Never judge a diary by its cover
Waking up in an unfamiliar place can be scary, and it doesn’t take experience to be aware of that. You don’t know where you are, what you’ve been doing, or how you got there. Imagine waking up in a new environment, or better yet a new environment that appears to be quite unfriendly and completely devoid of anything familiar. What would you do in that situation? The easy decision would be to wait for someone to find you, or for something, preferably something good, to happen. What if you didn’t have the luxury of waiting, though? Would you be able to persevere through a terrifying and dangerous situation in order to find safety? Regardless of your answer, I’m sure that most of us could agree on the fact that such a situation would be quite daunting, and it is the very same, unsettling, circumstance that htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary begins with.
The Firefly Diary boasts a story that is quite to the point, and does very well overall in terms of saying a lot without saying much at all. The game begins with Mion, a young amnesiac girl, waking up on a table in a small room. Before she can even begin processing her current situation Mion is greeted by Lumen, a seemingly-friendly bright green firefly that appears to be more fairy folk than insect. Although just having met, Lumen seems eager to have Mion follow and Mion, not having any idea what to do, decides to comply. Shortly after meeting Lumen, Mion is introduced to Umbra. Unlike the eager-to-lead Lumen, Umbra is always careful to stay within the shadows and provides assistance from there when possible. Though still completely clueless, Mion soon realizes that cooperating with her two new allies is the only way to uncover the secrets of her past, and survive the deadly surroundings of the present.
The gameplay found within The Firefly Diary is rather unique. While at first glance it may seem to present itself as a puzzle-platformer, players will actually find that they are not in direct control of Mion. Rather, players are given control of her two mysterious firefly friends, Lumen and Umbra; both of whom are exclusively controlled via mouse (although their purposes differ greatly). Lumen, a firefly composed of light, serves as a literal guide for Mion. Controlling Lumen is quite easy, requiring nothing more than left-clicking and holding the mouse down in a specific location to guide Lumen to that spot. Where Lumen goes, however, Mion will follow. Unless Mion is made to sit down (which can be done by double clicking on her directly), she will constantly follow Lumen, stopping whenever she catches up. Lumen is also capable of getting Mion to perform simple actions such as climbing ladders, flipping switches, or pushing and pulling boxes through clicking and the use of precise upward and downward movements (when applicable).
On the other side of the proverbial coin is Umbra, a firefly who lives in the shadows (specifically Mion’s). By right-clicking the mouse, players both gain control of Umbra and are sent to the world of shadows in which time stands completely still. While Lumen is incapable of interacting with objects, instead guiding Mion to perform actions, Umbra is capable of flipping switches and triggering mechanisms without assistance. Umbra is not without weaknesses, however. Being comprised of shadows means that Umbra cannot touch the light, requiring players to make sure that proper shadows are cast by objects or creatures in order to create a path for Umbra. Though the mechanics of controlling either firefly individually are quite simple, the puzzles within The Firefly Diary require thought-out, and quite often carefully-timed, use of both Lumen and Umbra cooperatively. Unfortunately, though the premise is quite enticing, completing puzzles is much easier said than done. While early levels are generally quite friendly, it becomes relatively easy to get caught up trying the same small parts of later levels over and over again. This would have been totally okay if it were due to puzzles being especially clever or requiring an advanced skill level, but the sad truth is that we have artificially-inflated difficulty to thank. Mion, in contrast to the two fireflies, is incredibly slow-moving and doesn’t always seem to want to follow directions properly. Thanks to this, you’ll most likely find yourself throwing your hands up in exasperation quite frequently as Mion walks past ladders, falls off cliffs, or fails to let go of an object at the proper time, resulting in an untimely and rather gruesome death of the poor girl. This isn’t to say that all of the puzzles are bad or unfair; when they work, they work quite well and are generally quite satisfying to complete. However when puzzles don’t quite work they really don’t quite work, and it is those few less-than-stellar puzzles that can really leave you feeling stressed and desperate to complete the level-at-hand.
A second, smaller, and largely optional portion of The Firefly Diary is the collection of Memory Fragments. Presented as small pink sprouts found within each level, collecting these fragments will thrust players into a cubic, pseudo-3D-inspired world which represents Mion’s past and are very important to players who wish to fully comprehend the story of The Firefly Diary. These “bonus levels” within each level are danger-free, and generally just require you clicking on an object for Mion to pick up, then clicking on a person to make Mion hand the object over (and sometimes you don’t need to do much of anything at all). The point of these Memory Fragments isn’t extra gameplay however, but a chance to look into just what exactly happened to Mion. Each Memory Fragment gives you just enough story to help players become a little more clear on Mion’s situation, but always ends before you are completely satisfied. This formula felt to be largely successful and helps to directly contrast some of the more frustrating moments within The Firefly Diary. While a lot of the levels may leave you wanting to take a break from the game, the enticing promise of Memory Fragments just may keep you hooked long enough to see that level through.
The Firefly Diary takes a very unique approach to visual atmosphere, adopting an overall art style that could best be described as “cute” despite the game’s dark and largely gruesome overtone. Rather than taking any sort of realistic approach, characters are drawn in a largely simplistic, almost chibi-styled way. Indeed this artistic decision isn’t a normal one by any means and certainly presented a potential risk in terms of harming the overall atmosphere, but surprisingly it did not. Rather, this detailed, “cute-yet-gruesome” approach served to further ground in any sort of shock and horror presented within the game. I believe that this is because, generally, when we see an artistic style that is overly-cute we are prepared to let our guard down; cute things are supposed to make us feel safe and happy. Well, as you most likely know by now, The Firefly Diary is neither safe nor happy. The contrast created by this game when viewing, let’s say, an adorable chibi girl being sliced into by saw blades, creates an extra level of shock due to the natural expectation that cuteness and gore are completely incompatible. While it may be a bit much for some people, the way in which it presented is incredibly well-done and creates a very unique experience visually.
While not in any way shocking or groundbreaking, the music within The Firefly Diary was of good quality as well. Rather than tracks presenting any sort of overtone, the music within the game was generally comprised of atmospheric and background soundtracks. Sometimes soothing but almost always haunting, the tracks always seemed to fit in well with whichever intimidating hellscape that Mion was currently in. The music featured within boss battled is a bit more amped up than normal, correctly matching the increased danger of the situation, but still largely takes a backseat to both the art and the gameplay (although not in a bad way).
All-in-all, htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is a bit of a mixed bag. It boasts a style of gameplay that is largely unique, along with a gripping story and an incredibly appealing art style. The way the game presents itself honestly makes you want to press onward, just to find out every little detail surrounding Mion and her firefly compatriots. Unfortunately, a large amount of artificial difficulty stands in your way. If the not-always-smooth control scheme isn’t enough to frustrate you, then Mion’s inability to comply with what you are trying to get her to do 100% of the time certainly will. Still, the mixed bag that is The Firefly Diary does contain more good than bad. If you’re in the market for a dark, well-crafted story, and are willing to patiently push through the more frustrating aspects of the game, it’s probably worth checking out.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) Vita ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software Inc. ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 18, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam review code provided by the publisher.