The success of the Diablo franchise created a glut of inspired games, all hoping to build on Diablo's hack-and-slash formula and make a name for themselves - some are even designed to portray itself, officially or otherwise, as alternatives.
Harbinger appears to be of the latter sort, what with its sci-fi themes and setting in what is supposedly space. However, its gameplay designs would have the game playing not that much differently from so many other hack-and-slash games, and it may be worse than most in fact.
Harbinger's story is set on a gigantic, practically planet-sized space-faring ship of the same name; the reason for this name will become quickly apparent when its destructive capabilities are revealed.
Such a foreboding ship would have masters that are harsh and insidious indeed, so they naturally become the antagonists of the game. They also become the target of the protagonists' quest, which is yet another struggle against the oppressive powers-that-be.
The player will take on the role of one of the three player characters that had been affected by the harsh and cruel living conditions aboard the Harbinger. They are the Human, Gladiator and Culibine, each with their own backstory and reason for fighting against the oppression.
It should be noted here that the backstories for these characters are quite well thought-out in writing, especially those for the Gladiator and Culibine that revealed how they came into being. Few details are spared here from the text, especially the Gladiator's rather grim transition from a flesh-and-blood creature into a robotic brute.
Unfortunately, text is all pretty much there is to describe their backstories with. There is next to no visual presentation of their respective pasts, just more text and voiced-over narration from their respective voice-actors/actresses. Any attempt to have the player emotionally connected to the protagonists would fall short.
The backstories of the player characters do contribute to the gameplay, fortunately. The Human is a self-taught survivor, who uses guns, mines and sentries to make up for his otherwise vulnerable status as a member of the weakest race that is on board the Harbinger. The Gladiator was a formerly flesh-and-blood creature, now having to come to grips with a clumsier metal form that is however powerfully armored and capable of packing heavy hardware. The Culibine is an enigmatic creature that uses weapons that are light and elegantly hi-tech.
Their inventory systems also appear different at first glance. The Human's would seem the most familiar to veterans of RPGs, what with slots for armor, helmets and some others that had been the norm for RPGs in quite a while. The Gladiator has three main slots, which are practically parts of its body; he swaps out entire torsos and arms. The Culibine has the least number of slots, with just her two gauntlets to worry about.
However, the player will soon notice that their respective inventory systems have been designed to accommodate only just the items that they can use. Items that one character can use are completely useless to the other two. In other words, their different number of slots do not matter much in determining differences in gameplay among the three.
Of course, these unique inventory systems would be understandable as they are after all three intrinsically different creatures. However, the player soon discovers that they still end up playing similar to each other somewhat.
Furthermore, the game gives a lot of loot to the player in the form of items that only the other two protagonists can use. This would not be a waste if the game has a multiplayer component that allows players to share them, but it doesn't. This means that such loot are little more than junk to be sold off.
The impression that the protagonists play similarly to each other is reinforced further when the player uses their primary attack methods. All three characters can fire shots that travel in a straight line, and this attack method will be available to the player at all times. Each character draws from his/her/its respective pool of energy to fire these shots, and he/she/it can recharge this pool by coming near an energy emitter (which is marked with green, pulsating lights).
This primary attack can be improved by switching out the weapon that executes this attack with better gear, but generally all three characters can do this, making the Gladiator's gun-arm not much more technically different than from the Human's rifle and one of the Culibine's gauntlets.
Their secondary attack methods are a lot more interesting and unique.
The Human can drop mines and traps that enemies can be lured onto for nasty effects, depending on the type of the devices used. Considering how single-minded enemies are and that they are not able to spot these at all, laying them down is an easy and cheap way to handle a horde of enemies or even bosses.
The Gladiator can deploy robotic drones known as Cams, which have to be remotely controlled. These can be used to scout out unexplored areas and soften up enemies with. Unfortunately, the AI programming of enemies is such that enemies that have been alerted to the presence of the Cams will also have a good idea of where the player character is after the Cams have been destroyed, making this purpose of the Cams rather useless as the hornet's nest would have been irreversibly riled up anyway. These Cams are armed with weapons, but generally, the Gladiator itself is far more efficient at getting rid of enemies than any Cams ever would.
