Version Tested: PC
Other Versions: N/A
Developer: Moon Spider Studios
Publisher: Moon Spider Studios
Harold, developed and published by Moon Spider Studios, does a lot of things very well. It has a beautiful art style, reminiscent of classic Disney films or the games of Don Bluth. The music is a high point, dynamically shifting in volume and intensity as you string together a series of well-executed maneuvers or as you bungle your way through the level. And the story, which is admittedly bizarre, is presented in a very interesting style and does a good job of investing you into the game. A few different design choices prevent Harold from becoming a must-buy, but there are many worse ways to spend your time and money than giving this one a go.
In Harold, you play the role of an angel-in-training named Gabe. You are the star pupil at the prestigious Guardian School and are working towards your graduation. Your final task before finishing your education is to act as a guardian angel for the titular Harold as he runs through a series of races. Your goal is to manipulate the environment in such a way that helps the stereotypical geek defeat his equally stereotypical rivals, who are similarly being manipulated by your rival angelic students. Take at least third place in every race against the fat guy, the military guy, the pretty girl, the disco guy, and the jock, and Gabe will complete his education and become a full-blown angel, just like how it works in the Bible.
Even though Harold does not fly along at the brisk pace of most racing games, it still requires lightning quick decisions and twitch reaction speed. Before each race, you will get to practice each obstacle that you will encounter during the race and get a chance to plan your strategy. Then, for each race, the screens you went through in practice mode are placed side by side and you need to move through each of them in turn without stopping to catch your breath. The pacing feels odd for a racing game; even when you throw a lightning bolt at Harold to “encourage” him to move a little faster, the game never reaches a breakneck speed. Do not let this fool you. Harold may look like a game for the casual gamer, but it is very difficult to string together a perfect run and hoist the first place trophy in each race.
For a game that does such a great job in the design department, it amazes me that Harold suffers so much from “I’ve seen that before” syndrome. All of the background story and cutscenes create an interesting and unique world that we rarely see in video games, but the gameplay itself suffers from serious overuse of stereotypes. I already mentioned the usual suspect characters that run the races, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Gabe, the protagonist, is guided through his journey by the wizened teacher with the huge beard and thick glasses. His rival, Sera, is a rage-filled little girl who can never impress her father. Speaking of, as far as I can tell, her father is Lucius Malfoy. Even the races themselves could have used some of the tongue-in-cheek silliness that the story provides, but instead you find yourself guiding Harold through familiar vistas like the jungle, the arctic, the beach, and the desert.
The other issue that plagues Harold is one of some bizarre difficulties with the way you control things. It is difficult to describe, but it often feels like you are at war with the controls. Essentially, in every race, you move from screen to screen and, in real time, solve the puzzle of how to most quickly advance Harold through while slowing down his rivals. Games like Bit-Trip Runner or Speedrunners (to stick to similar style of game) have an amazingly tight control scheme that allows the game to maintain a fast pace. Rarely in those games do you feel like you did the right thing and the on-screen action failed to respond to you. The control scheme in Harold felt unintuitive and clunky, and, even with the relatively pedestrian pace at which characters move, I frequently struggled to execute routine combinations like dropping a drawbridge followed by cutting a rope. I found myself desperately wishing I could click on objects to manipulate them, but the game unfortunately only supports gamepad control.
It sounds like I really did not enjoy my time with Harold, but that is not the case. I found myself frustrated with it because it was so close to being a really great game. The art and music stylings are top-notch, and the universe it created is compelling and unique. Levels are full of alternate routes, and they encourage exploration and trial-and-error. The cutscenes are funny and great to look at, specifically when you find each level’s shortcut and get to witness what goofy ways Harold gets to move ahead in the race. These can range from a team of monkeys flinging Harold through the treetops (complete with Harold contorting his body to fit through shapes in the foliage) to Harold being used as a volleyball in a match between mermaids and dolphins. There is a great sense of accomplishment when you figure out your ideal route and combine that strategy with actually executing the perfect run. If you are a completionist, there is more than enough content for you to get your money’s worth from Harold.
In short, Harold is a stylish game that unfortunately gets mired in a few odd design choices. It is beautiful to look at, the music is fantastic, and the interesting premise sucks you in and holds your interest. However, control issues, frustrating stretches of gameplay, and some clichéd story elements keep Harold from being a must-purchase game. It is a solid freshman effort from Moon Spider Studios, and I look forward to seeing what they can do in the future.