Harmony: The Fall of Reverie preview – One of Don’t Nod’s most captivating stories yet
Don’t Nod has returned into the fold with another narrative-rich game in Harmony: The Fall of Reverie, this time in the stylings of a visual novel. And after an hour with an early preview, there’s no denying it’s shaping up as one of the studio’s best stories thus far.
Don’t Nod has had a fairly rocky track record with its stories over the years, despite billing itself as a studio that creates “powerful and immersive narrative experiences” over all else. Despite being one of their most famous offerings, Life is Strange didn’t quite click for me and hasn’t particularly aged all too well in the years since.
In the words of the ever-critical Yahtzee Croshaw, the game is “a French’s interpretation of an American high school teenager”. Joking about the fact it’s a majority French team who were working on a story all about being a teenager in American suburbia. One could argue that story lacks an abundance of substance and introspection, and that is what I found to be a trend in many of Don’t Nod’s games.
However, while not falling in love with much of the team’s previous work, I was left more than impressed after jumping into their latest endeavor, Harmony: The Fall of Reverie.
A deep and philosophical story to sink your teeth in
As I played the very beginnings of Harmony, I was immediately struck by not only the weight of its main topic, but by its subtle and nuanced execution.
2022’s Gerda: A Flame of Winter showed off what was, in my eyes, Don’t Nod’s best narrative offering to date. The game, set in World War 2, masked itself as a simple isometric RPG focusing on a wife finding her captured husband. In reality, under the surface was an incredibly sober look into how the war ravaged its citizens and the various moral dilemmas millions had to make to ensure their survival amongst the bloodshed.
Harmony: too masks itself as a simple story. It’s about a woman named Polly (or Harmony in Reverie) who comes home, Alma, after years away because of the news that her mother has gone missing. It’s only after returning home she is suddenly transported into a world, Reverie, which is crumbling, a world that Polly is tasked to fix by slowly appointing who will ultimately rule the land based on her decisions in the real world.
But that is just the surface layer. Rather, its story is quite clearly the reality of gentrification, how communities are torn apart, and the vast history of those who came before are lost because of megacorporations. MK, in this case, is seen as the overarching yet unseen villain.
As we uncover the disappearance of Polly’s mother, we slowly uncover MK’s plans for the city, but we also uncover how Reverie, her mother’s disappearance, and MK are all intertwined.
And in Reverie, there are six different “aspirations” which are vying for power. Each of them represents the aspirations of humanity: Glory, Bliss, Power, Chaos, Bond, and Truth (I did not get to meet Glory in my preview). By the end, through our choices, one of these aspirations will ultimately rule Reverie.
In all honesty, as I write this, I feel I’m barely scratching the surface of how expertly crafted the narrative truly is. Its writing is so unbelievably dense and intimate that it can’t possibly fit in a section of this preview. It’s a story that deals with so much. On how societies are destroyed by megacorporations, the journalists, academics, and artists who are shut down in their advocacy for truth, how individualism is left to rot by corporations, and the trauma which comes from growing up in a dysfunctional family. There’s really a great deal here to get caught up in.
By the end of my playthrough of the pre-release build I was given access to, I was left deflated, though not in a bad way. I was immediately hit with a brick wall thanking me for playing the opening portion of the game, but all I wanted was to see how things progressed from there. That alone is a testament to just how captivating the story is here.
A warm art style that befits the intimate story
Just like their stories, Don’t Nod can be quite hit or miss with their visuals, at least for my taste. At times things can be quite bland like Life is Strange and Vampyr. But when it hits, it sure hits hard. Their debut, Remember Me, is still one of the most visually stunning games I have ever played. And Gerda too has a unique impressionistic style that drips with life despite its abstractions. And they have once again hit with Harmony.
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The game quite clearly takes a lot of inspiration from realistic animation of shows like The Legend of Korra and Invincible, but with their own unique twist. Characters and backgrounds almost seem to pop out of the screen when animated, breathing so much life into a game genre with normally stale art.
And the colors and art style too have a role in telling its story. When we’re in the town, the buildings are dripping in color and life with some of the most vibrant and warm environments a game can give. But we also always see the grey skyscrapers and office buildings loom heavily in the background surrounding everyday life, a stark reminder of the troubles MK is bringing to the city.
When we’re in Reveire, everything feels otherworldly. It all looks at once out of this world but simultaneously from Earth. Each character has their own home in Reverie. Chaos’ home is a chaotic smorgasbord of stuff from the real world. Power’s home feels like a cathedral only meant for the most powerful being in the universe. But even at its most absurd setting, nothing in Reverie ever feels alien. Just different.
Harmony is an incredibly beautiful game at its core. Each location has this warm undertone assuring every single scene feels right like you’re going home for the first time in a long time. Which might actually be the point, and in that they have succeeded.
Visual novels aren’t for everyone
I have to stress, Harmony is first and foremost a visual novel. I can wax poetic about its amazing story and visuals all day long, but if you aren’t attracted to the format of a visual novel in the first place, chances are you will leave the game disappointed.
But as visual novels go, its execution is stellar. Harmony’s visual novel gameplay might not be innovating the genre, but it sure gives you a good illusion of player choice. Before every scene, we are at times asked to pick from several choices from a narrative branch. At times, the branch can be small, with only one to two outcomes. At times, it is massive with up to four or five vastly different outcomes.
And with each choice you make, the path you choose will see you earn crystals of six variants. The six variants being the six aspirations. And as you go along the story, you will rack up crystals for one of the aspirations, ultimately helping decide which aspiration will rule Reverie. And at times, choices are blocked off because of your past actions, usually indicated by you not gaining enough crystals in one of the aspirations.
Naturally, you cannot revert your decisions. Once you choose a path, you cannot take it away. Unless you start a new save, but I would recommend not, as living with the choices you made in-game has so much more impact than doing it all over again.
Overall, its gameplay does its job not only as a visual novel, but also as a good presentation of its story. It is unfortunately one of the aspects which I found to be lacking in Harmony as it is very much constrained to its game genre. But if you are a fan of visual novels, you most likely wouldn’t mind it.
Contender for best video game story of the year
As to whether Harmony will dazzle critics as the awards season rolls by, we will have to wait and see upon its full release this June across PS5, Switch, Xbox Series X | S, and PC. But what I can confidently tell you with this preview is Harmony is undoubtedly vying for the best video game story of the year.
I came out of the preview feeling the indescribable warmth I felt when I first read a Ryu Murakami book, or a Don Hertzfeldt film. Despite presenting a world much more alien than what I have lived, it still is one of the most humanistic stories I have had the pleasure of going through. Harmony’s full release can’t come soon enough.