A titanic vessel capable of devouring a whole planet and enslaving its populace, the Harbinger moves throughout the universe decimating one world after another. Aboard the ship itself, small pockets of civilization have escaped experimentation and slavery at the hands of the despotic Overlord, and manage to eke out a meager existence in the bowels of the planet-sized craft. The mélange of races leads to conflict. Starting out, players select from three avatars: Human, the weakest of the playable characters, but possessing the ability to employ various armaments; Gladiator, a formidable cyborg entity capable of utilizing smaller machines such as remote cameras and offensive robots; or Culibine, a self-healing life form with the ability to channel ambient energy into offensive attacks.
After choosing a character, players make their way through the ship, interacting with its diverse citizenry and completing various assignments, from simple item-retrieval errands to elaborate rescue missions. With no particular allegiance, players will find themselves accosted by the various factions that infest the ship, including the likes of the Vantir, Cimicidae, and Scintilla as well as lesser species such as Herps, Biters, and Flying Bugs. Battle, in true action-RPG fashion, is conducted through a simple mouse-based interface, requiring players only to click on the enemy to initiate an attack.
In addition to their character-specific abilities, avatars can perform both melee and ranged attacks to dispense with the malicious hordes they encounter. Defeated enemies reward the player with experience points as well as items, equipment, and money that can be looted from their corpses. Gaining in level awards skill points that can be assigned to specific attributes, to increase the abilities and powers of the avatar. Money can be used to purchase health items and additional equipment from a merchant aboard the ship. By playing as each of the three characters, players are rewarded with different viewpoints of the action, fleshing out the story with similar, yet distinct approaches to the adventure.
PC action adventure games have a tendency to take place in worlds of fantasy with swords and sorcery, skeleton warriors and ogres, magic armor and enchanted weapons. Harbinger diverts from this by embracing science fiction, taking place on a spaceship riddled with alien beings, robots, and firearms. Unfortunately, despite taking this not often seen approach to the genre, the game falls flat on its face thanks to its very rudimentary gameplay.
It's really too bad that Harbinger is such a shallow experience. I'm sure many fans of the genre would love a change of pace by having a solid sci-fi experience, but the moment you step into battle you realize that there just isn't a whole lot to this game. Players simply hold down one mouse button to use their guns, the other for melee attacks, picking off their enemies as they advance. It's generally quite easy to herd these baddies into areas so you can take them out with relative easy, and even if you're in a heavy fire fight while standing your ground, so long as you have a good sized inventory of healing items there's little to worry about since you can keep your health in good shape with ease. The only real strategy comes in knowing which type of attack to use, be it plasma, electricity, disruption, EMP, and so on. Most of the time you'll find yourself bouncing between EMP and electricity since these are the attack types the most common enemies in the game are most vulnerable to. Upon figuring this out it really feels like you're just going through the paces when fighting.
Equally simplistic is the lack of character classes available, as there are only three to choose from in the game: human, gladiator (a big burly robot), and Culibine (an magical/psyonic being). The human and gladiator have full-fledged melee and ranged attacks, while the Culibine is highly skilled in ranged attacks with some marginal melee abilities. If there were at least a couple more classes to choose from that varied greatly from the current ones it wouldn't be so bad, but as it stands having only three is disappointing.
Even more disappointing is the incredible linearity of the game. Players are kept very much on the rails as they proceed through the game with hardly any room for deviation. You head to home base to have a new mission assigned, complete it, lather, rinse, repeat. There's no room for figuring things out on your own, and exploration is kept to a minimum. In fact the only exploration to be had comes in traversing the dungeons, and even then once you've completed them that's it. There's no chance to return to them to fight re-spawned beasts and score some nice rare items. You just keep on trucking through the game.
While making your way through the dungeon it becomes very clear early on that the best items that you're going to find will indeed be in the dungeon, tucked away in a treasure chest of some sort or another. One doesn't start keeping a decent stock of weapons and armor until later in the game, so he winds up only really being around so you have someone to by healing items off of. One problem with treasure hunting in the depths of the ship is that there are tons of different types of treasure chests. It's easy to overlook them when heading into a new area since you're already used to what they were looking like in past sectors. Often times it's a complete fluke to actually find them, only discovering the things because you accidentally passed your mouse over them and they were illuminated to draw attention to them. A uniform chest design would have been much easier to deal with.
And the visual design in the game really isn't much to look at either. Even with the settings cranked up there isn't a huge amount of detail to the environments or the many enemies that you'll come across in Harbinger. The frame rate stutters every now and then, and there is some slowdown when you get too many enemies on screen at once. The overall character design isn't going to be wowing anyone, it has a marginal comic book feel, but it isn't very engaging.
On the other hand, the music in the game is great. If you're a fan of Boards of Canada or either of Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works" albums you'll like the very stripped down, atmospheric ambient tunes in the game. They're downright soothing and really bring a nice aural experience to the table; easily canceling out the ho-hum sound effects and often times laughable voice acting.
The story too is a fun little romp. The whole time you're playing you get the feeling that something really big is about to go down, and the way that the narrative slowly feeds you the information and things start to dawn on you is a great ride. It's an odd mix of prophecy and political intrigue, definitely an interesting combination of story telling in a game.
Easily the very best feature in the game, and one I hope that other developers take note of, is the EZ Stash in Harbinger. Basically it acts as a means to help combat having a cluttered inventory while traveling through a dungeon. When it comes to PC Action RPGs it doesn't take long to fill the inventory right up with all manner of enchanted weapons, armor, and the like. To help deal with this, Harbinger uses something called the EZ Stash. They're containers placed within the dungeon where you can stash excess items you've collected. The beauty of it all is that there is also an EZ Stash at home base where you can pick up the items later either to equip them or sell them to Oda. It let's the player have their cake and eat it too tucking treasure away for later without being over burdened, instead of sadly having to give up a potentially helpful item that they don't have room for at the time.
Harbinger does have some good ideas, but ultimately the lackluster combat and the very linear nature of the game prevent the title from really becoming engaging. A lot of the time it just feels like you're going through the paces. Just stick with Diablo or Throne of Darkness for now if you're looking for an Action RPG for your PC.
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Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition, Gorasul: The Legacy of the Dragon, Gangland, Hard Truck: Apocalypse, Heroes of Annihilated Empires, Fate, Diablo, Hazard
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