I decided to take a different approach with Harmonia. I'm going to take a look at each chapter as I go through the story, making observations as I read. I'm not taking notes, so most of this is going to be straight from my drowsy, somewhat unreliable memory. Anyway, let's start at Chapters 0 and 1.
(Disclaimer: I was planning to post these separately as I read each chapter, but then I read the first post and saw that full spoilers were fair game. What you see here is my constantly updated impressions as I read through the story, chapter for chapter.)
It's fairly easy in the beginning to make comparisons to Planetarian, and I get that impression even after reading these two chapters. The setting is strikingly similar in some respects: (slight Planetarian spoilers) a post-apocalyptic future where humans and human-like robots coexisted for a time, until humanity seemingly started destroying themselves, leaving the human population isolated to small colonies instead of bustling cities. While the more technical aspects of why this setting exists is made clear pretty early in Planetarian, here we get very little idea of what happened, only that it happened. The focus of the setting seems to have shifted away from the setting defining the characters to the characters defining the setting.
Speaking of the characters, Rei himself is so far a compelling and relatable protagonist, something Planetarian's Junker lacks in some respects. His desire to be human and to serve humans is particularly strong, even if it seems he doesn't understand much about his current situation. He finds allegorical companions in Shiona, who represents happiness; Madd, who represents anger; and Tipi, who represents sadness. Presumably, these three characters will act as the basis for Rei to understand emotion, and may be key to helping him understand who he once was.
The artwork so far is incredible, some of the best I've seen come out of Hinoue. There's a very subtle pencil gradient effect that gives each character sprite, particularly Shiona's, a layer of rough, earthen tones. This is justified in the story by the dusty wind that's always blowing outside, which I think is a clever touch. The CGs are also quite beautiful as well, seeping with enough detail to make my eyes bleed. The music is good too, although like most Key music, it's likely going to take a while to get into my head.
I'm impressed with the story so far. I plan to read a little more tomorrow, in the hopes that I will be finished before the week is over.
Chapter 2 is called Connection, and in the context of this story it could mean three different things. One could be the connection to the townspeople that Rei made for himself, another could be the connective relationship between everyone in the town since practically everyone seems to know each other, and lastly, the connection between the town and the outside world. It all feels a little like CLANNAD in this case, but I doubt this town has any lights to collect.
What I like about this chapter is that it goes into a little more detail on the characters' backstories. Shiona's relationship with her brother, Madd's relationship with his son, and Tipi's relationship with her parents are all touched upon here, but there's also a pervading consistence in each character's need for Rei to exist in their lives. With the repair of Shiona's music box, not only does Rei find himself in a satisfactory relationship with her, but he finds new meaning to his life in seeking the happiness of others. This extends to both Tipi and Madd, with the former establishing a sibling complex with Rei through his constant need for information from the library, and the latter needing a projector to see his son's movie. I assume the next chapter is going to touch more on that.
In this chapter, I'm beginning to notice some technical problems. There are some typos, although that's to be expected from a first release. However, there's also a missing voice clip. Heaven forbid the great Shiori disaster of 1999 happens again... ._.
It was around Chapter 3 when I began to notice how similar some of these events feel to other Key games. Granted, I think every Key game starting with Little Busters began playing the nostalgia card to appeal to its existing fanbase, so it's not out of the ordinary. Although the main plotline was about getting Madd to watch his son's movie, there were quite a few nods to games like CLANNAD, Tomoyo After, Planetarian, and AIR. It makes me wonder if this is the reason Kai was brought in to help the new writer. Having worked on several Key games before Harmonia, he must have known that the nostalgia card would help the game sell if nothing else. Makes me wonder what the story would have been like if it was only Tsuzuru Nakamura writing...
Anyway, it's also around this time when Rei becomes aware of the romantic feelings Shiona and potentially Tipi have for him. Whether he takes advantage of this or not, we will have to see, but it makes me wish there were choices so I could take the loli route~
Chapter 4 is probably my favorite chapter so far. It feels like the start of the exploration of Tipi's character, whom I adore for more reasons than one. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Anyway, it also establishes Shiona's romantic feelings for Rei, which quickly becomes a point of conflict as she becomes jealous of Tipi for getting so much of Rei's attention.
