Lost in Harmony iOS Review
Lost in Harmony is a love letter to the musical portions that added a jaunt to the brooding Valiant Hearts. The concept is exactly the same, the characters move left and right, avoiding obstacles that show up in rhythm with the music that is being played. Lost in Harmony takes a step forward though, adding a new mechanic that involves hitting stars with the rhythm of the song, it is very similar to the way a player must successfully hit notes in Osu! But the problem with all of these things combining together is that Lost in Harmony actually becomes less of a rhythm game about perfecting songs, and it becomes more about experiencing each level combined with their music. This is not a problem by default, Lost in Harmony’s predecessor did the same thing and other games such as Rhythm Heaven have also executed this style of rhythm very successfully. Unlike those other titles though, the experiences in Lost in Harmony rarely elicited emotional responses from me because there are never any stand out moments. By “stand out” moments, I mean to say that there are never any times that made me expect more from the game, from the first couple of songs it was clear what the rest of the game was going to have in store.
Each mechanic has problems that ultimately make them lesser than their predecessors and when they combine it only makes playing the game more frustrating. The portions where Kaito, the main character, is controlled seems like a simple game of avoiding obstacles but the way that the characters move through 3D space makes it hard to judge whether Kaito is in the clear or not. A car comes rushing from behind and I could try to predict where Kaito should be on the road, but sometimes that prediction is not enough. Once the second half of the game comes into play, Kaito starts to skate on curved surfaces, rather than the flat surfaces that don’t force him to move while he skates, now this must be constantly adjusted while still estimating where exactly he needs to be in order to avoid oncoming obstacles. Towards the end levels, these two parts of the gameplay become very frustrating while trying to manage the chaos that is attempting to stop Kaito from reaching the goal. The other part of play involves tapping or holding the stars that shine over the skaters’ heads in rhythm to the song and the way that it is designed doesn’t work as well as other rhythm games. It is crucial for any rhythm game to ensure that the timing of a note being played is conveyed to a player crystal clear, it makes completing a song even more satisfying. The stars in Lost in Harmony feel 90% clear though, a lot of times I would try watching the stars and I would be confused by when I was supposed to hit them in order to get a “perfect”.
The two mechanics are introduced separately and slowly as one progresses through the first quarter of the game. The player learns how to avoid cars, jump over oncoming obstacles and follow shining trails, then the stars are introduced. During this first half of the game, and even a little bit afterwards the gameplay feels like a solid balance of everything. The music synchronizes well with how the player is supposed to move and none of the sloped platform gameplay has to be managed while the player has to focus on the stars. Once the skating and the star-tapping combine, the experience feels less fun and it reveals the biggest problems during the the times that it tries to be difficult. By the second half of the game, obstacles are constantly being thrown at Kaito, not only to create a more difficult game but also to stay parallel to the music that is part of a level. The amount of things happening on screen and the way things combine together feel more like a chaotic barrage against the player rather than a satisfying, well formed experience. There are normal and hard versions of the levels, but they don’t seem like they distinguish themselves from each other enough to make me want to go through all of the levels again and repeat them.
The music in Lost in Harmony is typically a remixed version of a well known song. It ranges from “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to “Hungarian Dance No. 1”. There is some music that players will be unfamiliar with as well such an original song composed by Wyclef Jean. The way that these songs are used though feel out of place half of the time. The peak moments that combine music and gameplay come from the parts that focus on a single instrument such as a piano playing. Everything in the level can be absorbed, nothing feels too chaotic and the tone works well with the art style. A little over half of the game has harsh, electronic remixed versions of songs though, and it ends up feeling dissonant with everything else happening in the game. This feels like a direct inspiration from Valiant Hearts as that game’s music portions excelled at being comedic and also exhilarating. Lost In Harmony never has any moments that feel comedic or exhilirating because the story never cooperates with the gameplay to make the player feel that way.
