Blinded by the light
From the moment htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary begins you can’t help but be pulled into its mystifying and enchanting world. Set in a dark and dilapidated storybook realm, the game begins with mysterious horned protagonist Mion waking up lost and alone on an operating table in a dark, decrepit room with no memory of how she came to be there. Suddenly, the flicker of a firefly illuminates the crumbling chamber and becomes the heroine’s guiding light as she explores a shadowy wasteland dominated foreboding shadows, deadly traps, and lost memories waiting to be found.
The crux of The Firefly Diary’s gameplay lies in its unique control scheme. Rather than control Mion directly as she navigates the game’s perilous stages, players use the Vita’s front and rear touch screens to manipulate a pair of fireflies that help Mion progress through the game’s hazardous environments. Lumen, the green firefly, is controlled by using the touch screen. Moving Lumen to a location will guide Mion. Similarly, if you want to make Lumen climb a ladder, simply fly to the top or bottom of the ladder and she’ll clamber up or down the rungs in the appropriate direction. Things get trickier when it comes to the second firefly, Umbra, who lives within Mion’s shadow. Tapping the rear touch pad will allow you to freeze time and interact with objects in the shadow realm. Manipulating objects and aligning shadows cast upon the world at just the right time is imperative, as solving the game’s increasingly complex puzzles will require clever use of both fireflies to overcome the many obstacles that bar Mion’s progress she works to uncover the secrets of her past.
While this sounds overwhelming, the game does a pretty good job of easing you into the rhythm things in the opening stages as you move blocks and operate switches with Lumen, and traverse the shadows to interact with hard to reach objects with Umbra. As you progress through the shattered industrial wastes of the game’s starting area you’ll have to death in the form of shadowy monsters, whirring saw blades, crushing pistons, and other industrial nightmares while you search for Mion’s memories. When you come across a memory, which appears in the form of a glowing plant, you’ll be transported into a pixelated, 8-bit inspired isometric world where you’re treated to brief glimpses of Mion’s past. These segments are endearing, and a stark contrast to the eerie environs that provide the setting for Mion’s adventure.
Unfortunately, while the opening hours of the game move by at a steady clip, things can start to fall apart when facing some of the The Firefly Diary‘s more frantic encounters and devious traps. One such example involves a particular gauntlet that requires you to steer Lumen through a complex and deadly gauntlet where touching the walls spells instant doom. Sadly, steering Lumen never feels especially precise, and dealing with the floaty touch controls can become quite frustrating. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that your hand ends up taking up valuable screen real estate, making it sometimes very difficult to get a full picture of what’s going on. Thankfully, you can change the controls from touch to the d-pad with the main options menu, which helps things substantially. Another point of frustration involves a particularly hairy boss encounter in which the enemy’s attacks are telegraphed by puffs of debris on the ground. That’s fine and well, but when the solution to defeating him requires you to drag objects across the floor, obstructing your view of those very lethal attacks, things quickly devolve from exhilarating to maddening, making hard fought victories feel less like moments of triumph, and more like a brief respite from a protracted waterboarding session at their very worst.
Moments like this are a real shame because when everything comes together The Firefly Diary feels like it has many of the hallmarks of a classic, full of clever puzzles with plenty of charm to spare. The various settings, from the labyrinthine industrial complex to the haunting forests and Mion’s home itself look fantastic, and are full of warm colors, deep shadows, and gorgeous hand-drawn details that make you want to learn more about this surreal and dangerous world. It’s a beguiling place you’ll want to become lost in, permitted you’ve got the patience to persevere through the same brutal boss encounter or devious deathtrap several dozen times in a row until you get it right. Gluttons for punishment who can endure The Firefly Diary’s uncompromising difficulty will find plenty to like here, but the game’s often uneven challenge certainly isn’t for everyone.
Thankfully, when you die a grisly death – and believe me, you will many times – load times are pretty much instantaneous. It’s also worth noting that that checkpoints are abundant, mitigating the stress of many of the game’s more laborious, multifaceted puzzles. Additionally, the game runs smooth, with no hiccups to speak of during even the most hectic scenarios.
While The Firefly Diary’s frustrating moments can dull the experience, I was still drawn to explore the game’s dark fantasy world. Scouring for Mion’s missing memories takes some serious perseverance, and you’ll find yourself wanting to replay each of the game’s four chapters to uncover as many as possible to unravel the full story. Even though it sometimes feels as if the game were designed as stress test to see just how durable your Vita is against the forces of drywall, Nippon Ichi Software has delivered a game that’s truly unlike anything else on the Vita.
With a bit more refinement htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary could have been an exceptional. Even still, despite its shortcomings and uneven pacing, the game’s light in the form of superb puzzle designs and endless charm is enough to overcome the darkness, offering a unique and captivating experience bound to test both your mettle and your patience.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software; Players: 1; Released: February 25, 2015 ; ESRB: Teen ; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary provided by the game’s publisher, NIS America.