Are you a musician? If so, have you ever felt as if your instrument had a soul? And have you ever wondered what kinds of stories your instrument could tell you if it could? I feel like my #1 bass guitar has a soul, and it most definitely has stories to tell, since it’s experienced things I have not (e.g., said bass has been in photo shoots with models and I have never even met one). The idea of an instrument having its own life fuels the premise of Viola: The Heroine’s Melody, a pixel art RPG/platformer by Jelle van Doorne.
Our protagonist is a sassy yet insecure violinist named Viola. One day, while trying to play a nigh-impossible piece, she nearly slams down her violin in frustration. In response, the violin magically sends Viola to a fantasy world where she embarks on a quest that will ostensibly teach her a lesson. Viola befriends a merry band of misfits as they fight to save this fantasy world from turmoil and help each other discover themselves.
Viola: The Heroine’s Melody‘s story has endearing moments of character interaction, particularly during the campfire cutscenes. One of the conversations even succinctly echoed a sentiment I’ve felt during my time in gigging bands. I also liked the positive themes of acceptance woven throughout the tale. However, I found the overall narrative somewhat choppy, wherein events would suddenly happen without any sensible transitions. This was especially true of the ending sequence, which felt disconnected, as if it didn’t fit with the rest of the story. There are three possible endings, and all three of them (including the best one) were unsatisfyingly meager compensation for my efforts.
In theory, the game’s happy blend of platformer, traditional RPG, and music/rhythm game elements should be a delightful combination. Metroidvania-style exploration, turn-based battles featuring timed button presses, and music/rhythm game sequences have the potential to come together into something delicious, but only if the most important ingredient ties it all together. That ingredient is tight and responsive play controls, and Viola: The Heroine’s Melody is lacking in that department.
The battles remind me of Virgo Versus the Zodiac in that they feature timed button press and hold sequences akin to rhythm games. I like this style, as it keeps combat fresh, but Viola: The Heroine’s Melody falls into the Legend of Dragoon trap where the timing of these button presses is overly finicky, imprecise, and a single missed button press leads to paltry damage. Along with standard attacks, timed button presses are needed to execute spells and special skills. The combinations required for spells and skills are complex, fast, and require hair-trigger precision. If you’re even one nanosecond off, the spell or skill will fail. To ease the tension, there are main menu options to turn off timed button presses for normal attacks, spells/skills, or both. However, these options are a double-edged sword: though progress is smoother and easier when turning them off, doing so feels like the bacon was extracted from a BLT sandwich.
The less-than-ideal control response not only affects battles, but makes the platforming trickier than need be. Due to floaty jump mechanics, simple jumps often took me multiple tries. Worst of all are the wall jumps. They are vital to progressing through the game, yet unwieldy to execute. I tried playing with both the gamepad and the keyboard, and though both were equally mushy in their responsiveness, I preferred using a gamepad because playing games like this on a keyboard is clunky. Try as I might, I could never get comfortable with the controls, even up to the bitter end.
There are ten characters to potentially recruit into Viola’s party, but only five can battle at a time, with party members on the sidelines earning half the EXP. Unfortunately, this means keeping everyone’s levels consistent requires character swapping and grinding. The game isn’t very long (approximately 10-12 hours), but the swapping and grinding made the playtime feel artificially padded. I could live without the convenience of non-participating characters earning full EXP, provided I could swap out characters during battles. Sadly, I could not do that here.
The awkward menu design made even simple tasks like swapping out party members inconvenient. In the party swap menu, there was no indication of characters’ levels. I had to go to an entirely different menu to get that information before performing swaps, requiring needless menu hopping. It also didn’t help that if I wanted to engage some of the optional difficulty parameters, I couldn’t do so on the fly. Instead, I had to exit the game, lose progress (since the game only saves at checkpoints and junctures), go back to the start menu on the title screen, and tinker with the options before finally returning to the game.
The mushy controls, finicky play mechanics, and inconveniently designed menus turned me off to the point that I eventually used some of the “cheat” options like “Double Experience” and even “Invincible Party” to just power through the game. Having opportunities to scale parameters to give yourself the optimal experience is nice, though. I wouldn’t necessarily call the game difficult, but the challenge felt artificial to me since I felt like I was fighting the game more than its sharply designed monsters.
There is no question about it, Viola: The Heroine’s Melody‘s colorful, pixel-art graphics look great. The vivid environments and character sprites are lovely, but the best graphics are reserved for the large and slickly designed monsters, which also animate smoothly. The expressive faces on the lizard-men were my favorite. I also liked the environmental design elements, such as the trees that looked like cellos. Dialogue portraits are expressive with animated facial expressions, lending emotion to the dialogue. The graphics and visual design are easily the strongest aspects of this game, and it looks far better in motion than it does in still images.
For a game themed around music, the soundtrack was surprisingly lackluster. I expected a dynamic and compelling soundtrack that would grab my ears, make me take notice, and linger in my brain. Instead, I found pleasant yet forgettable music. The pieces were nicely composed but did nothing more than simply get the job done. Not a single piece of music enticed me to linger in this world, stirred me to fight harder, or feel the emotional moments more intensely. If the music in a music-themed game doesn’t move me, then it has failed in its endeavor.
Despite having themes and concepts that speak to me, the game was ultimately a mediocre experience. I liked the vivid graphics and endearing characters but was turned off by the tepid music and mushy controls. My final thought regarding Viola: The Heroine’s Melody is that it’s simply another game that falls into my “I wanted to love it, but I didn’t” category.