Sony’s dream was for developers to create unique, beautiful, and inspired exclusive games for the Playstation Vita. Games that highlight the Vita’s unique qualities while maintaining a level of quality that would bring in a big enough audience for the system to fully take off. The horror puzzler htoL#NiQ – The Firefly Diary feels like it could have been one of those games. It makes use of both touch screens in a fairly interesting way, it has beautiful art that pops on the AMOLED screen, and it is a fairly consumable game for short handheld play sessions.
But even with all that — even with all of Nippon Icchi’s efforts — htoL#NiQ misses the mark.
In htoL#NiQ, you follow the story of Mion, an adorable little girl who wakes to find herself in a horrible world of ruin. She is woken up by a green firefly, whom the player controls, named Lumen. Lumen is important to Mion because they, as one could surmise from their name, light the way for the helpless young child. But Lumen isn’t alone. In the shadows cast by Lumen’s light lives Umbra, a firefly in the “shadow realm” who finds themselves connected to Mion’s shadow. The three traverse a post-apocalyptic world of spooky factories, creepy shadow demons, and frightening living plants, in hopes of finding safety and respite from the constant destruction around them.
While there is a fairly interesting world built around our characters, little about it is actually explained. There is no dialogue, barely any words of any kind, and the only true exposition that showcases something resembling conversation comes in the form of hidden collectibles or “memory fragments”. These memory fragments are tucked away in the environment or hidden behind more complicated puzzles and they give player’s a look into Mion’s past life. But even then, things are fairly obscure.
htoL#NiQ starts in a fairly grounded place and only gets weirder and weirder as you progress. Having some sort of narration or even the occasional collectible “note” to fill in the world would have been appreciated. Instead we’re left with a story that, at face value, is just a couple of fireflies leading a girl across a hellish landscape for some unknown reason. And that just isn’t compelling. Since completing the game, there seems to be an interesting story hidden underneath, but it’s just too hidden for the normal passerby to care.
But let’s talk about where htoL#NiQ really falls apart.
Let’s talk about how htoL#NiQ broke me.
htoL#NiQ piqued my interest fairly early on. First of all, you don’t control the technical main character. Instead, you guide her. You control two fireflies that Mion follows. The player… escorts a computer controlled entity throughout the whole game.
Say what you will about AI controlled partners, but I think most gamers can agree that escort missions are horrible and should be eliminated.
This entire game is an escort mission.
Secondly, htoL#NiQ caught me eye when I found out the game featured touch-screen only controls as its main control scheme. In an era of gaming where gamers can find decent experiences on just their mobile phones, I was ready to give the system a try. It was obviously the way the developers meant for the game to be played and it was an earnest attempt to make use of the back touch-screen of the Vita, something most developers seemed to have shied away from after the initial batch of titles for the system. I thought “hey, this might be something fresh and new. Maybe this will help developers see the value in the Vita’s touch-screens.”
By the end of it, that thought was “why was this game supposed to be played with the touch-screen?”
There are a few major problems with the game’s touch-screen controls. As I mentioned in my last point, players are not in direct control of Mion, the “main character”, but instead are in control of Lumen and Umbra. The idea is simple and when explained, sounds really interesting.
The front touch-screen is Lumen’s. You point your finger, Lumen goes to that point, and Mion follows. The back touch-screen is Umbra’s. A tap of the back screen plunges you into the shadow world, where Umbra can move across any shadows in the space connected to Mion. Luckily, time stops for Mion and Lumen and this world can often offer a breather. It’s the same concept as above, just a little less precise thanks to the disconnect of using a screen you can’t see. Lumen’s job is to move Mion through the space, tell her what to do, and to identify objects in the game world. Umbra is a little more hands on, as they can interact with many objects (buttons, levers, hanging dead bodies) through the shadow world.
That’s all fine and good. The concept is actually kind of brilliant and it makes use of the touch controls in a fairly unique way. But the execution of said concept…
Early on, it works alright. Mion kind of ambles through the world, walking slowly as Lumen guides the way. The puzzles you face are simple, calling for the fireflies to interact with the world and guide Mion through the space safely. Shadow beasts that can feast on Mion’s shadow, pits, and many other monsters offer up interference throughout the puzzles as well. They require occasional shifts between each realm, but seem to not want to overwhelm, as shifting quickly feels a bit odd, even discouraged as you cannot simply shift between worlds willy-nilly. It works, for the most part.
