Well, I lied. I thought that my new Switch, all covered in its glorious Zelda branding, would meet the same fate as its predecessor. This was the price of admission I was willing to pay though, especially considering that Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom took out my GOTY for last year. I found myself in the unenviable position of having to travel to the USA for work again. Thinking I might be able to repeat my success with Switch on my last trip in June I looked around for titles I could play on the Switch. Failing to find anything compelling in terms of an exclusive (Mario games haven’t appealed to me in sometime, unfortunately) I settled on a multi-console release from a developer I’m well familiar with: DON’T NOD. Whilst I didn’t get a chance to actually play it while I was travelling I did complete a full playthrough of it on the Switch, and I have mixed thoughts about the experience.
Polly left her home island many years ago, seeking out a better life for herself abroad. However the disappearance of her mother has brought her back home and right smack into a world that’s continued to move on without her. Worst of all the island appears to be in the iron grip of a megacorporation, MK, who have managed gain control of almost aspect of life there and the community she grew up with is in peril. Looking for clues as to her mother’s disappearance she looks through her room and finds a bright globe on a necklace, one that’s seemingly trying to pull her towards the tub, She falls in and soon discovers herself in a completely different realm, one inhabited by the manifestations of all humanity’s aspirations. Could this be the key to finding her mother? Or does this represent something much greater, something that could be used to save the island from MK.
On first blush you’d be forgiven for thinking that Harmony was a hand drawn game as its art style certain emulates that. Whilst the cutscenes most are good old fashioned frame by frame animations the main game is just a very heavily cel shaded 3D environment, done so well that it’s only when things are (rarely) in motion that you’ll pick up on the cues that give away it’s 3D underpinnings. The colour palettes are typically bright and diverse, slipping into dark and moody or cold as the game’s narrative requires. I’ll admit that I duped myself somewhat by buying into the game based off the cutscene visuals that it markets itself on, thinking that the majority of the game would be done in the same way. So I was disappointed that, for the most part, the experience is much more static but I can understand why the developers didn’t do that.
Harmony is a visual novel that takes the story map concept and turns it into a game mechanic. Polly is granted the ability to see into the future, and so you’re able to see the many branching paths that the story can take before you make the choice. There are mechanics that impact your ability to follow each of those paths however: some require a certain number of aspiration-based crystals to unlock, some require certain choices, others are inevitable requiring you to play them and some have a timer on them which could also force your hand in certain directions. You can’t see all the way to the end however, you can see the top level parts of the act as well as most of the chapter (as long as there aren’t hidden nodes). What this gives you is the ability to plan out the kind of story you want to see in advance and then make the appropriate choices to get there.
It’s an innovative system, to be sure, as each act’s conclusion is available to you from the get go. It doesn’t spoil the story too much as you’re given enough information early on in each chapter to be able to figure out where things would be going, but you won’t have much of an idea of the path you’ll take to get there. That’s because each of the nodes have a title and a description on them but both of them are barely a sentence each. So you can definitely infer a lot of things from that, but how each of those vignettes will play out is still a mystery.
I also noticed that the blurbs on each of the story nodes changed over time, the aspirations quote seemingly reacting to the changes that you’ve made. This could, of course, change the story path that you’re going on so it’s worth checking back on the summaries every so often to make sure that the path that you’re walking is aligned to how you want the character you’re crafting. For what it’s worth whilst I did notice the change I didn’t often change my preferred story path because of it. I did, however, change it due to events that happened within the story itself whilst on my path towards a certain goal.
The game does make it clear early on what your ultimate goal will be, I.E. choosing one of the aspirations to be the new heart of Reverie. The requirement is also made known: you need to get enough of their crystals through your playthrough. Now in my playthrough I’m pretty sure I could’ve gotten 2 of them to that point, given I got one and another one would’ve had enough if not for a particular choice I made towards the end of the game. That does mean you have commit to a path relatively early on in the game unfortunately, which is somewhat limiting from a gameplay perspective. I found myself torn between a couple different aspirations at times, my preferred course not aligning to the right aspect at the time. This is likely by design, to increase replayability, but as I’m not one to replay games like this it was definitely a mark against it.
There seems to be some performance issues with the Switch version, possibly due to the way I was playing it. Technically the game was never really turned off, I just put it into sleep mode whenever I was done for my particular session. Towards the end I started to notice that the game was taking a while, 30 seconds to a minute, in order to transition between levels and the augural. In the game’s early moments this likely wouldn’t be an issue, but later levels, which appeared to have a much faster cadence, it took the wind out of the story’s sails. This was fixed by force quitting it and loading up my last save point though, so hopefully the fix for it isn’t too drastic to implement.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Which leads us to the whole reason you’d play this game: the story. It starts off very slow, spending quite a lot of time in setting up the numerous characters and their backstories without getting very far. After about 4 hours or so it starts to pick up steam as the tension starts to build and you can start to see consequences for your actions prior. You’ll get a feel for the Polly you’re creating, which choices to make and the traps to look out for so you don’t lock yourself out of a decision you might want to make later on. All of this is great stuff and sets a solid foundation for the game’s finale.
Except it fails to stick the landing. The game’s pinnacle moments feel like when you’re dealing with the aftermath of Laszlo’s death and how you manage the balance between his memory and the movement that you started. The game’s last chapter feels like it’s running in fast forward, rushing through a bunch of different decisions at breakneck speed just to try and wrap everything up. Worst still it feels like the ultimate end choice doesn’t really have much of an impact. I only managed to have Bliss available for that one, with Truth being a close second, but was bamboozled by the potential choice for Harmony to become a new aspiration which locked me out of that one. Still, from what I can gather, the different choices don’t seem to matter a whole lot.
This was my long-winded way of saying that I just found the ending disappointing, given how solid its buildup had been. I don’t seem to be alone in this thoughts either, if the Steam reviews are anything to go by.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Harmony: The Fall of Reverie is a solid visual novel with an innovative twist on the genre’s mechanics. Whilst its opening moments are slow going, it manages to draw you in over the majority of its playtime. It stumbles badly at the finish line however, leaving you with an ending that just isn’t in the same league as the story that was supporting it. It’s a real shame as there was a lot of potential for this game to have a more lasting impact, especially given the breadth of choice and control it gives you from a narrative perspective. Given the developer’s reluctance to revisit IPs (apart from their most successful one, of course) I’m not sure we’ll ever see more in this universe either, which is one path to redemption it could take. I’ll be there for it if they do, but I’m not holding out hope unfortunately.
Harmony: The Fall of Reverie is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S right now for $37.44. Game was played on the Nintendo Switch with a total of 8 hours playtime.