Review by Suprak the Stud
Interesting, Frustrating, and Ultimately Forgotten
Some games come and go and barely anyone notices them. They’re not good or bad or unique enough, or maybe they are just unlucky and get published on a dying console that like me and three other people seem to play. They come and go, forgotten in a year by most of the gaming populace while Minecraft lures in another city’s worth of children to play its game. Sadly, this game is one of those forgotten titles. You think it would stand out, because the title alone is certainly unique enough to draw attention. That title is the end result of the developer’s cat walking across the keyboard at the wrong time, or maybe someone on staff accidentally pasted their bank account password where the game title was supposed to be in the design spreadsheet. Apparently, it is a stylized version of the Japanese title, which is great considering no one knows what the Japanese title is and fewer people in the west even speak Japanese, meaning the title is going to be meaningless unless you are confused like me and decided to look it up online. As memorable as the game’s name is though, the game itself seems decidedly less so because it fell into obscurity shortly after its release. It is a shame it did, because in spite of its myriad of issues it still is every bit as unique as the name implies and it certainly stands out as one of the more original titles on the Vita.
The really interesting thing about this title is it looks like an indie game. It has all trappings of indie games of the mid 2010’s. It is a relatively short puzzle/action sort of game which is pretty much the indie bread and butter genre. Then it stars a large headed, cute looking protagonist, which in this game happens to be a young, innocent girl. And to top it all off, some dark, messed up stuff starts happening and they throw a vague story in your face that you can only sort of guess at. You’ve pretty much hit the indie trifecta here, so it is particularly weird when you look and find out this game was developed by Nippon Ichi Software. They make games like Disgaea and NISA publishes a lot of fairly big RPGs. This is a real gaming company that has a well-established, distinct tone. They’re well known for being “weird” and “colorful” and “quirky” and previous games are light on the “macabre sad children” that this game has in spades. It almost doesn’t feel like a NIS game, and once you start getting into the story you’ll find it lacks that certain level of mirth you’ve come to expect from a NIS title.
The heroine in this adventure is Mion, a young girl that has no memory but does have two deer horns sprouting out of her head. The ratio of memories to deer horns on this girl is all messed up, and it gets even worse because she awakens in this weird, underground ruin where everything is out to kill her. Fortunately, she soon meets two firefly companions who are more than happy to help her out on her journey. She is joined by Lumen, who can move around in the light, and Umbra, who can move around in the shadows. It isn’t quite clear what is going on at first, and at first it just looks like a stylized game where you’re walking around some ruins with the help of your firefly pals. However, as is legally required for any game starring a young innocent looking protagonist, things take a turn for the dark quickly. Through memory fragments and some background imagery, you can start to piece together what happened and the result isn’t a happy one. Every little thing here is out to kill you, and to get out of this world alive you’re going to have to make your way through some very dangerous situations armed with nothing but two fireflies. Mion should’ve come better prepared.
It is hard to say exactly how much I liked the story here because I’m not entirely certain what exactly what was going on in the story. I’d say overall I think I enjoy it. It is a fun mystery to unravel and I was always searching for the next bit of story because I really wanted to see what was happening. It’s layered and there’s a lot going on here, but at the same time it is very engaging and a couple of the later twists are great. Or, at least, I think they are since the game isn’t always 100% clear with everything. Things are vague, and events are shown and it isn’t always clear what exactly happened. Part of the fun of this story is piecing it together, trying to figure out exactly what went wrong and why every little bit of scenery seems to be trying to kill Mion. A lot of games do stories this way, where exact events are vague and sleuths try to piece together the story from the minimal clues given. This one isn’t quite as obscure, but it is along the same lines and the game doesn’t give you definitive details on a lot of story points. And here’s the thing about that. I can’t tell if this story is incomplete or if my interpretation of it is. Because I’ve played through the game and watched all the scenes multiple times and visited message boards and think I have a good idea of what happened. But there are still four or five things that don’t seem to fit and I can’t tell if they’re plot holes or if we’re all just missing something. It feels like a lazy way of telling a story, where blemishes can be covered up by just shrugging your shoulders and going “well clearly I’m just missing a clue”. At a certain point, if a game isn’t clear enough with what is going on, that’s the game’s fault and not yours for not doing the necessary research to get your Ph.D. in gamestory-ology.
While the story is fairly indirect, the gameplay itself is much easier to understand. You aren’t actually in control of Mion herself here, but can move the two fireflies to either get her to do things or interact with stuff in the environment. I suppose Lumen is the main firefly, and wherever you move her, Mion will follow. You can make Mion move to the right by moving Lumen to the right, or make her climb a ladder by moving Lumen to the top of it. You can have Mion interact with certain objects by having Lumen click on them or you can tell Mion to sit down by clicking on her. Umbra is more for puzzle solving purposes, and you can switch to the dark world and then have it move around in the shadows. You’ll need to create a path for Umbra by manipulating the shadows sometimes, and there will be some objects that you can interact with in the shadows that Mion can’t get to typically. Between the two of them, you’ll be able to get through every obstacle in the game with Mion in tow like some sort of lost puppy.
