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It’s not uncommon for a middling game to be carried by its graphics. That won’t work for every game, of course, but there are plenty of titles out there that justify their existence with some particularly fine art. Harold is a special case, though, because it has one of the greatest gulfs between visual quality and gameplay quality I’ve ever seen. The graphics are truly remarkable, featuring animations that rival even TV and film, yet are used to bring to life an ill-conceived system that feels more like an indie experiment than a full offering. I almost wish the graphics could carry this one so I could enjoy more of them, but sadly the gameplay is about as fit as Harold himself.
You don’t play as Harold, mind you. You are Gabe, a hot-shot guardian angel-in-training that seems to breeze through every challenge put to him. That all ends when the forces that be decree that the angels must compete in a deadly race. Not directly, of course, but by guiding and protecting mortals who run the race through dark jungles and treacherous ruins. For this challenge, Gabe has been paired with Harold, perhaps the scrawniest, dippiest of the competitors. Regardless, if Gabe wants to pass the test and earn his wings, he’ll have to guide Harold safely past spike pits, crocodiles, and far worse things, and do it fast enough that the hapless human can rank in the top three.
All of this action is going to be presented in some of the brightest, most lushly-animated art you’ve ever seen in a video game. This is no joke, the hand-drawn animations for all the characters and traps are nothing short of incredible, every one of them silky-smooth and full of dynamic motion in the finest Tom & Jerry traditions. Harold competes with four other runners, each with a very different character conveyed entirely through their appearance and animations. The traps are no less impressive, with detailed water sprays, dust clouds, and shimmers. It’s a vibrant world being shown here, extending even to the many cutscenes that bookend the game’s races.
But the races are where the marvels end. Harold is a hands-off platformer, which is a genre that’s notoriousy tricky to get right. During each race, he’ll dink along at his own pace to the right, jogging haplessly into rope traps and spiked walls. All of the obstacles have interaction points that key off of different parts of your controller, like pushing left or right to move platforms or rotating the stick to lower a drawbridge. Before each race there’s an extended practice mode, where you have to pass each screen of the race by learning how the traps and timings work. This part of the game is a pretty fun puzzle challenge, honestly, because there are optional stars to collect and the short length of each section makes retrying painless. I’ve spent a decent amount of time scoring stars in this mode, which can require some careful timing and tricky button combinations.
The problem arises when you translate that into the actual races. Working out the trap puzzles one at a time is fun, but stringing them all together into a race turns it into an ordeal. Simply remember how exactly to pass each one can be difficult, given how tight some of the timing is and how the results of one trap can affect others. On top of that, there’s the pressure to actually place in the top three for each race, which requires collecting and strategically using boosts to pass the other races. Plus, there are additional interactions for sabotaging other racers, which is fun but massively distracts from getting Harold through tricky parts himself. All of this combines to make a big mess of gameplay that took me multiple tries just to pass the first race of a dozen.
Harold isn’t really a bad game, but it’s designed to appeal to an incredibly small and specific demographic of gamers. I’m sure there are people out there who are looking for puzzle challenges with tight, dynamic timing and near-perfect execution over long levels, and for them this is going to be the holy grail of games. I’m not one of those people though, and for my part I find it frustrating that the breathtaking art is spent on something that’s going to be tedious for almost everyone that tries it. I wish the gameplay was even half as good as the animations, but when it’s so hard to get anything fun or rewarding out of Harold, it’s no surprise that it’s going to finish last.