Before I get into the story though, let me mention the custom levels that players can create and share. This is the portion of the game that I think has the most appeal depending on how well players react to it. Anyone can upload tracks from iTunes or SoundCloud and then create their own level for others to play and compete. I do enjoy playing songs from the Undertale soundtrack and the intro from One Punch Man, but the system still has some problems. I created my own level for others to play from the song “Strong in the Real Way” from Steven Universe and while I learned more about how I should play the game, I also can’t believe how frustrating the level creation tools are. So many of the buttons on the editor are sensitive so that a wrong touch could ruin something that a creator spent a lot of time on, the scariest case of this being the removal of stardust from the entire level. The way that songs are played in the editor is very limited which becomes extremely frustrating since the game revolves around being in time and on beat. Also the placement of stars in a level is very inaccurate and is almost impossible to precisely place. I could go on for a while about the problems that the editor has, and it will prevent many from creating levels that are well made, but for those who enjoy the game and want more, it is there for you.
Now, I cannot complete my thoughts about this game without mentioning the story because I think it is the most interesting aspect of this entire game, but it is also the weakest. There is a critical part of the story that I am going to mention below so if you are planning on playing the game I will just mention now that I may spoil some things. Lost in Harmony’s story focuses on the relationship between two characters, Aya and Kaito. The entirety of the story is viewed through Kaito’s perspective, in fact, all of the rhythm portions of the game are just dreams that Kaito is having. The way the story is structured watches Kaito text Aya over the course of many months. The two of them talk about school and the one time they went camping….with boars? A lot of times these texts between the two are just ways for the level to make half-sense because Kaito’s dreams are weird, and not in a fantastical way. Every time that Kaito dreams, it is immediately after texting Aya, they act as an escape from reality for him. But for some reason Kaito’s escapes involve him and Aya traversing poverty-stricken populations and totalitarian dystopias. It feels more like a hand reaching out from the developer to try and force the player to realize problems within our world but it is actually incredibly hokey.
The majority of texts, aside from the shoehorned level mentions are focused on Aya going through cancer treatment. This is where the biggest fault in Lost in Harmony’s story lie. Throughout all of “Kaito’s Journey” there is never any moments that show why I should care about these two characters and their friendship. It is all very gloomy as Kaito lays in bed with a stoic expression, never showing his happiness in reminiscing about camping aside from his unexpressive emojis. The conversations almost always are about something sad that is happening to Aya, and due to the attempt at writing dialogue entirely through teenage text messages it is hard to feel attachment to any of it. Instead, Lost in Harmony proclaims, “This character is dying and that’s why you should care about these two.” This is expressed immediately in the beginning through the texts between the two characters when Aya states that she is in pain and “they” wouldn’t tell her about “the results”.
Aya’s text stop being sent to Kaito after a certain point, where her mom informs him that she didn’t wake up that morning. This leads to Aya wearing a bandana during the musical portions of the game and this cannot be changed. So, if we take a look at that through a game design lense, it looks like Aya can unlock hair loss once the player reaches a certain part of the game, which makes me feel sick just typing. From what I have seen this cannot be changed either, there are menus that allow the player to play as a separate character or change Kaito’s clothes but no customization for Aya. It makes me sad too, because I don’t think that is how someone with cancer would want to be remembered. It isn’t that anyone is any less beautiful for losing their hair, but when we look back at our loved ones who we have lost, they should be remembered for who they were and the impact they had on others. We shouldn’t focus on the reason that they died.
Unfortunately, that is not my only problem that I have with the way that Lost in Harmony handles the idea of cancer either. The first instance of this that I found was in the gear that players can choose to fit onto Kaito. Many of these can be unlocked throughout the game but in each of the categories are yellow pieces of gear labeled as “Conquerer” that are locked at the top. These are in support of “No Hair Selfie” and World Cancer Day but the option to buy the gear is no different from the rest of the gear in the game that can be bought with real money. While the rest of that gear can be unlocked, this “Conquerer” gear can only be unlocked through buying it, and my biggest problem is that there is no way to tell if the money is actually going towards charity or fundraising, or if it just another unlockable item. If it is going to the developer then it feels deceiving and weird that they put the items in this game when people have already paid for the game.
If Lost in Harmony is a love letter to the musical portions of Valiant Hearts the paper is slightly damp from the nervous sweat of the sender and it doesn’t create any affectionate feelings for itself. The gameplay falls by trying to reach out for too much and the story is predicatable and weak. I may be able to suggest this game as a decent mobile title to play for someone who wants another rhythm game but the way that the game handles a character diagnosed with cancer makes me feel worse about its entirety.