Harold Hands-on Preview -- Danger, Disney, and Divine InterventionBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Aug 21, 2012
It's impossible to sit in a room with Moonspider founder Loris Malek and without feeling his infectious enthusiasm for the debut title from his studio, Harold. The Unity-based game doesn't really fit into any one genre, but the DNA of games like Canabalt, Lemmings, and The Incredible Machine come through very clearly.
The game puts players in the ethereal shoes of Gabe, a guardian angel-in-training. Gabe is...well...kind of a jerk. He's one of those chronic overachievers, and a bit of a bully as well, so much so that his instructors take notice and decide to present the ego-driven guardian-to-be a proper challenge before he graduates and is sent off to help actual people.
The final test for any guardian angel is an elaborate obstacle course-like race. Potential graduates are each assigned to a human runner, and it's up to them to keep their charge safe while also making progress difficult for the other competitors. In Gabe's case, he'll need every edge he can get: his human is Harold, a wheezy, bespectacled, out-of-shape nerd stereotype who you just know has an inhaler or 10 tucked away in his running shorts.
You never actually take direct control of Harold on the screen, nor do you really get a glimpse of Gabe as the play unfolds. As each of the game's 12 races play out, all you see is Harold and his fellow competitors, and a variety of obstacles that can be manipulated with your controller.
Obstacles can be anything from swinging vines to movable platforms to jump pads and more. A ghostly white icon indicates how you can interact with various objects, sometimes to help Harold and sometime to hurt his opposition. The competitors run ever-forward in each level, so it's up to you to look ahead and shift the world around to make Harold's progress easier.
Since the other runners are always visible as well, you're also pulling platforms out from under them, cutting vines, and performing other nefarious deeds to ensure that Harold can take the lead. Don't fret about the cheating. Seriously. Harold needs all the help he can get.
You can also collect halos that double as a limited-use speed boost and Harold's life bar, since he can only survive a limited number of foul-ups before his race is over. Halo pickups are scattered liberally throughout each race, but there's still a push-and-pull relationship here: do you take the risk of spending your halos on a speed boost or do you keep them in the bank to protect you when Harold falls?
I tried out a couple of the game's 12 races, broken into three circuits of four that span jungle, desert, beach, and snow environments. The action moves very quickly, since the runners are always moving and there's no time dilation. At any time, you can jump ahead to look at and adjust the next obstacle, clearing a path for Harold or messing with anyone who happens to be in front of him.
After playing through each of the demoed races a couple of times, I managed to achieve a respectable third place showing for Harold. This is the benchmark you'll need to hit to progress through each race. A first-place finish requires a great deal of trial-and-error, forcing you to really learn the layouts of each map and be able to think two or three obstacles ahead.
I got to see what an experienced player can do to seal a first-place finish when Malek took over on the controller. Jumping ahead with dizzying speed and making fine adjustments to platforms at just the right times, he deftly cleared a path for Harold while tripping up the other competitors. As his successes mounted, the music changed dynamically, building to a cacophonous symphony by the end of each race.
Every course also hides a special and often not-so-obvious shortcut that you'll need to find in order to really clinch that first-place finish. Whenever you manage to guide Harold into a shortcut, you're rewarded with a humorous animated cutscene in which your human charge is shuffled ahead in the course through some chaotic and painful-looking chain of events.
The graphics are actually a standout feature in Harold, effectively imbuing the 2D design with a life of its own. The dev team set out to deliver the vibe of a classic Disney movie, and their efforts were a success. Harold is simply gorgeous in motion, with detailed environments and individual runners each imbued with a strong sense of personality.
Credit for the game's unique and immediately eye-catching look goes to the team of animators that Malek brought on at Moonspider. None of them have a background in games; they all bring experience from the world of animated TV and film instead. One even worked at both Disney Animation and Studio Ghibli. The team's background is definitely evident in the visual execution.
Harold will be coming to consoles and Steam, though you shouldn't completely rule out the possibility of additional platforms down the road. Harold was originally conceived as a Nintendo DS game, so thought has already gone into how the game could work on a touch screen device. Malek isn't ready to talk about what could be coming down the road for Harold, but the current console/PC destination suits it well.
Look for Harold sometime in spring 2013, and be sure to check it out if you plan to attend PAX Prime 2012 at the end of August.