In my humble opinion, I think the reasoning behind Shiona's feelings for Rei feels a bit shallow, making the whole relationship thing seem a little forced. One could assume that she likes him because he looks much like her brother, but wouldn't that imply she's absolutely okay with incest? She runs a church, for crying out loud! Then again, the last scene at the library feels a little out of character for her...
There were two things that struck me about this chapter. First, Tipi's reaction to the sight of the dead man at the funeral. It wasn't much like how she usually acted. I assume that it has a lot to do with how sheltered she is, giving an emotionally-detached but respectful farewell. Perhaps she had hoped it was someone she knew, but maybe her reaction showed that she was mistaken. It's very possible that she doesn't hold much empathy for people other than her parents and Rei, which is perfectly understandable.
Second, Rei's decision at the end of the chapter. This was probably the most powerful moment I've read in this story so far, showing that Rei has priorities beyond just making Shiona happy. His motivation to make everyone happy, not just Shiona, was his driving force from the very beginning, and if he had strayed away from that it wouldn't have been as fulfilling as simply doing what Shiona wanted him to do. It makes him a stronger character in my opinion.
At Chapter 5...well, this is difficult to talk about. We finally see how Tipi became the sad, lonely little girl we know and love, and it's fairly simple: Her parents loved her and read her old books, but they left her to make others happy. They had no idea if they were going to come back, but they told her to keep a picture diary of what would transpire in their absence. It's never explicitly stated how long she's been drawing, nor the exact number of drawings she's made, but she's made one a day for hundreds, maybe thousands of days. Now that's commitment!
Anyway, as Rei helps Tipi in the library, Shiona, in a strangely out-of-character motion, ruins the fun by proclaiming Tipi's parents dead. I mean, what the heck?! I hardly have words to explain how angry I am at this development. Did she just not have as strong a conviction to help others as Rei does? Did she let her feelings get in the way of her goal? Was her goal ever to make others happy, or was it just to make Rei happy? Whatever the case, she didn't have to be such a killjoy. I feel like punching her in the face, although I think it was a smarter move not to attack her after that. If Rei actually punched her, it might have exposed his identity as a Phiroid.
Actually, come to think of it, why hide the fact that he's a Phiroid? Did they suddenly become rogue and turn on humanity in order to create a peaceful civilization for themselves? Is there a bad social stigma in being a Phiroid? Why are Phiroids seemingly nonexistent in this otherwise human village? Do Phiroids even have junk? There's so much that needs to be answered...
The last three chapters are hard to talk about, because this is where the hard sci-fi elements rear their ugly heads, and it always ends horribly for the main characters. I had to condense my feelings for these chapters into a few paragraphs, so I'll get straight to the point.
It turns out that, in a surprising twist, the entire town Shiona and the others lived in were Phiroids, and Rei was a human with a prosthetic replacing his right arm. The reason why he started out emotionless was because the humans of that time had forgotten emotion, since the existence of Phiroids had removed any need to feel strong emotion. This brings up some interesting commentary on how technology is slowly replacing our need to work, think, and communicate openly with one another. It reminds me a lot of some of Ray Bradbury's works, among other hard sci-fi stories that I read in school. It may seem formulaic and cliché for these kinds of visual novels to pursue stories like this, but I feel the message here is unique among other sci-fi visual novels. It's not so much about humanity destroying themselves or replacing humanity with robots, it's about humans losing what it means to be human. What we see here is humans becoming the robots they created, destroying the very thing keeping their humanity alive. If people like Rei didn't come to realize this, humanity would have indeed become a shell of its former self.
I'm much happier with the ending of this story than with Planetarian's ending, at the very least. It feels conclusive, and it doesn't reek of poorly-utilized Key Magic. Although, if Harmonia had ended simply at Rei leaving to convert others to the idea of emotion and accepting Phiroids, I feel my thoughts on this visual novel wouldn't have changed much. Either way, I yearn for more of these characters. Give us a fandisc, Key! ;;
Some points I would like the podcasters to bring up:
What do you think of the message behind Harmonia? Did you feel it could have worked in a genre other than hard sci-fi or a setting other than a post-apocalyptic future?
Do you think the strong emotional labels each of the major characters other than Rei held made them compelling and essential to Rei's development? Is there any way you think could have been improved in this approach to storytelling?
Who do you think the scientist that woke up Shiona in the ending was? Has humanity truly learned something in recreating the utopia where humans and Phiroids coexist?
I look forward to the podcast~ ^^