Put an end to the Age of Glory
Visual novels are not a type of game for everybody. Not only do they require a ton of reading but some might not enjoy their only input being the occasional dialogue choice. This appears to be an issue that Harmony: Fall of Reverie, the new game from Don't Nod (known for Life is Strange), seeks to address. At first glance, Harmony appears to be just another typical visual novel, but those who dive in will find a branching narrative with a fascinatingly gamified method of progression and decision making that is unlike any other game in the genre I have ever played.
In Harmony, you are put in the shoes of a young woman named Polly, who is returning to her home island of Atina for the first time in years. Her mother, Ursula, has gone missing, prompting her to rejoin her stepfather Laszlo and his granddaughter Nora in the hopes of solving the mystery of her disappearance. Things get a little more complicated, however, when Polly finds a necklace belonging to her mother that transports her to another dimension: the magical world of Reverie. Reverie is inhabited by a group of beings known as Aspirations, specific human emotions and concepts, such as Bliss, Chaos, Truth, or Power, given a living form. These beings inform Polly that she is an oracle that they refer to as Harmony, and her job is to gather a mystical energy called “egregore” in order to provide power to them. However, Reverie seems to be dying for some unknown reason, and Polly must bring the Aspirations together to save it, and by extension the real world as well. The mystery thickens even further when signs point to Mono Konzern, the corporation in complete control of Atina, appearing to be connected to Reverie's fate as well. This story is well told with full voice acting for every character, and the character designs (especially for the Aspirations) make everybody memorable right from the get go.
This story is told in the form of a visual novel with a branching narrative that spins out via a flowchart, an in-game representation of Polly’s newfound ability to look into the future. While it may look straightforward at first, this flowchart is actually a highly intricate series of nodes that come in a variety of forms. Some nodes are normal, simply starting a scene without any prior requirements; some can only be accessed if you completed a specific earlier node; some nodes are "inevitable," meaning you are required to do them the instant they're unlocked. These are just a few of the many different types you'll encounter throughout your journey. Sometimes accessing a node will require you to have collected a certain number of an Aspiration's crystals, with some nodes also either rewarding you with more crystals or taking away some you have. Collecting these crystals is important as it not only decides what choices you're limited to later down the line, but it also determines which Aspiration you choose to give your egregore to at the end of each act, which in turn will determine later events as well. The act of collecting these crystals is a fascinating way of driving the narrative forward, as you'll find yourself having to decide whether to purposely focus on a specific Aspiration or simply follow your heart and see where it takes you.
Unfortunately, you cannot talk about Harmony without talking about its biggest problem: loading screens. Every time the game has to load a new scene or move to a different background the player is treated to a loading screen, one that is often quite long. This is a huge problem as sometimes this means you will enter an area, there will be one dialogue box, and it will move to another area which prompts yet another loading screen. At the beginning of the game, this exact scenario repeats several times in a row. Likewise, every time you go from the flowchart into a new scene it has to load, and sometimes these scenes are two or three lines of dialogue before you're thrown back to the flowchart to pick the next scene, at which point it has to load yet again. It really breaks up the flow of the game's storytelling to have to sit and wait for the next part to load in every time, and while that waiting still amounts to a handful of seconds, it starts to add up when it happens multiple times in the span of a couple minutes. For a visual novel to have something that interrupts the story this often is kind of a disappointment and does start to get grating rather quickly.
Harmony: Fall of Reverie is a fascinating and experimental exercise in how to write a branching narrative in a way that keeps the player occupied with more than just the occasional binary choice. The way it handles the path the player takes as they progress, especially with the mechanic of gathering crystals, is like nothing else that I have ever played. While it is a shame that the loading screen issues drag the experience down a bit, for fans of narratives in video games and the unique ways only a game can tell them, Harmony is well worth a look.