The great flaw in this game is the controls, which feel like they were put together by a competing company trying to sabotage the game. The controls here are bad in the same way as getting burned alive is bad, and what is amazing is they give you three different options and somehow all of them are terrible. The default control scheme is entirely touch screen based, and apparently the Japanese version was originally released with only this version of the controls. Then people played the game, rioted, burned the developers in effigy, wrote angry messages on online message boards, and collectively complained loud enough that the developers patched in an entirely new control scheme. How bad do the controls have to be for an entirely new control scheme to be added in after release? Play the game on the default control scheme for ten minutes and you’ll find out (and possibly create a time machine so you can go back in time and join the angry hordes that got the controls changed in the first place).
The touch screen controls are truly awful in a way that is almost impressive. People clearly worked hard on this game, so the fact that no one on staff realized that this a horrendous mistake seems almost impossible. Essentially what happens is you touch the touch screen in the direction you want the firefly to go, at which point it moves, at which point Mion moves. So there is this secondary lag in controlling Mion, where you touch where you want to move to move Lumen and then wait again for Mion to start moving. This is fine for the early part of the game where there aren’t many moving obstacles and the game is much more heavily focused on puzzles where you need to interact with the environment. Things ramp up quickly though, and it is a lot harder to wrestle with the controls while you’re dealing with moving obstacles and more dangerous hazards. There is one part where you need to move Mion back and forth between two moving sawblades she is stuck in the middle of. The gap you need to keep Mion in is fairly small, and you have to move your big stupid hand back and forth in time without going too far in either direction. And, hey, this is probably the time you realize “isn’t my hand an opaque thing and wouldn’t this make the screen hard to see?” and, boy, the development team sure could’ve used you when they were putting the game together. It is too awkward controlling Mion in the first place, and then throw your big stupid hand in the way and things become ten times as hard as they need to be.
The other shortcoming with this scheme is that literally everything is done with the touchscreen. This is, as Plato once said, “a big ol’ pile of dog poop stuffed nonsense”. Trust me, he said that, probably about this game. If you want to drag a box you move the touch screen and if you want Mion to let go of the box, you move downward slightly on the touchscreen, and if you want Mion to climb on top of the box, you move upward on the touchscreen. Here’s the thing about having everything controlled by the touchscreen. When everything is controlled by the touchscreen, nothing works. Imagine if you taught your dog to sit, roll over, and speak but the command for each one was saying “BARK” with a slightly different inflection. It’d be chaos and also your dog would probably hate you. That’s what happens here, as Mion stares at you in a panic whenever a box appears on the screen. The game gets confused, especially when you’re trying to make some quick or sudden movements, and it’ll do what you want half the time and jump jugular first into instant death the other half. The worst thing is trying to get Mion to stay in one spot, which is done by tapping on her. Since touching the screen also controls movement, if you don’t tap on her just right she’ll wind up thinking you want her to move, which is especially fun when you’re in a tight space and she decides to walk right into that adjacent buzzsaw to spite you. The whole system is a mess, and it is insane this was the only control scheme for a while.
For the purposes of this review though, I’ll be ignoring all that. It is worth telling you how bad it all is so you know never to ever use it ever EVEN IF THERE IS A FIRE. Luckily the game comes with a better control scheme where you can actually use buttons and isn’t a frustrating dumpster fire of irritation. This comes with its own limitations, though. The most significant of these is that the game loses a bit of its sense of identity. The game was obviously built to use the touch screen and rear touch pad, and there is this sort of connection with the fireflies that feels different when you’re using the touchscreen. It feels specially made for the Vita, which is nice, but it unfortunately winds up not working, which is less nice. The button controls are much, much better, but the game feels a bit more generic this way. Now it becomes a fairly straightforward puzzle platformer and it loses a little bit of what makes the game so unique. Still, I will take slightly more generic over borderline unplayable any day and I would suggest you switch control schemes almost immediately if you want to have any fun.
Even ignoring that though, the controls aren’t perfect here. Mion walks unbearably slow no matter what control scheme you’re using, and Lumen can be a bit jerky to control even with the better button based controls. This is particularly apparent when you get to one of the maze segments in the game. There are a couple of times where Lumen gets separated from Mion for some reason and you will need to navigate it through some small maze. There will be moving parts and touching the sides means instant death. Sort of like the game Operation but with the addition of child endangerment thrown in the background. I found these segments much harder to play with the button controls. The issue is the controls feel a bit more jerky like this, which typically doesn’t matter as much in the normal game. Here though the movements are very fine and for some reason the touch screen allows for a bit more finesse. The button controls worked best for quicker movements, but the touch screen worked better for smaller, more precise ones and I found myself having to change the control scheme back and forth depending on what the game wanted me to do. It is probably a bad sign when neither of the control schemes works well enough to use exclusively, but between the two I found the controls at least acceptable and the entire experience wasn’t frustrating.