Such designs make most Cams quite useless, though explosive ones can still be used to make a dent in enemy mobs somewhat, as the Gladiator lacks explosive weaponry.
The Culibine has a radial wave attack, which can be handy when she is mobbed, though it may be more prudent to kite enemies instead. (Kiting is a game term used to describe what are sustained and repeated hit-and-run tactics.)
The Human and Gladiator can also perform melee attacks, if these are more expedient at the time. However, melee attacks would seem more prudent to the Gladiator, as it has an entire slot dedicated to melee attacks in the form of its blade-arm. The player who rolls a Human has to hope for a rifle that has both a powerful bayonet attachment and ranged shots.
These are pretty much all there are to the designs of the combat capabilities of the characters. The player will figure out some tactics to use with these attacks against the very few archetypes of enemies in the game, and that is all there is to the deliberations of tactics for the purposes of combat.
The game also uses the mechanic of resistances, of which there are a few that have names that can be a bit hard to understand, such as resistance to "narcotics" (which really mean bio-chemical attacks), and works this mechanic into another one, which governs the insertion of mods into weapons that can support them; this mechanic will be described later, as it is one of few designs of this game that are actually good.
Using the right mods, or weapons that inherently have these secondary types of damage, the player can take down certain types of enemies quicker. However, the specific vulnerabilities of enemies are not clear to the player; the most that the game would divulge is hints given through the description of the enemies given by the narrator.
Speaking of enemies, there are two main variants of enemies in the game: those that go up close for melee attacks and those that attack from range. Considering that hack-and-slash RPGs, or more precisely, action RPGs had come so far by including enemy archetypes such as those that heal other creatures or raise them back from the dead, the ones in Harbinger are dull.
There are some enemies with different attack patterns, such as turrets and enemies that pop out of holes and pools to snap at anything nearby, but these are few and also all-too-familiar to veterans of action RPGs. There are attempts at introducing variations to them, such as varying degrees of stats like speed and strength and secondary effects to their attacks such as sapping energy in addition to health, but they pretty much share the same attack patterns and AI scripts as other creatures.
There are bosses in this game, but many of them are little more than amplified versions of the two main aforementioned categories of enemies; few of them have unique attack patterns that are different from the norm. Fortunately the very final boss is one of these, and this boss is a rather impressive one, thus making the final encounter rather meaningful.
Killing enemies will be the main way of gaining experience, which is needed to gain a level. However, gaining levels only lead to statistical increases and the reaching of level requirements for higher level gear with little substantial changes as to how the characters play.
These characters do get quests, but usually they get only one at a time and these serve mainly to move the story forward. They will hardly if not never reward anything of material form.
As for the gameplay itself, much of it consists of going to another place from a hub that acts like a town, in order to kill some boss, sabotage or activate some machinery or retrieve some item. These are very cookie-cutter objectives, and that they do little more than give an excuse to have the player character hustling over to some other place to do something else. In other words, there are very little rewards that contribute to gameplay for completing segments of the story.
Moreover, a lot of the levels in the game are little more than corridor crawls. There are some attempts to make them seem more than stretches of corridors, such as energy and health emitters that the player character can approach to replenish either reserves (and which enemies can use too, interestingly enough). There are also pads that can be run over to receive benefits, but these are so rare.
Harbinger's story and gameplay designs would still have been easy to stomach if the progress of the story had been presented well enough to have the player caring about the protagonists' struggle, but it isn't so.
The protagonists are the ones who narrate any progression in the story. The Human and Gladiator protagonists can have rather dull voice-acting, especially so for the Human, whose voice-actor appears to have spent most of his effort at forcing out his South American accent, and not much on the inflections necessary to emphasize the situation that they are in.
In fact, a skeptical player would have the impression that they are stopping to make a log entry in their journals; they may even sound like they are reading from scripts.
