Think about some of the hardest games you've ever played. Go ahead. I'll wait. Guaranteed at least a considerable portion of those games must have come from your childhood days, on consoles long forgotten.
When I think back to the games I've found most difficult, I remember how, with time and practice, they seemed to morph into an entirely different experience than how they started out. A player's mastery brings out the game's innermost qualities. You never truly get a handle on how a game runs until you lock down your skills.
Harold, a newly announced downloadable game coming to consoles and PC next year, carries itself similarly. When I first laid my hands on the part 2D, part 3D olympic race game, it was like I was shell shocked. Mouth probably slightly agape, I had to concentrate hard to remember each move, and remember how quickly I could perform them.
Let's back up.
Harold is a game where you control a God, or a would-be God. You're a guardian angel apprentice. Before you can go off to university, you have to earn your diploma by helping a human succeed in a race taking place on Earth. Fortunately for you, you got stuck with the scrappiest of the bunch. A lanky little thing who looks horribly confused every time you see him. Poor bastard.
Your job is to guide him to victory on paths that occasionally diverge to alternate routes. Within four worlds -- each containing three levels -- the protagonist angel Gabe will watch over Harold, moving bridges and platforms, giving the human motivational boosts (read: shocks of lightning), and even screwing with the other racers. There is a good chunk of guardian angel skills to remember. As you approach movable objects, a helpful icon tells you what you can do with it.
I played my first few races slowly. I'd wait for Harold to approach a bridge before rotating a wheel to bring it down for him. But when creator/CEO of developer Moonspider Studio, Loris Malek, took the helm, I noticed how much of an amateur I was playing this game.
He zipped through the level. Every individual second he played looked more frantic than my entire race. He was setting up bridges for Harold, and then skipping ahead to cut a swinging rope from the hands of a competitor. All of a sudden this game had the pace and feel (and, incidentally, the same colourful, cartoony look) of a game like Rayman.
Loris passed the controller my way again, and I felt a new sense of determination. Surely I could be as quick on my fingers as he was. I'm a gamer, after all. I only need a few rounds with any game to get the hang of it, right? A couple thousand trial and errors later, I realised my reaction time was still stunted. It turns out it's incredibly hard to juggle tasks, having Harold jump over hazards while using my guardian angel abilities to manipulate the environment around him to ensure his success. I'd forget about the turbo boost, or I'd forget to jump right after a slide. I'd forget that there was a secret passageway at the next fork, or I'd forget that I could move a platform away from a competitor to watch him fall to his death. Dammit! There are too many things going on to keep track of!
But, my lack of skill notwithstanding, getting a better grasp of this game is clearly doable. Surviving each race time and time again will ingrain the memory of the map in your head. Your fingers will pop in reaction based on instinct rather than on the speed with which you can read the UI signals. The playfield will be your playground rather than your obstacle course. I've yet to get to that level of mastery, though. I think I'd need more than just a couple rounds.
I thought about Rock Band and how you can practice some songs on a slowed down rate, even focusing on certain trickier sections of a track. It's even a somewhat similar concept of hitting buttons at the right time, but Harold lets you skip ahead. So while a game like Rock Band will have you repeating tracks and practicing for perfection, a game like Harold does basically the same. You'll redo races to rhythmically hit every motion to perfection. And when you're finally not busy trying to get a good handle on the game, you'll discover how to really get the game going.
That was my main takeaway from the game, but there are a bunch of other details that I don't want you to miss out on. So let's dive in to some bullet points.
- Of the four worlds available, I tried two: the desert and the jungle. Each world has obstacles catered to that theme. So, for instance, while I unblurred mirages in the desert, I bonked the heads of feisty crocodiles in the jungle. The other two worlds are the beach and the arctic.
- The music is interactive. That means that as you speed through the race successfully, the choir will build and build. Moonspider Studios recorded a gospel choir consisting of 31 singers to prepare for this game.
- There are three forms of cinematics in the game. The main story arc focusing on angel Gabe, start cinematics that portray the fumbling Harold, and cinematic cut scenes for the super-duper secret shortcuts.
- The art, as I mentioned, is a mix of 2D and 3D. What does that mean? It means that some of the assets are a mix of 2D art and 3D art, but the animation is all done in 2D style. It gives the characters a nice, elastic looking stretch when they run or plop into walls or get bonked on the head. So while the crocodile himself is in 3D, his animations of jumping out of the water and landing on his belly are in 2D.
- The game was originally imagined for the Nintendo DS. But Loris Malek soon realised that the project would be more commercially successful on consoles and PC. He was initially worried that the controls would not be as intuitive -- being that the stylus makes specific motions accessible -- but was happy to find that you could zip between commands much quicker with a controller.
- Every level has different paths. None are particularly faster than the other. It really depends on your play style and level of comfort with each one. There are, however, actual shortcuts that can make the difference between second and first place.
- The development team is largely made up of ex-animators from top studios like Disney and Pixar. Loris wanted to focus on creating fantastic animation, something which he believes is often remiss in video games. He wants to change that.
- Gabe is the laziest angel there is. Maybe this olympic race will change him.