By Drew D. / October 10th, 2019
I recently had the opportunity to play through the early access build of Viola. An ambitious passion project from a single developer, Jelle van Doorne, Viola is a unique mash-up of traditional RPG elements and platforming. Take all of that and encase it in a musical theme and you have an intriguing story of one girl’s personal growth as she discovers the hidden beauties of music as well as the beauty within herself.
Viola starts us off with a girl, named Viola, as she practices her violin (not a viola?) with little success and plenty of frustration. Ready to quit and smash her violin, the violin instead pulls her into a world within itself. Soon joined by a wolf named Fenrys, Viola sets off into Vylna, the world within her violin, to find a way back home. However, it won’t be so simple, as it seems that her presence has disrupted Vylna, the extent to which we do not yet know. Along the way, Viola will be joined by a musically adept cast of characters, whether it’s just to lend a helping hand, find out what’s happening to their world, or who may share Viola’s implicit, underlying desire to discover oneself.
Although Viola is in its early stages, I am already rather intrigued with its story. The overall themes of music as well as personal discovery and growth are both playfully and skillfully conveyed. There’s plenty of humor and a lighthearted atmosphere that contrasts nicely with the more bitter emotions and darker tones that will hopefully drive plot and eventual character growth. I also like the idea that Viola’s presence in Vylna is causing unforeseen duress and I hope this is also expanded upon. My hopes are that this level of story development is maintained, as the potential is enough for me to start emotionally investing in Viola and her inner journey.
As of now, some plots points are glossed over, implied, or ignored completely, leaving it to us to fill in the blanks. For example, the what, why, and how of Viola’s violin having a world within it and sucking her in is relatively unknown and my fear is that we will never know. As of now, we’re just supposed to accept it for what it is. This is leading me to think that there may be a twist waiting for us, such as this entire story occurring in Viola’s mind or a similarly styled, and overused, RPG story element. I’m hoping Viola avoids those more common plot twists and devices. I also noticed that several fantasy elements seen in other works are used here, yet are never expanded upon. This could have been an opportunity for depth and a way to make these common elements more individual to this particular story. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing, but don’t just copy it; make it yours. I’m being critical of these points because what I gleaned from this early access is so impressive that I want Viola to achieve the greatness that it can potentially reach.
As for the characters, Viola herself is set up to have some significant character growth. Her emotions can get the better of her at this point in the story, leaving room for maturation, a realization of her talents, and a deeper appreciation for both her developing skill set and the music she plays. I hope the parallel between Viola’s discoveries of the underlying magic of music, whether it’s the satisfaction of playing, the reward of hard work, or the joy of playing with others, and Viola’s self-discoveries is maintained throughout. Viola seems like a character worth investing in and I’m looking forward to her development. As for the supporting cast, my worries are greater, in that their characters seem set and I’ve seen little to no evolution to them. That’s not to say I don’t like them, in fact I appreciate Niko’s joviality and humor, and I’m enjoying Fenrys’ pure, genuine character. His desire to help Viola in any way he can simply because he wants to do so makes him an instantly lovable character. But, it’s looking like only Viola will be seeing any substantial growth. If her growth is as impressive as I hope, then the supporting cast’s role of simply supporting should be a non-issue.
Moving to gameplay, I am impressed with both the platforming and combat. Both are solid, as if I’m playing a finished product. The platforming is fun and simple while also showing off the colorful world of Vylna and rewarding players willing to explore. Wall jumps, spring boards, cannons, and a variation of Mario’s triple jump make the platforming a pleasant experience. The combat is especially remarkable, with the integration of the musical theme via rhythm based input. Standard attacks require an input of correct button presses at the right time for maximum damage. Skills take this further, having two or three sets of different inputs to achieve the skill’s activation. These inputs may require a button hold, a button mash, or again, a timed sequence of correct button presses. It’s rather unique and brings a degree of diversity to the classic turn-based mechanic.