The Culibine's voice-over is a lot more expressive, but her story is pretty much similar to the other two protagonists'. There are a few detours for each character's story that are attempts at showing that it is unique, such as a mission that has the Human rescuing a less strong-willed version of another player character, but all three generally share the same overarching story and missions. Such lack of unique differences between these characters' stories reduce the replay value even further than their similar gameplay designs already had.
Other than the three main protagonists and some human NPCs, every voiced-over character speaks in alien gibberish with little inflections to accommodate for emotions; their voice-overs even repeat for different lines.
This gives the impression that Silverback Entertainment is using its sci-fi interstellar premise as an excuse to reduce development work and game content.
The sound effects are just as unimpressive. The sound effects of the primary fire methods of the protagonists often sound meek, especially early-game; they only obtain more respectable bass later into the game as the player switches out their weapons for more powerful ones. The sound effects for secondary and melee attacks remain underwhelming throughout.
There are many different enemies in the game, so it is fortunate that they have been given different noise clips for their sound effects. However, these are used for a lot of actions and animation frames that they have, leading to some aural repetition.
The soundtracks are perhaps the most forgettable part of the sound designs. Many of them are subdued tunes that do not contribute to the atmosphere.
The graphics are perhaps a bit less disappointing.
If the player plays as a Human, he/she will notice that his sprite isn't exactly properly sized; he looks noticeably and awkwardly smaller than other humans.
The lack of variety in the attack options available to the player characters results in a lot of repetitive animations. Their sprites (with the exception of the Culibine) do change in impressive manners as they swap to better gear, but the animations remain ever the same.
Town NPCs have even less animations, which is a shame as some of them have some eccentric personalities that are evident through the writing for their lines, such as the merchant Ona. Their stiff sprites do not help endear them to the player.
The game mostly takes place within the massive Harbinger, so most of the levels look understandably claustrophobic and narrow. What is less forgivable though is how static they look and how empty most of them are; only the walls have the potential to look interesting, but most of them are as boring as the sterile floors. Most importantly, these levels have very dim and monotonous lighting, making them look even more uninteresting. Romping through these levels can be a rather dull experience.
Although the enemies in the game have mainly a couple of sets of AI scripts, they at least have visual variety. Silverback Entertainment has used the sci-fi themes of the game quite well, creating many sprites for the many enemies in the game. These range from the cyborg-like Vantir and the spindly Scintilla and the insectoid Cimicidae. Some of them can look impressive, such as the Vantir, who are visually portrayed as sentient goop residing in their suits.
Other than the wide variety of sprites, there are two more things that the game had done right, which are its weapon mode mechanic and writing.
The weapon mod mechanic would appear similar to the mechanic of gems and slots that had been seen in so many action RPGs, but Harbinger's differentiates itself by not resorting to the very common balancing design that the other games used, which is that mods that have been inserted into slots can never be taken out.
In Harbinger, weapon mods can be inserted and removed according to the player's whims. To balance this convenience, weapon mods have level requirements that the player has to meet before they can be inserted into weapons. This design also goes quite a long way towards addressing an exploit with the usual mechanics of mods in action RPGs, which was that low-level players may be able to obtain and use powerful mods that give them an unfair advantage against early-game enemies.
(Of course, that Harbinger does not have a multiplayer component that allows players to receive help from others meant that this balancing design could not really be put to full use.)
The writing is the strongest aspect of the game. Much of the writing is presented in a manner akin to graphic novels, albeit most of them are monologues on the part of the protagonists, as mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, the lines give a lot of character to the protagonists and secondary characters.
One notable example of good writing in the protagonists' monologues can be seen during a moment when the Gladiator stepped onto an actual planet for the first time, contemplating how fortunate it is to have done so, yet unfortunate at the same time due to its inability to have the sensory experience that flesh-and-blood beings are privileged to.
Secondary characters like the somewhat fatherly alien Uncle Wik and the ever business-minded Ona the merchant get lines that do a hilarious job of establishing their personalities (though their lack of unique voice-overs damages their appeal, as mentioned earlier).
In conclusion, Harbinger has some good aspects, namely its good writing and convenient weapon mod mechanics, but the rest of it is brought down by lack-luster gameplay and bland and boring presentation.