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htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary Vita Review

One would think there would be more smaller-scale Indie games coming from Japan, given how many of its classic games have gone on to influence several successful Western titles created through independent publishers and/or kickstarters. Yet Japan remains notably behind on this front, just as they do with triple-A console games, making hits like Cave Story, Melty Blood or Corpse Party as fleeting rarities.

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htoL#NiQ, which reads as “Hotaru no Nikki” (don’t worry, no sane person would have ever figured that out), technically isn’t an indie game, but it certainly looks and plays like one. Born out of Nippon Ichi Software’s attempt to branch out of their long-established Disgaea franchise (while no doubt quietly sweeping the disastrous and outright-offensive The Witch and the Hundred Knight under the rug), Hotaru no Nikki: The Firefly Diary is a smaller-scale game with a more linear structure that also uses the talents of NIS’ artists to create a more thoughtful experience. The foreboding atmosphere and usage of light and darkness amidst a 2D backdrop will no doubt immediately draw comparisons to Limbo, though Japanese indie fans will probably see a bit of Yumi Nikki: The Dream Diary as well.

Like previous games of its style, htoL#NiQ features a minimalist, dialogue-free story that encourages players to piece together the narrative and interpret things their own way. The premise revolves around a young amnesiac girl named Mion, who has a curious (but not uncommon for Anime) pair of horns that resemble tree branches. Her only companions are Lumen, a bright-lit firefly that serves as her guide, and Umbra, a dark firefly that only manifests in the shadows. Together, the two fireflies guide the vulnerable Mion across what appears to be an industrial wasteland filled with all sorts of half-functioning yet highly-dangerous machines and traps, not to mention a host of strange shadow creatures.

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Unable to fend for herself, much less move, players must take control of both fireflies to guide Mion to safety. This is primarily done using the Vita’s two touch screens; the front screen controls Lumen, who is visible by default and can be moved around with the player’s finger. Since players are unable to control Mion directly, Lumen must be used as a literal guide that Mion will follow at all times; move the firefly to the right, and Mion will walk right, and vice versa. Lumen can also be moved up or down to instruct Mion to climb up or down ladders, and also ping objects for Mion to interact with (so long as they are within her tiny reach).

Counter to that is Umbra, who is controlled with the rear touchpad but can only be used while switching to the game’s shadow view (toggled with a button press). During this phase, everything in the world is frozen in place while Umbra can only move around using the various shadows in the world. This results in much of the more complex puzzle elements of htoL#NiQ, as players must occasionally line up shadows such as Mion’s hair or a nearby object in order to allow Umbra to pass along the interconnected paths in order to reach a faraway switch, which it can activate upon contact. Naturally, these moments make up the most hectic in Mion’s journey, such as stopping a trap from narrowly eviscerating her, or activating another trap to stop a carnivorous enemy.

Conceptually, the mechanics are easy enough to grasp. The controls, on the other hand, take some getting used to. Mion’s responses to Lumen’s commands are deliberately slow, creating a sense of fragility while also giving players time to carefully (but quickly) plan out a safe route for her. This of course requires a modicum of patience, especially with the clunky way she climbs up and down ladders. As for Umbra, these life-or-death struggles tend to require a very precise alignment of shadows, many of which players will only be given one chance to successfully pull off or face imminent death.

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Make no mistake, death will be frequent and merciless in htoL#NiQ; as expected of a game like this, the slightest misstep can lead to disaster, and while the game is pretty frequent with its checkpoints, there will no doubt be several sequences that will earn the ire of players spending an hour or more running the same scenarios over and over only to miss the goal by just a few pixels. One sequence in particular can prove hellish regardless of which control scheme is used, though at least NIS has given the option for traditional analog control as an alternate to the touch-based controls. This option is preferable not only because of its more precise feel, but because it also keeps the beautiful hand-drawn visuals from being obscured by your hands (though I’m certain they are clean, well-manicured hands).

Visually, the game strikes a great balance between cute character animations (thankfully scaled back from the overuse of moe that plagues so many Japanese Vita titles) and dark, often disturbing scenery. The highlight of this art style comes in the form of Trace Memories, which are optional collectibles that reveal bits and pieces of Mion’s origin and the world around her. The foreboding tone and life-threatening terrors work to create a potential emotional attachment that incentives players to work extra in protecting Mion, especially during certain moments that throw a few mechanical curveballs their way.

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In the end, htoL#NiQ is a beautiful and encouraged experiment marred by a frustrating difficulty and clunky controls (even if intentionally clunky). It will require a bit of patience and several hundred deaths, but those willing to commit themselves will appreciate the game’s haunting beauty the most.

6 out of 10