - which is an amazing game -, the animations in Harold are way more impressive, reminding a lot of the old Disney movies. The environments have the same attention to details, with an impression of depth in the background made possible with the numerous layers of parallax scrolling. But the thing is that the game's graphics and animations are all part of game design as they help you accept your own failures. Seeing Harold crash into a wall is always a lot of fun, discovering something in the landscape you had not paid attention to is also a treat, so in the end all is but order and beauty, luxury, quiet and delight.
Also completely part of the game's universe and game design is the soundtrack and the amazing tracks which have been composed for the different environments. The first thing to know to understand how far Olivier Derivière went to inlcude the music into gameplay itself, is that he created a completely interactive soundtrack, something you will say we have gotten used to for a few years. After all, it has become normal to hear a different music track when entering fight mode in an action/adventure game, and then to hear it fade away when combat is over. So what's the big deal then? What I find really impressive in Harold is the fact that it is so well done that you could believe that the soundtrack is not interactive at all. Yet, when you play the game, you become a real conductor, Derivière making you responsible for the pace and tone of the music. For example, the first attempt at a race is usually pretty cautious, so you don't go very fast for fear of losing too soon. In such a case, the drums of the jungle stay really quiet, almost barely noticeable. Pass an opponent and the gospel choir starts to encourage you, cheering and chanting louder and louder. Now if you crash into a wall, everything suddenly stops, to start again the second you're back on your feet, but all quietly again.
But there is more! The more opponents you pass, the more music there is, as if a cheering crowd was supporting your every step. It may sound a bit exaggerated but to hear that is so galvanizing that you really feel that playing well is rewarded through music. It is even likely that some players will never hear some of the chants because they are just not good enough. To give you an idea, I felt the same kind of emotional intensity as in this passage of the Lion King. It's not that Harold's soundtrack sounds the same, as it clearly doesn't, but there is no denying that the use of a gospel choir gives the race a new dimension. I am pretty sure some players will be as concentrated and hypnotized as those who discovered the first two Wipeout games on Playstation more than 15 years ago. Last but not least, every time you teleport to the next obstacle, leaving Harold on his own, the music stays with him. Therefore, you hear it as if it is muffled, in the distance. "What's the point?" you might wonder. Quite simply to give you some feedback so you always know how close Harold is to be prepared. Again, you may think it's just a gimmick, but it works very well.
You must have gotten it by now, Harold is one of those games we really hope will get the success it deserves when it's released. Here at Gamersyde, we want to believe in the project and we will be keeping a close eye on the game in the next six months of development to confirm our good impressions. If you think it's a simple mix between Sleepwalker or Lemmings, if you see in Harold a mere copy of Lucidity, you are mistaken. Sure there are a few similarities, but none of the aforementioned titles possesses the same sense of pace and craziness as Moon Spider's game. Plus, how many games out there give you an entire gospel choir to support your performance? Maybe we are a bit overly enthusiastic, maybe we should tone it down a notch so you don't get too disappointed when you play the game yourself. But in the end, we've decided to follow our instinct, because as we say, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, and we're pretty much sure reason will be fine with it however things turn out.
About the game
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