Ah, reliable PS Vita snapshot function. How we love you, friend. This game adds a big ol' watermark, but that's OK, right?
Click each picture to embiggen, as is tradition around here. But, like me, you might take a sick bit of pleasure from knowing that my writer cohort died after taking a lot of these screenshots. And yes, this review is based on the PS Vita version of the game, as played on import. We have not covered the Steam release properly... Yet. It hasn't been cheap enough for us. Anyway, even though we played the import version, we'll mostly be using The Firefly Diary title seeing as it did eventually get localised.
Finally, shoutout to Ultra Powerful Pal of Gaming Hell Kimimi, who cheered us on through the game, and who beat the import release with touch controls. Now that's hardcore.
I wanted to love this game.
I really, really did.
(There's your disclaimer for the text below, folks!)
Released by Nippon Ichi in mid 2014 in Japan and later for the rest of us- this review's based on an import copy of the PS Vita version as there's almost no in-game text- htoL#NiQ, as it's typed out (Hotaru no Nikki for those who want to be able to pronounce it, The Firefly Diary outside of Japan) was really promising from the start. An exclusive Vita game that doesn't fuel my Project DIVA problem! Really creepy and haunting visuals! Using my wits to solve puzzles! So I went for it. I needed something for the old Vita anyway, lest it became just a portable Umihara Kawase Shun device. However, I didn't start playing it straight away, and perhaps I should've, as a few people in the world of Twitter got a headstart and most of it was along the lines of "This game is way too hard, don't even bother". Now, as a general rule, I'm probably just average at games- I can hold my own but generally I'm not a Super Player, unless it's The NewZealand Story where I'm slightly above average- but I pressed on, with the kind of unerring overconfidence that only the strongest (that's me, obv) can get away with.
Mion, a little girl with horns on her head, wakes up in the desolate future of the year 9999, and has to avoid the shadow creatures and other nasty things trying to kill her in the mysterious ruins she finds herself in. Her sole companions are two fireflies- a green one that's on Mion's plane of existence and a purple one that dwells in the shadow world. Rather than control Mion directly, you move the green firefly with the analogue stick (that's how I played it, at least- more on that later), and she follows it. The green firefly can also issue commands to get her to perform actions like pull switches or sit down, but it relies on having Mion physically interact with stuff. Switch to the purple firefly with a button-press, and it all goes a bit dark, showing all the shadows in the area. It can only move along those shadows, but it can also interact with switches and items directly without Mion's involvement- usually less obvious stuff like a weak supporting beam or a gas-generating pipe. Getting past the deadly obstacles in the way- including mysterious shadow beasts, gigantic sawblades and flamethrowers- require the use of both fireflies interacting with the environment to deactivate, incapacitate or flat-out avoid these hazards. Each stage in a chapter also has a hidden memory fragment to collect which fleshes out Mion's horrid backstory in a small semi-interactive cutscene, but you usually have to go out of your way to find them.
Let's get the nice stuff out the way- visually and atmospherically the game is amazing. The characters and environments look and feel like they're paper cut-outs, almost like a children's book, but there's also this darkness surrounding the very edges of the screen, as if you're viewing the action through a slightly dirty lens. The environments aren't particularly varied- mostly underground ruins, abandoned factories and one brief excursion outside- but the heavy (and interactive) use of shadows, the understated music and the fact that you know threats are lurking around every corner gives each area a very haunting, threatening vibe. The game exemplifies doing a lot with a little- there's practically no text, what story is here in the memory fragment sections is told through actions rather than words (so if you're like me you have to clumsily try and piece it together and fail)- and where it succeeds is really unnerving the player. Some areas, especially later on, use 'glitching' visuals to powerful effect (hell, even picking up a memory fragment causes the screen to glitch out abruptly) and some of the later memory fragments are very unsettling- to be more specific, highlight to view what we mean, such as a cloning process gone wrong leading to some dying Mion clones left to die in a lab, and one terrifying scene where Mion confronts a clone turned into a hideous goopy shadow creature and the game glitches out very suddenly with no warning. This game gets pretty dark (if not for the blood-splatter effects upon death, then the corpses you find later on) so this would be the ideal game for a proper fright.
