Game: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS Vita (PlaystationTV compatible)
Release Date: February 24, 2015
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
All Alone in the World
A girl awakens on December 31, 9999 to a broken world. The meek have not inherited the Earth. The shadows do not linger quietly any longer. Nightmarish creatures inhabit them now. But the light isn’t gone yet, for it seeks to lead this sliver of a human through the ruins of Man’s folly. This mere waif, with branches sprouting from her head, not only seeks to find out just who she is but what happened to this world.
The setting of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is bleak. Death is a reality that sinks in quickly. It is a storybook stained with blood and the tale it weaves is one of mystery, family, and of a world that has long since moved on. htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary (a stylized spelling of Hotaru no Nikki: The Firefly Diary) is a puzzle game that requires the player to lead heroine Mion through a perilous landscape with Lumen, a green fairy of the light, and Umbra, a purple fairy of the dark. Everything appears in shades of beige, brown, or gray with hints of color here and there. A grainy film filter permeates the game and lends itself well to the overall presentation. The story, decidedly dark and actually a bit surprising in parts, is told through fractured memories collected via small saplings. They are lone smudges of color in contrast to an otherwise dreary landscape. These bits of recollection are presented in an isometric style that is, frankly, adorable. However, it is unsettling as the narrative slowly shifts from the quaint and cute to outright grimdark woe.
In a way, it’s fitting that such a slow turn towards a gloomy narrative would be accompanied by gameplay that produces frustration, with deaths by the dozen per puzzle. This is the sort of difficulty reserved for games like Dark Souls. It would be unfair, however, to outright compare the two as they’re both quite different. The character at the helm of each of those titles at least has armor, shield, and a sword. But Mion can’t even jump. She would be ill-equipped to handle the rigors of the hellish landscape that she treks, if not for Lumen and Umbra. The two fairies that accompany her can be controlled via the Vita’s touchscreen and back touchpad. The front takes control of Lumen and guides Mion along, pushes her to scale up ledges, move boxes, etc. The touchpad on the rear of the Vita pauses time to dive into the realm of shadow, where Umbra’s power comes into play. The player can then zip through shadows in the foreground and background to interact with objects of all kinds. These can range from huge whirring fans, conveyor belt switches, and more.
Those who imported the game prior to localization were stuck with this setup. Touchscreen and rear touchpad only result in countless deaths. The puzzles that festoon the desolate ruins of htoL#NiQ require precise actions executed with one-to-one accuracy that, sadly, doesn’t occur as it needs to. Thankfully, the North American/European release offered alternate control schemes — arguably better than those aforementioned touch controls. The second alternate setup makes use of the left analog stick to control Lumen and Umbra. The rest can be taken care of with the Triangle or X button. The maddening difficulty of large sections of the game diminishes significantly once touch-only controls are either subtracted from the equation or replaced minus the rear touch-pad. Controller Option C will likely be the preferred setup; to capture the true spirit of the game, try Option B. With B, Lumen can still be controlled fairly well via the touchpad while a small purple icon can be clicked to activate Umbra. There’ll be none of the accidental back-tap frustration and only the more accurate front screen needs to be used.
Alternate means of control are fine and all but the game’s biggest problem stems from them. The puzzles range in difficulty from laughably easy to soul-crushing in their frustration. Success depends on pattern memorization, trial and error but Mion’s slow response time to player input makes everything tedious.
Our heroine strolls along on like a lost lemming through every encounter, tends to spend far too long stuck on objects when they need moving, and generally helps to inflate the game’s difficulty and the length of the game. htoL#NiQ, minus all the unnecessary deaths from unresponsive controls or bad luck, takes about four to five hours tops. Once trophies like “Undying Resolve” (for dying 100 times) start showing up expect to invest somewhere in the neighborhood of 9-11 hours in Hotaru no Nikki.
The trial and error approach that’s necessary to work through the game feels arcane though it never truly wears one down to the point of giving up. Preventable deaths (due to player error) leave room for improvement, and games that thrive on that mentality have seen a rebirth in the last five years. Grinding away on a solution to a particularly mind-melting problem can be quite intense and, not surprisingly, there are plenty of tense moments throughout Hotaru no Nikki‘s short span. htoL#NiQ feels, in more than few ways, reminiscent of Ico. Ueda’s towering achievement for PS2 featured a story told with little to no words, impeccable art direction and puzzle design that was top-notch. Hotaru no Nikki can count those among its best traits, but solid controls are not one of them.
This Too Shall Pass
The war of attrition that are the second to third stages of the game will test the player’s constitution. Can you stomach this many deaths in a row? Are you the sort that will die 30-40 times in a row on a single sequence of one area in a game? That rush of defeating this wicked game, even if only temporarily, is what keeps those hooks burrowed deep. Once the story really opens up more and the gravity of Mion’s situation begins to show up the game opts for a more balanced approach.
The final boss, however, will be a bit of a letdown compared to the rest of the stage bosses. All of them require smart play, more so than sheer luck. The final showdown, on the other hand, requires a blessing from a pantheon of deities to complete it. A penultimate encounter that relies so heavily on luck to finish things is bothersome but doesn’t stop the game from being compelling from beginning to end.
htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary splashes crimson all over a dystopic sic-fi tale. It is steeped in atmosphere from its music to its storybook presentation, and offers enough mystery making it tough to put down. The short length of the game is padded by what will amount to boatloads of unnecessary deaths due to some clunky controls. The rush of finally mastering that next sequence, though, is worth the sacrifice. Be sure to get all the memory sequences to see the “true ending”. It is worth it.