(PC/PS5/Switch/Xbox) Developer Don’t Nod are mostly known for creating decision-centric, narrative-forward works such as their LIFE IS STRANGE series, so it’s not surprising that their latest game — HARMONY: THE FALL OF REVERIE (HARMONY from here on out) — takes narrative branching and decisions even further.
However, unlike any of their prior games, this is a visual novel. You aren’t navigating a character through 3D environments. You aren’t pressing ‘X to interact’. You talk to a number of characters who inhabit the town of Atina on a slightly-not-too-distant-future cyberpunk Earth trying to overthrow an exploitative and immoral corporation, while also juggling the needs of almost-gods (called ‘Aspirations’) — the likes of which go by the names of Chaos, Bliss, Power, Glory, etc. — who live in Reverie which is another realm altogether and have helped guide humanity over the ages.
So, basically cyberpunk mythology. If you’re into that, you’re into it. However, don’t go into this game thinking “Oh, it’s Don’t Nod! More teen angst and tears!” because you will be greatly disappointed. (Or you may be elated; I don’t know your taste.)
I’ll note that, if you think this is a thematic departure for Don’t Nod, it is not. Their first game was REMEMBER ME, a 3D action/adventure cyberpunk thriller that had a number of inventive techniques and a very striking design. Sadly it bombed, however the poor sales caused them to course correct into smaller, more intimate — and less-expensive to produce — games like LIFE IS STRANGE.
To backtrack a bit: you play as Polly, the daughter of Ursula — an impetuous free-spirited poet — who has disappeared, and Polly is back to help search for her, despite the fact that there’s a lot of bad blood and estrangement between Polly and her mother. Polly then becomes embroiled in both the scheming of the Aspirations as well as the revolutionaries in Atina, while still trying to maintain some sense of herself.
It sounds dense and complicated but, as noted above, it’s boilerplate cyberpunk mythos. However, it is very pretty boilerplate cyberpunk mythos! The background scenery is immaculately imbued with details but also really sets the disparate tone of the two realms, and it’s colorful! So much sun and surf and what I would call cozy urban landscapes. (You may disagree.)
I’d also like to note that, while the character designs aren’t as bonkers as say, PARADISE KILLER, they are sharp, and I really appreciated some of the more unconventional static postures, such as Polly consistently tugging at her own shoulder as a sign of apprehension, or the exuberance of Bliss’ gestures.
I’d be remiss to neglect the musical contribution of Don’t Nod staple Lena Raine, whose indelible work on LIFE IS STRANGE still rings through my head. It’s an aural treasure.
However, a visual novel is only as good as the story it tells, and while HARMONY spends a lot of time place setting, it pays off in the fourth act. (Yes, the game does explicitly break itself down into acts and chapters, just in case you weren’t absolutely aware that it is a visual novel.) The fourth act leans hard on a lot of Don’t Nod tropes — don’t worry, I won’t detail them but, if you’re familiar with their games, you’ll know them when you read them — but also serves as a humanist breather for the game. While it takes a while to get there, that’s when the game really comes into focus, narratively and interactively.
Yes, the interactivity. This is the real marvel of HARMONY. Don’t Nod takes dialogue trees to the next level here, swapping what’s usually just a ‘Select a Response’ prompt to a full-fledged actual dialogue tree that looks like a skill tree you need to continuously manage in a FINAL FANTASY game.
I’ve only played through the game once, although I will eventually make my way back as I don’t care for the impact of some of my initial decisions. (I’ll note: while the game does provide text hints as to the repercussions of your choices, they can often either be misconstrued or downright misleading.) It’s an extremely inventive implementation, but also feels like something a programmer definitely enacted because it’s basically just one big flowchart. I’m not going to complain about it though, as it’s a breath of fresh air.
One quibble: the text size? Way too fucking small. This is a complaint I’ve had since HD gaming was embraced, and it’s only become more of an issue: too many developers design these games on dev stations inches from their face, as opposed to playing on a TV several feet away.
I understand designers who get frustrated when variable font sizes are incongruent with their finely planned layouts — I remember the websites of the late 90s — but seriously. I know I’m getting old, but allow folks to adjust the font size, as well as subtitle drop shadow intensity. I don’t want to have to squint or lean towards the screen to read some superficial lore that may or may not aid me in my journey.
More and more game developers seem to be aware of this, but apparently not Don’t Nod, which seems strange (pun intended), and — for myself — resulted in an often frustrating experience given that this is a visual novel and text is paramount.
Last but not least, I’d like to underscore how refreshing it is to see a combative mother/daughter relationship in a game, one that isn’t fully explained but one that the player intuits. (Perhaps if I’d chosen a different branch here and there, I would know more, but I don’t!) Families are complicated, and HARMONY hones in on that in ways that some might find unlikeable but I simply find to be part of trying to live one’s life the way one wants to. Is that selfish? Perhaps. Whether you feel it is or not depends on which branch you choose.