I say would because the game itself does its best to completely ruin everything. The thing is, I've basically outlined the game mechanics to you almost completely. There's really not that much to it- figure out the puzzles, work out how to use the green and purple firefly to make progress, and maybe go looking for the memory fragments, but beyond a section where Mion gets an umbrella that lets her fly with gusts of wind, that's about it. What htoL#NiQ gets wrong is that the game's difficulty is the worst kind. It's not difficult because the puzzles are intricate or necessarily require a lot of thought, but because actually controlling Mion is imprecise- she follows the firefly, after all, not your specific inputs- yet this rarely gels well with the hazards or obstacles, so you get a situation where even the simplest of things like moving out of the way of a falling object become far harder to overcome than they should be. The game often demands just a smidgen more precision than what you can really do. When the game's being quiet and just pushing stuff about or figuring out how to get past a blockade, then generally the controls are adequate. The minute there's any kind of threat, they go out the window and become way more frustrating than fun to conquer. It's less a case of "I figured that one out!" and more "Oh thank goodness the controls didn't botch it up for me", and that's a poor show.
So, we're going to do things a bit differently this time.
We're going to analyse three specific sections of the game and see why they don't work.
First up to bat is the Chapter 2 boss, a chompy robot with a bad attitude.
(Oh yeah, this game totally has bosses).
The basic idea here is pretty simple- this boss will either roar and cause debris to fall, use a close-range flamethrower attack or try to bite you. There's a switch behind you at the start, and stepping on it it spits out a dynamite box from the tube above you (don't go near it while it's falling, by the way, or it'll kill you). Push the dynamite near the robot when it's about to do its bite attack to hurt it, repeat three times and Bob's your uncle. Simple! Except you will die seemingly at random because of debris that falls from the top of the screen (you're given a tiny visual clue but it's given so far in advance you'll forget and even if you don't you'll probably be stuck pushing the box so you won't be able to move out the way fast enough), Mion moves very slowly when pushing the box so you'll need to detach her from it (by moving the firefly to below her, which only seems to work if you believe and clap along) as if you don't and the robot uses either of his attacks when you're near the dynamite he'll kill you, and once you defeat the 'bot it'll launch a missile so you have to hide in one of the containers in the background and use the purple firefly to destroy the missile in the brief moment it's in the robot's mouth otherwise you have to start again, and god-damnit where did that debris come from have I got to start this whole thing again PLEASE NO
Sorry, give me a second to get my breath back.
This was one of the earliest sticking points in the game, by the way. Set the tone for the rest of the game!
Next, what I consider the worst section of the entire game: The Irritating Maze.
Showing up in Chapter 4-3, this is the second of two such sections in the game, where Mion is out of your control, and you guide the light firefly by itself through a shadow maze. You must make it to the end without touching the shadowy walls, as they spell instant death. You must also navigate part of the maze while hemmed in by two moving lightning rods, as they too spell instant death. Finally, there's a spiralling circle of shadows that must be navigated by switching the rotation from clockwise to anti-clockwise without touching the walls, as they spell instant death. The section pictured on the left- the second checkpoint- is by far one of the hardest, most frustrating sections of any game I've played in a long time and it's all down to the controls. In these sections, accuracy is key as brushing anything makes you start from a checkpoint. However, the firefly itself kind-of... Hovers. It moves, ever so slightly, in a circle pattern. If you tap a direction at the wrong time during its little circling pattern, rather than lightly move in that direction, it'll lunge quickly instead, usually slamming into a wall, forcing you to restart the section. Holding the direction doesn't help much either, as the PS Vita analogue stick is not up to the task of such precision and you'll inevitably slide into one of the walls and back to the checkpoint for you, asshole!
I'm still not sure how my Vita itself avoided getting slammed into a wall in this section.
... Oh, by the way, did I mention there's a time-sensitive puzzle inbetween the second and third sections? Sorry, it must've slipped my mind. You have to quickly take control of one of those bulb-spitting plants to hit a switch. A switch you can't actually see at first brush, as it's a little off-screen. Failure to do so will result in Mion having a date with the business end of a flamethrower and force you to repeat the second section, almost certainly the most aggravating section in the entire game. The problem here is that the view is very zoomed-in while controlling the green firefly, and the shadow walls will still kill you so you don't want to move too much, but you have to time going to the shadow world just right otherwise you'll miss it and BACK YOU GO.
