Self-scrolling runner games have really made a name for themselves over the last couple of years. Canabalt demonstrated how a simplistic concept could feel new, over and over again. BIT.TRIP RUNNER proved that a well-timed soundtrack and collectables could make an addictive genre even more compulsory. And now, Harold, an original game from a new development team at Moon Spider Studio aims to take you out of control of the runner, and instead put you in control of the world.
Birthed from the mind of French game designer Loris Malek, Harold puts players in the role of a guardian angel, Gabe, who has skated his way through angel school by excelling without really trying, who, as part of his final exam, must assist a runner at completing one of the world's most challenging races. Gabe, of course, randomly chooses the underdog (read: dud) of the bunch, Harold, a guy who seems like he would be more at home in a laboratory than at a starting line. Harold is dedicated, but needs all the help he can get, and Gabe must do whatever he can to help usher his runner to the finish line with the best time. This means that he will have to clear out any and all obstacles in Harold's way while sabotaging everyone that he's going up against with the hopes of bringing home the gold.
Crafted with the engine of choice for many indie devs, Unity, Harold puts players through their paces even though the game seems shockingly simple. Harold will keep running no matter what, and Gabe must use his angelic powers to alter the environment to make it more favorable for our runner, and less favorable for his competition. This involves both small (zapping Harold with lightning to help him speed up) and large (rotating a crank to move a multilevel bridge so Harold can cross a pit) acts of "kindness," with well-timed execution can have positive effects for the player, and negative effects for his competition. But even at that, Harold still doesn't seem too complex - at least not until you get really good at it.
In your first pass through each course you'll only get a sampling of the full experience. Each level has branching paths that are discoverable by altering Harold's direction (grab a rope, cross a bridge, etc.), and can help him move up in the pack. However, when you get really good, you can even find the hidden shortcuts that come complete with their own mini cutscene animations that offer up a bit of humor as Harold is thrust past his competitors. Guiding Harold's really only half of the story: the other major part of the gameplay revolves around planning. The controls allow for you to jump further ahead into the race while Harold continues to advance off-screen. By looking ahead, you can prep the course or set traps for your opponents, after all, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Watching someone who knows what they are doing, for example the game's lead designer, turns the game into something of an art form, taking the relatively basic side-scrolling gameplay, and instantly upping the complexity as he jumps from screen-to-screen demonstrating just how important timing and preparation are in this game.
Gameplay aside, Harold has another major selling point - it's beautiful. Instead of going with a more traditional video game art direction, Harold employees something more akin to what you would expect from classic, hand-drawn cartoons. Lead by one of the world's foremost cel collectors, Malek has employed an exceptionally experienced team of animators, whose resumes' include the likes of Dreamworks and Studio Ghibli, to create a game that looks nothing like anything you've seen this console generation. In fact, you might have to go as far back as Don Bluth's Dragon's Lair and Space Ace (he even has a guy that worked on those games) to see anything like what his team is doing. For example, the effects may be subtle, but as Harold is running, he moves and stretches and pulls in ways unlike any character before, especially one built on the Unity Engine. The backgrounds, while just simply helping to establish the setting, look like they are painted with a brush, and not a mouse. The other characters on the screen all move with specific personalities, and the enemies look like they could have been chasing Mickey Mouse in a film released 50 years ago. Don't let the references to old media, Harold is one of the first games in a long time to appreciate the medium that video games are truly a modern-day decedent of - animation.
At first glance, Harold looks like a very basic game, with a very basic concept, and very beautiful animations. And it is, in fact, all three of those things. However, if you dig a bit deeper, it's actually a really complex game, built on a basic concept, and has animations unlike anything that Unity has ever been able to create before. In other words, in a world of sprinters, Harold is a long distance runner.