The button based controls seem to have needed a couple more buttons though, and control of Mion is still tied to following Lumen around. This leads to all the problems I described earlier when you encounter boxes which wind up being Mion’s greatest foe in this game. There is no “grab” button so the segments with boxes or things you need to push or move becomes more of a headache than it needs to be. Controls relying on context are bound to get messy, especially when the game puts you in tense situation where you need to move fairly quickly. During the boring introductory levels this is fine, but once you find yourself needing to move things within a specific time limit you’re going to wish that grab button was included. It isn’t unplayable by any means, but you’re going to wind up taking some accidental deaths just because the game didn’t give you a good way to grab things.
If you can get past the controls though, the actual gameplay here is halfway decent. This is sort of an action puzzler with a pretty heavy emphasis on the puzzles. There will be times you need to avoid some moving obstacles, and there are so many buzzsaws hanging around that this might actually be an abandoned buzzsaw factory you’re exploring. Most of the time though, the action is far slower paced and cerebral. It fits the controls much better, honestly, and the game is at its best when it gives you some time to look around and think. I wouldn’t say any of the puzzles here are incredibly complex, and I honestly would’ve appreciated a bit more of a challenge. There are a limited number of things you can interact with so a lot of the time the puzzles will sort of solves themselves. The more action-y parts are more challenging, but half of this is because you half to wrestle with some unresponsive controls. I did appreciate the pacing of the puzzles, and the mix of action and puzzles would’ve worked really well if the game had some better controls. The gameplay is certainly interesting, but it also becomes apparent fairly quickly that there are a lot of ways it could’ve been improved.
Perhaps the worst part of the game design is how much it relies on trial and error. It is this artificial sort of difficulty where it isn’t the game actually being hard, but rather slapping your hands because you couldn’t randomly guess what number it was thinking of. There is one point in the game where there is a series of doors in a bunch of rooms. All these doors lead to other doors, and you need to figure out which order to go through in order to flip the switches and open up the path at the very end. This by itself is totally fine, but one of the doors leads to instant death. There isn’t any indication it will do so, just a flaming pile of death waiting for you on the other side. They might as well have thrown up a picture of a middle finger because it is essentially the same thing. This is the absolute worst kind of game design, where the game punishes you not for doing anything wrong, but because you weren’t born with ESP. This happens at several points in the game, and the only saving grace is how often checkpoints appear. Fortunately there are enough that when this happens you only lose a couple of seconds of progress, but it still isn’t fun to die for no reason. It still isn’t great game design, but they at least knew well enough that it would be annoying and did something to help keep the frustration in check.
While I’ve been complaining a lot about various aspects of the gameplay, overall I still think it is pretty ok. Like I said, I like the mix of puzzles and actions and I like the slower pace of the gameplay. I also like the variety here, and for the most part the game does a pretty good job introducing new concepts at fairly regular intervals. In one level you might encounter some mushroom spores that reverse the controls and then in the next you’ll be using an umbrella to catch wind drafts and float over obstacles. There is nothing here that is too complex by itself, but there are enough different ideas that the gameplay feels more complex than it actually is. Between guiding with one firefly, interacting with shadows with the other, and all the other minor gameplay introductions the game has, the game manages to feel like its own unique thing and the whole package here stands out in comparison to other similar titles in the genre. Admittedly, there are chunks of the game that are fairly boring and you don’t do much else than just sort of slowly walk everywhere. Still, while the gameplay is lacking in some areas, its originality helps it stand out and there are enough good puzzles here that it helps make up for some of the slower segments.
Something that really helps is collecting all the memory fragments. Each level has one hidden somewhere, and there are 13 in total to collect. There are a couple of reasons you want to collect these. First, you half to because it is the only way to see the true ending and it is also essentially the only way you’re going to get any story out of the game. They’re meaningful collectables, and unlike some games you aren’t just collecting pointless trinkets to fill out a trophy list. Secondly, getting these involves most of the best puzzles in the game. They help make up for some of the more boring segments, and collectively they demonstrate the game at its very best. Going through doors to find the right one for the exit might be fairly boring, but using these doors to figure out how to stack boxes in the right way so the memory fragment falls somewhere you can get it is decidedly much more fun. I’m not saying the standard puzzles are a complete bore and there are enough decent ones here that the game isn’t completely mindless. Still, if you just skip out on the memory fragments you’re missing out for a couple of reasons, and tracking these down was some of the most fun I had playing the game.