This... This was not fun.
The first time this happened, I might have cried, just a little, because it took me so long just to get through the maze section, but then I was blindsided by this puzzle with almost no way of knowing what the hell to do, and then I had to go back to a checkpoint (and got back to it about half an hour later). When I played this section during my second run of the game- because of course I had to finish it off- it was even funnier as I solved the puzzle but forgot, briefly, that the green firefly would die upon touching any black walls, and careened into one and had to do the previous section again. Only took five minutes this time.
I'm ending on not necessarily the hardest part, but one of the more baffling elements of the game.
An item I'm certain was put in the game specifically to wind people up.
Near the end of Chapter 3-1, Mion finds a mushroom item that causes a giant fungus to grow on her head. At first, I assumed that I had to find a way past the mushroom without touching it, as every time I did, I ended up walking off a cliff and dying, with Mion seemingly out of my control. After racking up an impressive number of self-inflicted drownings, I figured out that the giant fungus reverses your controls. Rather than follow the green firefly, Mion will go in the opposite direction (this includes ladders) and she will no longer sit down or stop at all. However, this only lasts for a few moments, as you quickly find a ceiling fan that shaves it off.
Until the next stage, where you almost immediately get mushroomised and it lasts the entire stage.
This includes a gruelling vertically-scrolling, air-current-propelled gauntlet of spike traps that require almost pixel-perfect precision to navigate (if your timing's off, which it will be because of the controls, then eat spikes, kiddo), shadow enemies on the ceiling that you'll keep forgetting are there (including one right by a checkpoint, so if you blunder into it like I did, back you go) and seriously your controls are reversed who thought this was a good idea. Fortunately, after this section, you never have to deal with the fungus again until after the final Irritating Maze section, and it's a mercifully brief moment. Still, it almost feels like this was put in as a prank, a joke on the poor player who's made it this far.
Oh, but you haven't heard the best part!
All of that stuff above refers to playing the game with button controls!
Before the game was patched shortly after its release, the only control scheme available was entirely touch-screen based- either front screen to control the green firefly and back screen for the purple one, or both on the front screen with a toggle to switch between them. To my shame, I never tested the touch controls extensively, but I did attempt some of the Irritating Maze segments and oh man how is a human supposed to do this I mean holy shit NO. If I was having trouble getting almost anything done with the button controls, how well do you think the touch controls work?! Not very well, from what little I tried and what almost everyone else has told me! And look, readers, I love you but not enough to play through htoL#NiQ a third time. A line has to be drawn somewhere.
There's many other sections I could rattle off like I did above. Some include the maze of doors in 4-1 (which is fine except for one door that leads to instant death with absolutely no way out), what's essentially a scrolling shooter section in 4-2 where you have to aim a seed-spitting plant on a moving platform (if they rebound and hit Mion, too bad, and good luck aiming that thing properly), and the horrible Chapter 3 boss where you start actively cursing up a storm as Mion gets impaled by roots your were just a pixel off avoiding. What makes it worse is there's a small handful of clever sections sprinkled in too, mostly near the beginning, like using the smoke to create shadows in 1-2 and the little maze of switches and bridges in 2-1. Hell, my favourite moments in the game are the quiet ones (the ones that make for really striking screenshots, like finding the moon hidden in 3-2) but they're so rare in a game of constant failure and frustration.
Like I said, I really wanted to like this game. Far more than I did. I even figured that I wasn't being fair and went back to the game after beating it, and started to have fun- the puzzles weren't high-level but they were enough, the atmosphere was dense and a little haunting, and while I had a few failures, it was less due to the controls and more down to me. They weren't getting in the way at all! It pretty much changes around Chapter 2- I'm mostly thinking the bit pictured above where the circular saws move up and down, where the timing is so weird and imprecise that you'll almost have to die at least once- and from there the game just turns into a frustrating, maddening experience. It's not that I don't like tough games. I play The NewZealand Story on the hardest difficulty setting for fun. htoL#NiQ goes about it the wrong way- the difficulty is thrust upon you by the bad controls and mean-spirited traps and hazards rather than any more legitimate challenge. As a result, it skews far closer towards frustration than fulfilment.
