Apart from my usual unrequited love for puzzle games, when I heard that there was an 2D indie puzzle platformer coming to the American market which combines beautiful artwork with innovative PS Vita touch pad controls, I was eager to get my hands on htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary. Despite some niggles with the gameplay, the emotional story told perfectly, mixed with interesting puzzles, and inviting artwork makes this game a must buy for fans of the genre.
You play as two fireflies: Lumen who moves through the light and Umbra master of the shadows, who guide a young girl Mion through a dystopian future. If the story of a young child working their way through a scary world, solving puzzles and dying in repeatedly gruesome ways reminds you of LIMBO, then that's because the game borrows heavily from it, including rotating saws, mind altering flora and moveable, child corpses. However, it does improve on LIMBO in several significant ways. The art style switches between the beautiful, dreamlike, anime style artwork that the Japanese are known for, and equally stunning 3D pixel art which separates memory from reality. Memories found throughout the levels help piece together a notable story which is told perfectly all through gameplay and never through dialogue.
People who are fans of a challenge will relish in working their way through the main story. The puzzles are maybe not as difficult mentally to work out as LIMBO's but are more focused on the players skill, moving between light and shadow and memory tasks. There is still a lot of trial and error, but often you know what to do and it is simply practicing the maneuvers to execute them exactly. htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary also includes much loved boss battles to punctuate the end of each chapter, including a puzzle heavy final boss which delightfully massaged the achievement centers of my brain. It also improves upon LIMBO in terms of styles of play and environment which change vastly between chapters and keep things interesting. htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is also a delight in terms of immersion and innovation. Lumen is controlled with the Vita's front touch pad and Umbra with the rear. This combined works to throw the player into the game with the sense of helping Mion trapped deep inside your Vita.
That isn't to say that everything about htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is pleasurable. Many of the skill based puzzles are based on very precise movement and timing on the touch pads. However, the Vita's screen is heat and not touch based meaning that you have to use your finger to guide her, covering up her whole sprite and making it impossible to see the exact movements you make. Also while some puzzles require split second switching between light and dark, the rear touch panel is only responsive every few seconds, meaning that if you tap a second early you simply have to tap out and wait for death. Also the switching between modes means that in certain sections both the front and back touch pad have to be free simultaneously, leading to awkward moments where the Vita was jammed between my legs and my hands hovered over either side.
Acclaimed video game critic Yahtzee Crowshaw once stated that the level of frustration a player feels is equal to the time between a player's death and the time it takes to get back to that previous point. Games such as FEZ and The Cave do this perfectly, sending you slightly back within moments. htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary on the other hand epitomizes how frustrating this feeling can be. Deaths show a short gruesome cut scene followed by a few moments of loading before being sent back to checkpoints, often several challenges back, which felt too few and far between. In a game where the difficulty was ramped up, a few more checkpoints certainly would have helped the gameplay feel more fluid.
Here I will issue a mild spoiler warning before giving my final observation on this title. Once you have completed the main story, if you have not collected all of the memories throughout the chapters, many of which are very hidden and otherwise difficult to get to, you simply loop round and begin again. The true ending can only be obtained once you have seen all the memories (i.e seen the whole storyline) and only then will you see the true touching and beautiful ending. Personally, this made the difficulty too much for me, but fans of a grueling challenge will love this, as only true mastery of the title will reward you with the final part of the story, which is what made htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary such a stand out title in my eyes. This means that there are around 6-8 hours of gameplay for those wishing to only complete the main story but several hours more for challenge seekers wishing to discover my personal favorite part of the game.
If the developers had worked slightly more on gameplay this would easily be one of my favorite games of all time, but it still is an absolutely beautiful and challenging journey that I suspect could make it into my end of year choices even at this early stage. That being said I could summarize this whole review pretty succinctly in that if you didn't like LIMBO, you should not buy this game as it only seeks to ramp up the difficultly. But for those who adore emotional stories, intense challenge and puzzle platformers in general this is a must own title.
This review copy was provided courtesy of the developer and played on the only platform it is available; the PS Vita. The American version of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary will be released on February 24th 2015 and is purchasable through the PlayStation Store.
What do you think of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary? Are you a fan of puzzle platformers?