Harmonia - Visual Novel Review

From the makers of Clannad and Angel Beats! comes another tale of human emotions in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by war.

The Lowdown

In the near future, human society begins to decline. During this time, human-like robots called "Phiroids" are created as human companions, with later versions even going as far as to obtain energy from food instead of electricity. One day, a Phiroid wakes up in an abandoned factory to discover that the entire world has been destroyed and drastically altered while he slept. After wandering for days searching for humans, the Phiroid is rescued by a girl named Shiona and taken to the town where she lives. Shiona lives by herself in a church on the edge of town, and her cheery personality quickly wins him over. Since he can't remember his name, she gives him the name Rei. In order to learn human emotions, Rei decides to help Shiona and the other townspeople.

How Was It?

Harmonia is Key's second kinetic visual novel, and thus there are no choices for the players in the dialogue and the story only has one possible ending. It's also rather short for a visual novel that took me around 6 hours to go through, and it seems that it can take anywhere from 4-8 hours depending on how fast you choose to play it. For fans of the visual novel genre, this might lead to the question, "Is it too short?" However, despite this short play time, Harmonia manages to create a very effective and moving story. If anything, the story Harmonia is trying to tell is not one that would have worked as a longer story in its current form, anyways.

Visual novels as a medium to me have always been the strongest at establishing mood through the blend of sensory details found in anime combined with the less temporally focused storytelling of manga. In other words, you can see and hear the characters and backgrounds, but you get to choose the speed at which you progress through the story. If done right, this can be a very effective and flexible way of storytelling. Readers can pause and be immersed in the soundtracks or progress quickly through suspenseful moments, all at their leisure. Key is a master at channeling this to set the tone of their stories, and Harmonia is no exception. The soundtrack, a collaborative effort between Shinji Orito, Ryo Mizutsuki, and Tomohiro Takeshita, is both engaging by itself and excellent at lending itself to the settings and narrative of the game. The desolate setting is paired with animated effects (such as swirling dust) that create a dynamic scene in which the characters interact.

As with most visual novels, Harmonia's success as a story depends very heavily on its characters. Rei and Shiona, along with the young librarian Tipi and the general store owner Madd, make up the primary cast. Most of the initial setup for the characters is based on Rei's interactions with them as he tries to help solve the problems of the townspeople. These interactions can be a mixed bag- some of the dialogue can be corny at times, and while in the big picture it doesn't hinder character development, in the individual moments it definitely hindered my enjoyment. Outside of specific lines that feel weird, the characterizations are suitably effective for the story. The game has full voice work for all four characters, and this lends itself nicely to the characterizations as a clear indicator of emotions. There are other people in the town outside of the main cast, although Harmonia doesn't provide drawings or voice work (or even proper names) for them even if they are recurring characters. Although this sometimes felt odd for me, it also struck me as a stylistic choice that helped emphasize the importance of the cast members who did have these features.

Harmonia focuses very heavily on thematic elements in its narrative and characterizations of its cast, sometimes to the point of being heavy-handed. Part of what makes the dialogue corny at times is the very explicit insertion of symbolism to the point of feeling a bit unnatural. Your mileage may vary on this point, but I feel that there is a happy medium of showing versus telling when conveying a message, and this is a line that Harmonia sometimes crosses. A prominent example of this is Shiona's use of colors to describe emotions. The fact that Tipi is "the blue girl" is said in pretty much every exchange Tipi is a part of multiple times. But it's worth mentioning that the symbolism itself actually ties into the story quite nicely; the depth of Tipi's "blueness" is something the story continues to develop as the story goes on. Although this symbolism can be a mixed bag, other thematic points work well. One of the main focuses of the story, the relationship between human-like robots and humans, is quite excellent and a highlight of the game. As Rei gets to know Shiona and the other villagers, his interactions with them shape his own worldview and self-image organically.

The story itself utilizes many of the other strengths of the game to create a very emotionally effective tale. The characters are developed to the point that they are easy to be invested in, the suspenseful moments are accentuated by the soundtrack, and many of the plot developments tie in strongly with the core thematic elements of the writing. For a short game, the story feels complete and much longer than 4-8 hours' worth of visual novel would normally feel like. I also felt suitably engrossed by the story's progression. Despite playing the first few chapters over the course of a couple of days, once I hit the midway point I was sucked into finishing the rest in one sitting, something that doesn't happen often for me. There's a vague sense of unease in the initial status quo of Rei's life with Shiona that the story takes advantage of fully with foreshadowing both direct and more subtle. All in all, the payoff is very solid when the game is complete.

There are lots of minor details about Harmonia that lend themselves to the story. The characters all have a shaded gradient-like effect that moves slightly during the still moments of the game, an effect that makes the illustrations feel more dynamic and alive. Character designer Itaru Hinoue's illustration for Shiona is one of her best works yet, which is good news because Shiona is definitely the most commonly appearing character. However, her designs for the male characters are much more bland than the female ones. Although they make less appearances on screen, both Madd and Rei's designs don't feel very inspired and lack the same level of details given to the females. It's also worth mentioning that the text is often on the right side of the screen or covering the screen instead of the bottom like most other visual novels. I usually found the right-side dialogue appealing because it made the game feel like a book, but the full screen dialogue would often be on top of backgrounds, which I found annoying as both would compete for my visual attention.

Final Thoughts

Harmonia is a tightly organized story in a deceptively small package. Despite only taking a few short hours, much of the thematic and character development feels just as fleshed out as a much longer game. Although some of the writing feels off at times, there's a lot to love in Key's latest game. For longtime fans of the studio, there are familiar feelings mixed in with new ones and another emotional story. For those that have not experienced previous games by the company, or even visual novels in general, Harmonia serves as a very approachable entry title into the medium. If you have a few hours and a few bucks to spare, I highly recommend giving Harmonia a playthrough.