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Feb 23 2015

Review of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary

htolNiQ_Title Card2 Stars

htoL#NiQ (pronounced Hotaru no Nikki, the written form being a corruption of the Japanese pronunciation) is a game of fantastic ideas but ultimately very poor execution. It features a gorgeous art style, a somber post apocalyptic setting, and a smart gameplay hook that takes advantage of the VITA’s unique hardware; all of these things are properties I greatly enjoy in a game and as such I was pretty excited to play it. Sadly though, none of those concepts are ever used to their full potential and in some cases are so utterly mishandled that they end up making the game actively worse. Not helping things is the fact that htoL#NiQ isn’t very engaging outside of those core points, which means that even if you are able to put its faults aside, you’ll find there just isn’t much there to enjoy. It’s a goddamn shame because htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary has all the pieces necessary to make for a stellar little game, but it just doesn’t know how to put them together properly.

At one point Mion spends an entire level unconscious on some conveyor belts, a capable heroine she is not.

At one point Mion spends an entire level unconscious on some conveyor belts, a capable heroine she is not.

Kicking things off with the story as I like to do, the basic premise here is solid but light and they don’t make much effort to expand upon it. Things start off with a pair of firefly looking spirits (called Lumen and Umbra) waking up a little girl with antlers (named Mion) who is implied to have been sleeping for a very long time; that’s because it’s half past the apocalypse and she seems to be the only person left on a heavily messed up looking earth. And from there nothing in particular really happens, Mion and the spirits just kind of wander off in search of something to do. The underlying plot seems to be about how Mion came to be left sleeping in the middle of a wasteland and you’ll regularly get these little snippets of the past, in which Mion lives a happy life with her scientist parents. While I assume that at the very end of the game you’ll get some cut scene or chunk of dialogue that connects her parents to the apocalypse and makes everything very poignant and emotional, they keep things far too vague throughout most of the game to actually get the player invested in any of these characters or their fates. Mion is practically a non-entity, with her character only coming from the way she lazily toddles through the levels and clumsily falls off 3-inch ledges. Presumably the goal of the game is have you become deeply engaged in Mion’s past and her fate, but frankly by the time I gave up on the game I couldn’t care less about her because they didn’t make a strong enough effort to endear her to me. Similarly, the world is also utterly uninteresting, it’s a wasteland with no real story or feeling, for all intents and purposes it’s a blank tombstone. It’s comprised of little beyond generic looking shadow monsters, amazingly still operational factories that seem to produce nothing but saw blades and other platforming hazards, and mounds of ruined masonry that offer no further context to the world. In the last chapter or so of the game things start to look as though they’re finally going to get interesting and hints of the story start bubbling up in the level design, but by that point my patience was already wearing thin thanks to the tedious and unenjoyable gameplay, and I had to throw in the towel.

On that note, let’s get into the gameplay, which centers around a curious mechanic that has some genuine promise but ends up being thoroughly misused here. So the basic hook is that you have no direct control over Mion, instead you guide her around and manipulate the environment by controlling her two spirit friends. Bayonetta fans out there probably already have an inkling as to what roles Lumen and Umbra fill; Lumen leads Mion around by acting as a guiding light, whereas Umbra lives in the shadows and can activate switches and disrupt the environment by touching things in that realm. Gameplay revolves around guiding Mion around with Lumen while simultaneously using the shadows she casts to create pathways for Umbra to activate things in the environment and facilitate further progress. It’s the sort of mechanic that would work splendidly in a puzzle game, but sadly this isn’t a puzzle game, rather the best term to describe it would be ‘puzzle-platformer’. You’re expected to expertly navigate hazards, enemies, and pixel precise platforming challenges all with a character you have no direct control over and who seems to have all the get-up-and-go of a sedated sea cucumber. There are proper puzzles now and then as well though, but they’re not all that difficult to figure out, they’re just easy to fail and don’t provide anywhere near enough feedback to help you determine whether you’re on the right track or not. This is because the puzzles are as much about execution as they are about actually reaching a solution, but the execution feels unpleasant and overly demanding which ends up sucking out any possible enjoyment. It’s also worth noting that the game defaults to using the front and back touchscreens to control Lumen and Umbra, which feels ungainly at best. You can thankfully switch over to a couple of alternate control schemes in the options, one of which smartly lets you use the left analog stick and face buttons, but none of the control schemes really feel all that good to use and you never feel like you have enough precision or deftness available to properly confront the challenges htoL#NiQ throws your way.

The levels have a fantastic sketched look to them that a better game would use to tell the story of the world.

The levels have a fantastic sketched look to them that a better game would use to tell a story and flesh out the world.

There is one high point to this game though, the presentation, but sadly even that comes with some caveats. The art style here is gorgeous, even if I ended up not caring about Mion and found the shadow monsters she faces to be ultimately generic, I certainly have to laud the simple but evocative designs they created for those entities. As for the environment, it takes some really well drawn and atmospheric looking levels and then spreads them out over multiple layers of both landscape and shadow which scroll and move in a very natural fashion. It’s actually quite impressive and watching the layers of shadow shift around as you move Lumen about has a somewhat magical quality to it. Less magical though is when you fail to see an enemy because it’s behind one of the foreground layers or when you miss crucial details in the shadows because you have Lumen on the other side of the screen in order to keep Mion moving forward. Also of note in regards to the visual design is the curious way they decide to portray Mion’s flashbacks. Whenever you view one of her memories, the screen will glitch out and things will change to an isometric perspective with the smooth layered art style replaced with a pixelated look that reminds me of early Gameboy Advance games. It’s a smart bit of visual shorthand that gets across the idea that we’re looking at the past without actually having to put a date on things. As for the sound design, there isn’t really much to say. There’s no voice acting, but that’s because there’s no dialogue, and the music is just that same atmospheric ambient soundscape sort of stuff that infests indie platformers and doesn’t really add much to the overall experience.

Taken separately, much of what htoL#NiQ does sound like good ideas, but when combined in this fashion things just don’t pan out. The quiet and somber wasteland could be interesting if given room to tell its own story, but instead it is merely used as a contrivance for the level design. The play of light and shadow that defines the gameplay could make for some tricky but thoughtfully enjoyable puzzles, instead though they demand a degree of precision that precludes such contemplation. The layered and beautiful art style is indeed a pleasure to behold, however much like the rest of the game it clashes with the gameplay and as such is never fully realized. I applaud the degree of craft that clearly went into this, but I have to be honest when I say that I did not enjoy myself. Despite its unique qualities, I can not recommend this game, it’s just not very fun and there isn’t much of anything to it to keep you going in spite of that fact. As such I’m giving htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary a 2 out of 5 stars.

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