Harold is deceptively wacky. The racing-platformer from indie start-up Moonspider Studios carries a sense of humor reminiscent of the frenetic pacing of old Looney Tunes cartoons, but the game itself is complex enough to invite serious play. After some hands-on time at PAX 2012, Harold won me over.
The game stars a skinny, accident-prone runner. The player doesn't assume the title role, but rather a cocky, overachieving guardian angel student on the cusp of his final exam. The final exam is, of course, to help win a race, and your angel randomly picks a gangly idiot named Harold.
I took a short trip through the tutorials, learning how to influence both Harold's actions and the various environmental puzzles to help his run and sabotage the others. Then it was off to the races, and I played through one race complete with the pratfalls that come from learning a new game. To take full advantage of a stage, I would need to learn the course better and plan exactly when to trigger platforms, dashes, and traps. I could use foresight to look ahead briefly and set elements in motion, but the race action doesn't stop in the meantime.
In fact, nothing stops the action, at least not for very long. Moonspider CEO Loris Malek showed me a much more skilled run through of two stages, and it was a constant juggling act between managing dashes, protecting Harold, and springing traps on everyone else. Sometimes the difference between a helpful platform and a trap is the slightest of movements.
Each stage has a short introductory cutscene and a heavy shortcut, each of which are delivered with quick cuts and over in a matter of seconds. "The goal was to have no stop in the rhythm of the game, so I wanted to have this very speed-game feel, even in the cinematics," Malek said.
Malek talks about his studio's debut game with a fast, excitable energy, and it's easy to see where Harold gets its pacing. The game has been in his head for years, and even started out on the DS, but has now transitioned to PC and consoles using the Unity engine.
To complete the game, you'll only need to finish in third place on each stage. But to reach first, you'll need to exploit every tool and find every shortcut. Malek finished in second place in one of the harder stages, after an impressive run.
It's impossible not to address Harold's standout feature, and one that has grabbed the most attention after its announcement: the visuals. The announcement of the game mentioned talent from Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Studio Ghibli. Malek pointed out that at least some of this was sheer luck on his part.
"I'm based in Miami, and I didn't know at the beginning, but Disney was in Orlando for 20 years. They closed their studio to go to Burbank, California. A lot of animators have their family -- their kids, their wife, their house -- in Orlando. So they stayed in Orlando, and when I started looking for animators a lot of guys from Disney answered. So I have an incredible team, I can have this very, very high-level in-game animation."
Malek slowed down the animation to show how the characters stretched with the elasticity of a Chuck Jones cartoon, and that was the first time I noticed that it wasn't all 2D animation. Most of the game is actually 3D rendered characters, with a variety of visual trickery at play to make them look like 2D art. Malek bucked at the idea of cel-shading (calling it "terrible"), and I couldn't argue with the results of his own shading render. It looked miles ahead of most cel-shaded games. Sometimes the game even temporarily switched seamlessly to 2D animation for certain visual flourishes, like when Harold was struck by lightning to "encourage" a dash.
Harold's cartoon aesthetic and goofy humor may make it unappealing for core gamers who prefer blood and guns. But for those willing to get lost in a charming and gorgeous title with some appropriately challenging gameplay hooks, it's one to watch out for.