Aww, look at the cute little Japanese puzzle platformer with the adorable little waif and her firefly friend. Right. This adorable little puzzle platformer has been a massive source of frustration since I started playing.
Isn't she adorable? Sure, I'll give htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary (a hip way to write Hotaru no Nikki, Japanese for Firefly Diary) that, at least initially. When we first meet the game's heroine, a misplaced young girl named Mion with tree branches growing out of her head, she does seem a darling little waif.
Then comes death.
In case the eerie music and dark setting weren't enough of a clue, blood splatters the screen as Mion experiences the first of dozens if not hundreds of deaths during her unforgiving journey of self discovery. Who is she? Where does she come from? What are the two fireflies, one light and one dark, who guide her upwards through the ruins some industrial civilisation?
Lumen and Umbra, light and dark fireflies, are the player's portal into Mion's world. The strange young girl senselessly follows Lumen wherever it goes, her light in the darkness. And when light is not enough to save her, Umbra plunges the world into darkness, travelling the shadows created by its bright counterpart to activate particular pieces of scenery to help facilitate their journey.
For instance, during an early moment in the game Mion and friends find themselves being chased incredibly slowly by a massive shadow creature. When all seems lost, the player can swap to Umbra, slowing time as it travels the shadow realm, dropping a heavy bit of scenery on the charging creature's skull. Simple stuff, at first.
As the game progresses the puzzles become more complicated, more deadly. Precise timing is required to ensure you're on the right side of light and dark at the right time; one small slip and Mion is a corpse and you've got a portion of a puzzle to do over again.
With precision so important to completing the game, one would think the game developer Nippon Ichi Software wouldn't have made the default control scheme nigh-unplayable.
Attempting to take advantage of the Vita's front and real touch panels, The Firefly Diary would like players to control guiding light Lumen on the front screen, tapping it back panel to shift into Umbra's world. This does not work. For one, fingers obscuring the action — especially in a game requiring large amounts of environmental awareness — is never good. On top of that, the Vita's rear panel does not lend itself well to precision movements. Tapping? Sure. Guiding a dark firefly through a maze of shadows? Not so much.
Thankfully (especially for PlayStation TV players) NIS included control scheme number three — the left stick controls firefly movement, two buttons shift to light or dark, and a final button activates switches and other areas of interaction.
Even with the ideal control setup The Firefly Diary manages to frustrate more than delight. Unless told specifically to sit he happy arse down, Mion blindly follows Lumen the magic cursor around the screen. If you're not careful she'll step right off ledges, into whirling blades, under punishing pistons.
And while some will find the game's old-school trial-and-error puzzle solving delightful, taking a half-hour figuring out how to navigate a single perilous pitfall feels less like an accomplishment and more like a chore.
The frustration would be completely overwhelming if not for The Firefly Diary's story. Collected memories scattered about the game's levels slowly Mion's tale, a finely-crafted work of science fiction adventure with decidedly dark overtones. The payoff at the end (the true end, be sure to collect every memory) is bitter-sweet and emotional, leaving me with manly trails of intense humidity running down my face.
I went into htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary blind, expecting an easy, light-hearted puzzle platform — the sort of game I'm used to seeing from NIS America. I certainly did not expect a dark and moody tale with a heaping helping of playable metaphor. Nor did I expect the pile of dead little anime girls I would leave in my wake.