I have zero problems with these inputs when it comes to activating skills; after all, music requires human input and I also expect special skills to enhance or at least be influenced by this “input” theme. I will admit that having to go through a timed input for every basic attack started to get old quick. Especially when I wanted to just get through a battle quickly, having that input process, even if it’s just an extra two button presses, became a noticeable issue. Again, for the skills, no problem, as I would expect it, but with its use for basic attacks, it can hurt play flow. Overall though, gameplay is tight and again, feels like a finished product than an early build.
Outside of combat, the musical theme takes a form similar to past Zelda games, as Viola learns new tunes with different powers. One opens doors, another lights Wishfires, the save and recovery points. There’s even a tune that warps Viola to bird statues in previously completed areas, reminiscent of Majora’s Mask. Those three are the only ones so far, but it looks like there will be plenty others and I look forward to what their influences may be.
The last gameplay aspects worth complimenting are the controls, which I found intuitive and easy to master. I would definitely recommend using a controller with all of the inputs needed during play. I don’t quite understand why Viola’s Steam page says “partial controller support,” as I have had zero problems using my Xbox controller. Using a keyboard is a bit more difficult, but no less satisfactory in build quality. Also, there is full customization for all types of control; always a good move.
Despite the strength in its execution, there are several issues with gameplay that do concern me. The reliance on Wishfires to save stood out, as they are few and far between. I found myself relying on the generous number of HP potions scattered throughout the maps. I would prefer either having the ability to save when I choose or to have more Wishfires, as reaching some are quite the enemy infested trek. Speaking of enemies, although I found enemies and the challenge level acceptable, I feel as if Viola and her team could very quickly become underleveled. I would call the challenge strict, in that you are nearly required to fight every enemy in order to maintain difficulty balance. Along with my gripe regarding combat and its pacing, I had a clear temptation to skip fights via platforming around enemies, but again, I sensed that if I had skipped more than a few fights, I would have been outmatched even by later normal enemies. Enemies hit hard here, so adequate leveling and a stock of potions are a must. And all of this again alludes to my want for more Wishfires and/or manual saves. Finally, the only game breaking bug I faced was when I tried to use that warp song I had mentioned. I don’t believe it’s fully implemented, for when I tried, my screen went black and I had to restart.
As a musically themed game, one would expect Viola to possess some impressive audio aesthetics and it delivers beautifully. The music is incredible, combining golden age RPG sounds with a fitting original score to produce a charming, vivid atmosphere. The battle themes are catchy and the background themes fit their environments perfectly. Even the Zelda-esque tunes are clever in their melodies. You can hear the passion and love that’s been put into the sound score of Viola. This is a soundtrack I very much wish to listen to in its entirety.
Not to be outdone, the visual aesthetics are equally impressive. This classic, 16-bit styled world is beautiful and emphasizes the fantasy elements and themes of music and discovery. The maps are a pleasure to explore and convey that sense of mystery that drives a desire to explore. The characters are all cutely depicted, demonstrating their charismatic personalities. I especially appreciate their face portraits in the dialogue boxes, as these all change to match the tones of the conversations and the moods of the speakers. These little details are numerous and clever, furthering my immersion. I can’t wait to spend more time seeing and hearing the world of Vynla.
At this stage, Viola already looks, feels, and plays like a finished product and I am simply amazed with the level of polish Doorne has achieved here. The platforming is simple, yet fun and if combat can be made a bit more flexible and faster paced, I think it will be perfect. So far, I’m intrigued by the story and I’m immersed in Viola’s struggles to the point that I wish to witness her growth to its climax. I hope she receives the quality of development already established and I hope the overall narrative quality remains high. And again, the aesthetics bring this world to life and make it an absolute pleasure to see and hear. This musically themed game is definitely one worth the discovery and I’m looking forward to playing Viola in the future.
Jelle van DoorneJRPGplatformerRPGUnityViola