Oh Dear, Diary
No, that isn’t an encoding error up there in the headline: “htoL#NiQ” is indeed this PS Vita game’s title, and is essentially a very stylish way to type “The Firefly Diary” in Japanese.
Whatever personal peculiarities led the team at Nippon Ichi to title their new game this way seem to extend to the game’s design as well. htoL#NiQ marches to its own rhythm, and ends up being two things at once: a fascinating work of minimalism, and a needlessly difficult ordeal best enjoyed only by the most masochistic of flagellants.
htoL#NiQ: The Firely Diary (PS Vita)
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Released: February 24, 2015
First, to that bit about minimalism: htoL#NiQ has virtually no written or spoken dialog, or even text. Apart from some prompts explaining the basic controls and a brief crawl in the opening, players won’t even encounter so much as a lettered sign in the background. The plot, such as it is, is delivered almost entirely in-game, via environmental clues and lightly interactive flashbacks.
The game screen itself is largely free of HUDs and icons, and combined with low-lit environments that flicker as if beaming from a vintage film projector, gives off a universally gloomy, unsettling aura that contrasts well with the cutesy character design. The flashback scenes are rendered in a totally different, isometric style that recalls older RPGs like Contact.
Exploring this downbeat dystopia is Mion, a silver-haired waif with big eyes, a pair of branches growing from her head, and all the self-preservation instinct of a videogame lemming. Accompanying her are Lumen and Umbra, the titular fireflies and the only means by which players can guide Mion through the wilderness.
Players can use the touch screen to move Lumen, with Mion following her Navi-esque companion wherever it goes. Lumen can also signal Mion to throw switches, push boxes, and other puzzle-solving interactions. Umbra, on the other hand, resides in Mion’s shadow, and can only be controlled by shifting to an alternate dimension with a tap of the rear touchpad. From there, Umbra can move through shadows freely – including those cast by Lumen’s glow – and interact with objects too far away for Mion to reach. Manipulating the environment and using the firefly duo to help maneuver Mion past various hazards forms the bulk of htoL#NiQ‘s mechanics.
This all sounds simple enough, but the game in which these mechanics are employed is an artifact of what I can only describe as gleeful, knowing sadism. htoL#NiQ is one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played, and the bulk of my playtime has been spent dying, over and over and over again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as the last few years have brought a new renaissance for tough, uncompromising game design, but the type of pain dealt by htoL#NiQ is of a very particular type, one that’s been justifiably abandoned by most modern titles.
Simply put, this game trades in pure, trial-and-error frustration. Thanks to a combination of deliberately lethargic controls and deathtrap-obsessed level design, virtually no challenge the game poses can be passed on the first try – or the 48th try, for that matter. That’s how long it took me to overcome just a single checkpoint in the second level, a checkpoint that, performed successfully, takes about a minute to transition through.
Since Mion can only be moved by moving Lumen ahead of her, a slight delay accompanies every movement, and Mion herself hits her top speed at “leisurely stroll”, even when pursued by rampaging hellbeasts made of shadow. The awkwardness of using the touch screen and rear touch pad to control Lumen and Umbra can be alleviated somewhat by switching to an optional control scheme that uses the analog stick and face buttons, but the precision and sluggishness in movement remains.
Worse still, some challenges demand precise timing to trigger environmental actions using Umbra, but the pauses that accompany attempting to switch to Umbra’s dimension make that timing even tougher to nail down. Add in hidden enemies, barely-telegraphed hazards, instant death, and occasional randomized factors that cheapen every death, and htoL#NiQ ends up embodying a strange sort of videogame Murphy’s Law: Anything that can kill Mion, will kill Mion. Several times.
To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with deliberate, “slow” controls. As a fan of Monster Hunter and the Souls games, I can appreciate that style, and intention behind them being in this game is fairly clear. htoL#NiQ aims for the kind of dynamic that defined the likes of classics like Ico. The problem here is the decision to combine the tension of having to escort a helpless charge with such demanding level design. The stress of both having to keep the charge safe as well as perform feats of precision timing and speed is almost too much that would stand to gain the most from the game’s low-key storytelling and unique aesthetic.
Extending the comparison further, if htoL#NiQ were to be compared to Ico, the difference between the two in terms of difficulty would be akin to trying to shepherd Yorda through the Tower of Latria from Demon’s Souls.
It simply isn’t fun to have to redo every section just to pass – or replay certain portions perfectly just to access all the game’s collectible flashback scenes (which form its most substantial narrative payoff), but then again, I did retry a single section forty-eight times in a row, so there may be something to htoL#NiQ, after all.
The creepy atmosphere and interesting visuals were just enough to keep me hooked alongside its grim, intriguing story. And of course, there’s the stubborn, bitter, vengeful thrill of finally defeating a game that’s seemingly designed with the middle finger extended towards its players.
I won’t lie: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary feels like an ordeal to play, but it is worth noting that historically, surviving an ordeal was often taken as a sign of being blessed by a higher power. That notion may appeal to some types of players, and it’s they who’ll find the fun in this gorgeous, cruel game. Everyone else should just hang back and ask how it went.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]