But things start to move faster. Puzzles get more complicated. There are more moving parts. Precision and speed are needed. And both of those cannot be found in touch controls, at least not in the way htoL#NiQ presents them. One puzzle in particular seems to be notorious for its difficulty, a section near the end that is essentially a giant maze in which the sides of said maze mean instant death for the player. Electric poles move up and down the screen to pressure you forward and they mean instant death as well. With the touch controls, players have to essentially tap their way through gingerly or face the game’s infuriating wrath. Infuriating is only one way to describe it and that is actually the second time a section like that appears in the game.
That brings me neatly to my last major complaint.
htoL#NiQ is too damned hard.
Truth is, I consider myself to be a fairly masochistic gamer. I enjoy running through a combo in Olli Olli 2 again and again until I get it perfect. I enjoy dying over and over again with a game like Super Meat Boy or even Dark Souls. I like to learn how a game works and eventually overcome the difficulties and emerge victorious. htoL#NiQ provides, mainly, artificial difficulty. I died over 100 times before I had finished with the second chapter. I know this, because the game gave me an achievement for it. And over the hundreds and hundreds of times I died while playing htoL#NiQ, I can probably count the times it was my own genuine fault on my fingers and toes. Whether it was Mion’s sloth-like movement, her finicky following of my commands, the obstruction of my playspace through my fingers being on screen, the horrendous checkpoint system (that also adds artificial length), the generally obscure puzzles (a few of which I think I broke through my own exploitation of the game’s systems), or even the few deaths that seemed to come from nothing, htoL#NiQ does everything it can to lose the respectable title of “difficult game” and it ends up just… frustrating.
The final act is probably the most enjoyable part of the game, as the game seems to go off the rails with its oddities and try some interesting new things. But even then, it ruins what could have been the best boss fight in the game by asking too much of the player.
And it all could have been so much better.
As I said before, early on, the systems all seem to work pretty well with eachother. The game doesn’t make you want to scream. It feels like a different kind of point and click adventure with some genuine horror elements. But then the game speeds up and asks you to swap between touch-screens under a time limit, while protecting a helpless creature that will actively run into harm’s way. And that’s just Chapter Two. Slower puzzles are still present in the later game and they are welcome breaks from the chaos of the rest of it all, but it could have been something else entirely if they stuck to what they did right at the start. On top of all that, there is just no reason for you to go through this game more than once. Trophies have insanely difficult requirements and the collectible memory fragments just aren’t worth it.
That isn’t to say that all that htoL#NiQ does is bad though. Far from it.
Nippon Icchi Software crafted a beautiful world with beautiful art with htoL#NiQ. It all feels like a soft, almost water-colored painting. From a rustic factory to lush forests, htoL#NiQ’s artists were on top of their game from end to end. Mion’s design is perfect as well. A genuinely adorable little girl who you actually want to help get through the world unharmed. When she does die, the screen flashes with blood and she falls to the ground. It works well against the pristine nature of Mion as a character, as do the enemies that manifest themselves as slimy plant monsters or eerily simple shadow beasts. The bosses in the game even feature fairly interesting designs themselves.
On the audio end, it isn’t so much what is done but instead what isn’t done. The lack of sound or music in certain instances creates tension as you progress through this abandoned world. When you first fall victim to a shadow beast, the sudden sharp noise of death is startling. But by the 200th time, it’s just annoying.
An honorable mention should go out to the horror aspects of the game. I found my heart racing a few times over and certain visuals are outright spooky. At the outset, I wasn’t sure how this game could be considered horror, but it does its job well by the end. Another honorable mention goes to the game’s non-frustrating and genuinely clever puzzles. Making use of light and shadow, some decent timing mechanics, and the good ol’ “box on a button” puzzle bring together some of my more enjoyable moments with the htoL#NiQ.
It should also be noted that htoL#NiQ does provide alternative control methods. One allows for all touch-screen controls to be done on the front touch screen and another allows for use of the analog sticks. Certain moments of the game were better to play with the analog sticks, but proved to be a touch too sensitive to provide the precision certain aspects of the game needed. It was my preferred method of play by the end, but it didn’t completely fix the issues that the game had by any means.
htoL#NiQ tries lots of new things but fails to do the basic things that make games fun. It provides gamers a new way to explore through the world but makes it frustrating to do so, it offers up what could be a compelling story and buries it in obscurity, and all in all tries to make the best of what it’s got, which isn’t much.
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 2/24/2015
MSRP: $19.99 standard edition, $29.99 limited edition
- Beautiful art and tone setting.
- Interesting concepts.
- A Vita exclusive in 2015.
- Horrible controls for what is asked of you.
- Mechanics that provide artificial difficulty and length.
- Obscure story that requires way too much digging on the player’s side.
Disclaimer: A copy of htoL#NiQ was provided to BentoByte by the publisher for the purpose of review.Tweet