Mion wakes up alone in a grim and brutal world. She’s a small girl with big, adorable eyes and two branch-like horns growing from her head. Her memory is gone and the only companion she has is a bright green firefly named Lumen. The world around her is dark, dirty and full of shadows. Hiding in those shadows is another guide for Mion: Umbra. With the help of these two whisps, Mion must navigate around the deadly obstacles of this strange world and try to remember her past.
htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary starts off as a mixture of fiercely dark and overly cute. Pronounced Hotaru no Nikki (and which I will just call The Firefly Diary) the game’s unusual title is a portend of things to come. Normally a game with an unpronounceable title and oddly assorted characters would scare me off. Yet after spending several weeks with The Firefly Diary, it seems strangely fitting. It perfectly describes a confusing, beautiful experience that is equal parts frustration and joy. However, it is all very morbid.
The Firefly Diary is a 2D puzzle/platformer where you control a colorful flying sprite named Lumen and wherever it flies, the little girl will follow. Aside from a few basic tasks, such as sitting or pushing an object, Mion by herself doesn’t do much. It’s up to you to figure out how to navigate Mion through this world without dying while using objects in the environment to beat down the bad guys.
But die you will. A lot. Over and over. And each time you do, you see Mion’s crumpled body collapse. It’s not pleasant, and due the brutal nature of a number of areas in the game, you see her die quite often.
Many of the puzzles in the game aren’t complicated so much as they are a matter of precise timing. Most of the challenge in The Firefly Diary comes from the fact that to avoid death you need to be near flawless in where you put Lumen. If you waiver even slightly from the perfect path, Mion will die. This seriously increases the frustration levels at time as you attempt the same section over and over again until not a single mistake has been made.
Adding to the challenge is the world of shadows, which you can switch to and use the sprite Umbra to interact with select objects. Sometimes a monster will need to be stunned, and Umbra can do it. If a switch needs to be pulled or a button pushed, it’s usually up to Umbra to get it done. This magical creature only exists in shadows and therefore can only navigate where a shadow has been cast. Timing again becomes key because you’ll have to wait until the exact moment when the shadow align perfectly to provide a path for Umbra.
I have to admit that I found this combination of light and shadow very interesting. I also thoroughly enjoyed most of it. There are times when things get extremely frustrating because of the level of accuracy needs to be so spot on, but there’s something extremely charming in The Firefly Diary. Guiding little Mion through this dangerous world feels fulfilling and collecting the memory fragments that are spread throughout the game help to flesh out the girl’s grim history.
The game offers several different control options. You can either go all touchscreen and use your finger to tell Lumen where to go and thus guide Mion. Or you can change it and use the sticks to accomplish the same task. Personally, with few exceptions, I found it much easier to use the physical controls. The rear touchpad is used to control Umbra, which can be tricky, or there’s the option to to press Triangle which freezes time and places you in the shadow world.
The controls do feel very sluggish most of the time and moving Mion around is half the challenge. It feel like you’re trying to turn the Titanic: you tell it what to do and eventually it happens. It’s just not very fast or responsive. The good news is that this sluggishness is consistent throughout the whole game and easy to adapt to.
Something I had a hard time adapting to though was the stuttery way in which Mion moves throughout the game. Her animation movement is as though the framerate drops to ten frames per second or less. This however is by design and adds to the hand-drawn art style that heavily inspires the game. I just feel as though it’s not a good decision and the jittery/jumpy feel never gets very comfortable.
The art however is very beautiful, even if it is dark and terrifying. The game relies heavily on the brown and black color palette and rarely deviates. During the memory fragment areas, things turn retro and lighten up a bit, but it doesn’t last long.
The music is equally as haunting and grim. The atmosphere of the game is full of quiet yet pulsing audio. It’s a foreboding world and this is brought through very well in the game’s sound design.
htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is not a happy or pleasant experience. It presents to you a world filled with implementations of death and quite often the crumpled up corpses of other victims. Everything is trying to kill you and quite often it does. This provocative work of art succeeds in extracting an emotional response from the player, usually terror or disgust. It creates this horrible place so well that it often becomes uncomfortable to play.
It’s hard to say that The Firefly Diary is an enjoyable game, but it does provide a uniquely emotional experience that is seldom found elsewhere.