Each area is capped off by a boss fight, which are fairly hit or miss in terms of quality. Some of these are quite clever and for example the boss of the third stage really shows off the gameplay at the best. It is this weird horrifying tree abomination, and it is equal parts puzzle and action that actually works well within the controls of the game. If all the bosses were designed this well, it would be great, but it feels like all the mental energy of the development team went into this boss and they only had half an hour left in the day to think of the others. One of them is literally the cup game, where you just follow the image you need to as it gets mixed all around. Another one is a tower defense game which comes out of nowhere, and it feels like they ran out of ideas and were just throwing random things in there to try and get something that worked. I half expected the final boss to be a game of guess how many fingers I have behind my back and while I wouldn’t say these bosses are terrible, they feel weirdly out of place and not particularly fun.
The worst boss of the game moves between curtains and you need to match the pose it makes with one of four possibilities. This doesn’t sound too bad until you get later in the encounter and he starts moving with such incredible speed that you can’t realistically catch up. He makes Sonic the Hedgehog look like Regular the Hedgehog, and I was literally cheating to get the images right at the end. I recorded the whole thing with my phone, and scrolling through found there was a single frame where the image was visible. One. Blink and you’ll literally miss it and if you don’t blink hey you might miss it anyway. These sorts of bosses aren’t fun, and while I get it is probably hard to design bosses for a game like this, they did such a good job on the third boss that everything after feels like a massive disappointment.
Part of the reason I wound up liking the game as much as I did was the fantastic presentation. There is this dark sort of whimsy to the game, and it feels like you’re playing through some sort of twisted fairy tale. They do a great job with the visuals, and the presentation is this really unique and stylized art style that helps the game stand out even further. Everything is two dimensional, almost like a paper cut out, but when you swap to the memory fragments everything switches to this 3D presentation on a grid sort of like Final Fantasy Tactics. It helps emphasize these scenes even further, and changing the style was a very clever decision. The game really does just look great, and even though you’re going through all these dilapidated ruins and mechanical wastelands, it still feels like this sort of whimsical journey towards discovery. I wish the entire game was handled as well as the presentation, and the art style here certainly adds something worthwhile to the game.
Overall, I’m torn on this title. I feel like it was a game I both liked and hated, sometimes at the same time. The control scheme that this whole game was built around is fundamentally broken to such a degree that they had to introduce a new control scheme (that itself is also a bit janky) sometime after the release. That seems like it would be a flaw so severe that the game wouldn’t have any hope of ever recovering, and yet, there is something interesting about the game. Maybe it is the unique story or the unique gameplay or presentation, but this truly feels like its own thing. There is something special here, even if you have to dig through some broken glass and moldy sawdust to find it. What this game has is personality, something that sets it apart from everything else while it boldly flexes in your face. Sure, it could’ve been longer, or more difficult, and the controls needed to be better. I understand all the reasons why this isn’t a great game. At the same time though, it isn’t a bad one and it was one I enjoyed almost all the way through. It is a bit of a shame this game seems to have been entirely forgotten, because for all of its many flaws “not being memorable” certainly isn’t one of them.
Firefly (THE GOOD):
- Intriguing story and atmosphere that helps create this unsettling feeling while playing
- Between the gameplay and the presentation and the story, the game feels thoroughly unique and stands out
- Some decent puzzles here and there that use the limited controls very well
- Nice slow, more cerebral sort of puzzler that could have been great with better puzzles
- Great presentation that makes the game feel like a dark fairytale
- Good job adding new gameplay elements or ideas to keep things fairly fresh
Mosquito (THE BAD):
- Touchscreen controls are borderline broken and make things much more frustrating than they should be
- Even standard controls have their limitations, are Mion only reacting to the positioning of Lumen leads to some confusion
- Grabbing and letting go of objects is messy in time limited situations
- A lot of the puzzles here are fairly simplistic and aren’t that much of a challenge
- Too much of an overreliance on “fake” difficulty where you can’t hope to predict what will happen
- Story is muddled at times, and it is hard to tell if this is because of vagueness or plot holes
- Some of the boss fights are extremely disappointing, including one that is little more than the cup game on steroids
Stink Bug (THE UGLY): While I’ve complained about some of the bosses here, I think the worst moment comes in a boss fight I actually mostly enjoyed. At the end of a long fight that involves the frustrating of trying to push something and let go quickly, the boss will fire a missile at you. If you don’t realize in a second what is going on, you’ll miss your window of opportunity to interact with it and it will lead to an instant death. Welp, time to go start the whole fight over again since my ESP wasn’t working.
THE VERDICT: 5.75/10.00
Product Release: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary (US, 02/24/15)
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