By Kimari Rennis
Over the years, I learned that the exact book that you want to read has never been made, but you yourself have the power to make that narrative a reality. That same notion can be applied to the video game industry, where indie developers make the games that they want to see because they will never be created without them. Viola: The Heroine’s Melody is the game that Jelle Van Doorne wanted to see and he made it all on his own.
Fail after fail; that was her story. A short, young girl named Viola grew frustrated because she couldn’t play the song in her mind on her mother’s violin. When that disappointment turned to sadness and defeat, the violin rose out of her hands and spun until a black hole was made, sucking her in and dropping this young girl with a blond braid into the magical world of Vynla. Along with confusion, Viola is agitated at her predicament; being thrown into an unknown world filled with monsters and coming face to face with a jolly bipedal wolf. The unlikely pair set out on an adventure to fight monsters, find answers, and help Viola get back home. She meets many new friends along the way.
“Viola: The Heroine’s Melody is a love-letter to classic JRPGs and a 2D Platformer hybrid.” – Jelle Van Doorne
A love letter! There has been no truer, more honest description for this game. In this vibrant and musical RPG rather than exploring an open world, exploration is done through platforming in cleverly designed levels somewhat akin to Hollow Knight.
Cheery green forests have trees made out of large violins and cellos. Deeper into the woods, when you make your way to the secluded and protected Harpy Village, you’ll soon realize that the treetops they call home are made of saxophones. When the sky opens up on the bright, sunny day, you’ll see a white, beaming eighth note high up with one circle holding the sun, and the other, holding that black hole that was responsible for bringing Viola to this musical world. It’s stunningly imaginative stuff.
Also impressive in this JRPG with a musical twist is the combat in Viola: The Heroine’s Melody. To determine whether an attack is successful and the power behind it, you have to time specific button presses. If you miss a button, you don’t attack at all; if you’re late, you won’t do as much damage as when you were spot on and focused. The physical attacks are the ones choreographed with random button prompts, the spells and super moves known as “crescendos” are where you get into the meat of the combat system. These moves are not randomized, instead, they are unique in the way they test your speed and efficiency when it comes to pressing or holding the right buttons at the right time. Because of their unique rhythms, these spells and special moves can be memorized. So mastering the patterns is rewarding, almost like playing an instrument.
A very important message is embedded in all the key components of the game. That message is one of determination, self-love, and the importance of friendship when it comes to achieving personal and group goals. Despite all of the self-doubt that arises whenever Viola fails at playing her mother’s violin, there are moments where she shines through, moments that really reflect the progress that she has made. As you play on, you understand that doors embroidered with notes must have a song played in order for them to be opened. To light a campfire to rest and talk with your traveling party at night, another song must be played. There are moments where Viola gets to practice her violin and she hesitates because of her doubt. However, when she plays alongside her instrumentally skilled party, she has the confidence to play her mother’s violin and let the rhythm flow through her.
What’s even more clever about the music playing mechanic is that the more you do it, the better you get. Over the course of the game you learn strings of notes that you can play alongside the people in your party to open locked doorways or traveling to a different areas all over Vynla. All this reminded me of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Playing strings of notes is also how you pull of successful and more powerful attacks and spells in battle. The right rhytem is the oh-so-sweet reward of practice.
In the moments after a long level where you sit down at the campfire with all your friends, you have the choice to talk with everyone there. In doing so you learn more about their lives and personalities, and what truly makes them unique and therefore memorable. After talking with Niko, I learned this half cat and half boy was born without arms. Not only is Niko the talented spellcaster of the team, there are moments in the game during battle where he casts blue transparent hands in front of him. During his spells, he has hands! I also learned that despite his happy-go-lucky nature, Fenrys has an unfortunate past that he’s not comfortable disclosing yet. It feels as if he is on the run but is always willing to make someone else smile. On top of that, chatting helps. The people that you talk to may learn a new, powerful move that will be useful in battle.
Bias and then experimentation led me to the conclusion that playing Viola: The Heroine’s Melody is way better with a controller than with a keyboard. If the main mechanic of the game is pressing buttons in a timely and melodic fashion, I’d much rather feel the beat in the comfort of a controller. The 30 minutes of frustration that came from failed attacks because I was misplacing my fingers at the keyboard was unnecessary for a wholesome game like this.
My favorite character in the game, which I have the audacity to say is the best character in the game, is Fenrys. This bipedal, friendly wolf is donned in leather and steel, and his instrument is also the Double Bass – which is as big as he is! Fenrys radiates swagger, not only in his character but also in his stats in battle. By howling at the moon with the simple press of a button, he can increase the strength of himself or one party member, allowing them to deal more damage. Sporting one of the highest attack stats in the game, Fenrys cuts, bites, and slashes his way to victory like a fuzzy gladiator.
I found this game even more enjoyable due to the fact that during the pandemic, I bought an acoustic guitar and began to learn how to play it. Unfortunately, Scott Pilgrim and KK Slider stickers don’t make you a good guitar player. Practicing does, and I am very bad at playing guitar. I felt the same frustration that Viola did and watching her grow throughout the game made me want to pick up my instrument and do the same. Thank you, Viola.
When I first saw the game on Steam and looked at the art, I had my doubts; the looks of indie games sometimes can be quite deceiving. What I first believed were distastefully bright colors and a random assortment of characters soon became the very same reasons I would smile as I played. There was a method to the indie game creator’s madness and I understood what he was trying to pull off as soon as I played. As a young game designer, I have found so much appreciation for games such as Viola: The Heroine’s Melody. Every moment that this game has been in development and baking in the toasty oven that has been Early Access was well worth it. I’m so happy with this wonderful reality of bits and bytes, especially during these tough times.
Kimari Rennis is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle, and is a game design student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.