Comedy is very difficult to pull off in video games, primarily because comedy requires subtlety on the part of the programmers. It requires the right balance of absurdity and charm to pull off, and with an interactive experience, it also requires fluidity – the ability to hit the right beats through each stage and each moment within the gameplay itself. Moon Spider Studios’ Harold manages to combine both charming comedy and a refreshingly difficult platforming experience in a way that’s totally unique.
In Harold, you play as Gabriel, a talented student hoping to become a guardian angel and attending the prestigious Archangel Academy, and the only way to do this is to defeat his classmates in human racing competitions. While he is naturally gifted and never appears to struggle through any of his work, he is unfortunately bound to control (from a distance and through supernatural means) the non-athletic, hapless title character, Harold. Harold starts each race in last place, either through his own ineptitude, dumb luck, or treachery, and it’s up to Gabe to help him overcome his lack of athleticism to triumph his way to third place. Gabe gains guidance from many teachers, such as Professor Enoch, who shows him the basic mechanics and teaches him about fair play, and Raziel Malakh, Seraphiel’s father who teaches Gabe the darker side of competition and helps him proceed to the next level of competition. Raziel begins to take a liking to Gabe, angering Seraphiel and leading her to threaten Gabe’s success in the class.
Harold is never controlled directly; rather, the player manipulates the obstacles around him – moving platforms, cutting hanging vines, cranking bridges, slamming wooden walls, and hammering alligators. As you win races, you begin to gain new skills for defeating your enemies. For example, after Seraphiel cuts a coconut from a tree to hit Harold in the head, rendering him dizzy and unable to immediately start the race, Raziel Malakh shows Gabe the ability to interfere with your opponents. As the obstacles become more complicated or take more time to set up, you are also given the power to view the next scene in the race and prepare traps for oncoming opponents. You are also given “Puff Powers”, which act as both your health bar and as a means of “encouraging” Harold to compete harder… as in, electrocuting him so that he runs faster.
The complexity and difficulty of the gameplay is balanced nicely with the whimsical storyline and the commitment to providing fairness in each level. The announcer of the game delivers a performance of the wartime reel footage of the 1930s or the radio shows of the 1950s and provides a strong frame for the events of the game. The mechanics of the game create a distinct conflict for each race. For example, since Puff Powers act as both health and speed boost, the player has to be wise about when to expend speed and how much to save when the inevitable missed jump or spiky death occurs for Harold. The relative differences in speed of each racer create conflict as well. For example, suppose a fellow competitor is only a few paces ahead and a swinging vine appears in the race.
Depending on the context, Gabe can choose to interfere by cutting the rope with a chance that the rope won’t respawn in time for Harold to swing, or Gabe can allow the leader to move ahead if that vine is one step to moving to a faster path in the course, or Gabe can cut the rope and Harold can boost his speed with Puff Power to move ahead and snatch the rope before the competitor reaches it. This sort of difficulty is what makes this game a joy to play. Combined with interesting level design and special unlockable tasks, the game has a lot to offer.
I see so much delightful quirkiness and charm with a special style of play. Harold shows the market that comedy is still possible within gameplay. With style of animation and attitude being influenced by Disney and gameplay and consistency of pace similar to Lemmings, as well as low asking price of $20, Harold is definitely worth your attention. And if you don’t have a game pad, now is the perfect time to go out to your local retailer and pick one up, and enjoy having Harold as part of your Steam collection.