htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary, which we’re just going to call Firefly Diary for obvious reasons, is an adventure game with a bizarre name. How do you even pronounce it? Pitching the name must have been difficult. Maybe they wanted to make it a hashtag and got confused. It is, apparently, a way of expressing the game’s Japanese title Hotaru no Nikki. Anyway…
Firefly Diary plays a bit like a point-and-click adventure game. Your job is to lead the little girl Mion around various stages; you’ll do this by controlling a pair of fireflies. Mion will dutifully follow the light firefly Lumen, which you steer around with the Vita’s touchscreen, to the best of her ability. You can use Lumen to nudge Mion to walk in the direction of your choice, to use ladders or to move stuff around. Her natural pace is more of a slow plod, so don’t expect Mion to go anywhere fast. I mean it – she is slow as hell. So, so slow. You will hate yourself if you go up the wrong ladder at the wrong time, because that means bringing her back down.
You can also use the dark firefly Umbra, which typically sits in Mion’s shadow, to interact with objects that Mion can’t reach directly. Since Umbra is a shadow creature, it can only move along the lines created by shadows in the world. This includes shadows cast by Lumen, so the interaction between the two is key to getting things done.
The issue, perhaps the game’s largest, is that you control Umbra using the Vita’s rear touchpad. Most Vita games don’t use this and it’s easy to forget that it’s even there; that’s because it’s an incredibly awkward gimmick and it doesn’t lend itself to precision at all. But that’s when I found out it does have the analog control as found in the Japanese version, though doing so isn’t readily explained. You can turn on analog-based controls by going to the options menu and using the arrows on the left and right to switch screens. With analog controls on, the game, while still immensely difficult and rather frustrating, is significantly easier to control and thus becomes something we’re willing to recommend to gamers with a lot of patience.
Your enjoyment of Firefly Diary is going to revolve entirely around how well you can endure the controls…and, well, to a lesser extent how well you can endure Mion’s glacial pace. There’s not even a particular reason that it had to be set up this way – it’s just there as a novelty and it doesn’t add anything to the game. It’s a waste. There’s plenty of deadly traps and horrible monsters ready to end Mion, you’re going to need precise timing and control to defeat most of them, and you’ve got all the delicacy of a walrus wearing boxing gloves. Expect to die.
That’s kind of a shame. The art style is fantastic, the mood is deliciously dark in a style similar to indie classic Limbo, the plot will keep you going despite yourself and the concept certainly works. Figuring out how to position Lumen to get Umbra to a particular place makes for some interesting puzzles; so does properly adjusting things so you can get Mion to a hard-to-reach lever or squish an irritating monster.
It’s just hard to imagine why NIS put so many obstacles in the way of the player’s enjoyment. It’s not like them. I love the idea and aesthetics exhibited in htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary, but I can’t recommend a game that simply doesn’t work. Yes, the game does feature analog controls that help immensely, but they should have been enabled from the get-go and not bundled inside a myriad of menus. But there’s still much to love and recommend here, despite wonky controls getting in the way to happiness.
Update: this review was updated to correct an inaccuracy regarding the lack of analog controls. The game does feature them, just not on the onset of gameplay and must be enabled.