This was a hard one to give a rating to, honestly. Consider this a very borderline 2 rating- I don't feel the game is horrendously bad enough to warrant 1 star. It feels closer to a King of the Monsters 2 than a Crime Fighters kind of situation- there's probably a half-decent if perhaps toothless mechanics-wise game hiding under here that could be eked out if a bit more time was spent fixing it (specifically I'd completely rework the controls to offer more precision, and add a button specifically to make Mion sit down on command rather than have to click her, as any other clickable items in the vicinity take priority which is infuriating). As it stands, htoL#NiQ is vexing in more than one way as it's aggravating to play but also aggravating that it really nails its gloomy, downbeat atmosphere and could've been more than it is.
Also, if you want to go for the true ending as I did- like a fool- then good luck, you'll need it!
For being just brutally unkind, htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is awarded...
In a sentence, htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is...
A tiny ball of vexation.
And now, it's that time, folks!
And now just a few miscellaneous notes- mostly the game's release and official website.
In Japan, the game was given a limited physical special edition called the Premium Box version... But this is a bit different from your industry standard, as if you wanted a physical copy, this was your only option. Unlike the Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Vita Special Edition (which was a code in a box, no seriously), the htol#NiQ Premium Box actually came on a cartridge (no manual though), and also came with an artbook, a CD of the game's soundtrack, two Mion pin-badges, and a big outer box to keep all of it in. If you missed out, you'll either have to get the digital download version or look on eBay and openly weep at the prices this is going for.
Next, the US and EU versions of the game came out on 24th February 2015 for the US, 4th March 2015 for the EU.
Not too much to talk about here, but surprisingly the game had a limited edition physical release on the NISA Store that was very similar to the Premium Box version, just missing the two Mion buttons. This, too, is now no longer available, so you'll have to go for the digital release instead. As far as differences go, I'm reasonably certain the only real difference, beyond what little text there is being translated, is that the English versions are pre-patched to include button controls as standard. Sorry, but I'm not playing this on Vita a third time to be double-safety-sure.
A year later- 18th May 2016 to be precise- htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary made the jump to Steam.
Of course, the main thing here is that being on PC, you can play this with a mouse which would almost certainly be a better solution... Although I'm not sure it would completely save the game. At some point in the future, Gaming Hell is doomed to cover this particular version because I put it on my Steam wishlist and someone bought it for me, so it currently sits in my backlog, watching me, judging me for my words and deeds. Someday, someday, we'll get to it. For now, one notable thing about this version is that there was a publicised beta about a month before release, and one thing the developers were trying out was a 60FPS mode, as the original game ran at 30FPS. Turns out the game's processing speed was tied to framerate and so running at 60FPS made the game run twice as fast, thus making it impossible to play properly. Despite this, some people in the comments were still begging for 60FPS to be supported, proving once again that all framerate cops are bastards. Or something like that.
The other thing of note is the Japanese website for the game which includes, as pictured to the right, a pseudo-endless runner game you can play where Mion gets launched out of a cannon and you control her jumps and umbrella deployment with mouse-clicks to avoid shadows and gaps. I say pseudo-endless runner because the layout is not randomised and it does, in fact, have an end after 1000 metres- there's some smaller platforms that you can actually roll on top of (I thought you couldn't) and the final section has a few of them in a row. If you miss them, you'll encounter a huge shadow monster you have no chance of avoiding, but use the platforms and you can sail over it. Do so and you'll reach the end and unlock a cute wallpaper. We'd share it with you but... No way! You gotta get it yourself, punk!
Oh, and, er, finally, we have a bit of map-drawing from me.
I was stuck!
Behind-the-Scenes trivia: the original draft of this was just a bunch of blood-splattered Game Over shots.
Interspersed with swearing.
Didn't really convey the frustration, though.
Was my victory really worth the price I had to pay? No time to ruminate on that. Back to the index.