Last year, the makers of the Disgaea series, Nippon Ichi Software (NIS), wanted to create a new game to branch out beyond their image as a traditional Japanese role-playing-game maker. The result was Hotaru no Nikki or “Firefly’s Diary” in Japanese. It was an adventure game that played with the elements of light and dark with a similar art style as NIS games.
Originally, Hotaru no Nikki was released only in Japan, but the American division of NIS is releasing the game digitally on the PlayStation Network. It’s been renamed as htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary (htoL:NiQ), an almost literal translation of the Japanese title. It will be available for the PS Vita and is compatible with the PS Vita TV.
htoL#NiQ follows the story of a little girl named Mion who wakes up in a ruin with a fleeting memory of how she got there. She meets two fireflies, one that provides light and another that lurks in the shadows, that help her get out of the ruins and regain her memories. As she collects her memories, she learns about her mysterious dark history.
Interestingly, there isn’t a single line of dialogue in htoL#NiQ. The story depends solely on the gameplay to tell Mion’s story, and it can be very vague. An integral portion of the story is based on collecting memory fragments, where one is hidden on every normal stage. It is easy to miss a memory fragment, and missing a majority of them can leave the story up to the players’ interpretations and assumptions.
Controlling Mion is done indirectly by controlling the fireflies. The default controls are to use the touchscreen to navigate the green light firefly and the back touchscreen to navigate the purple dark firefly. Mion moves where the light firefly is in the screen; if the light firefly is in front of Mion, she will move forward, if it is behind her, she will turn around and move in that direction. The light firefly also allows Mion to interact with objects, whether it is to move boxes or direct the path of where a plant will shoot its deadly seeds. Another way to interact with objects is to use the dark firefly. By navigating through the shadows, the dark firefly can interact with buttons and gadgets Mion is unable to reach.
While the concept of using the front and back touchscreens to indirectly control a main character is quite novel, it is a frustrating experience. First, Mion moves slow as a slug, and even the slightest misdirection of the firefly by a swipe of the finger, can literally mean game over as Mion decides to turn around very slowly in order to avoid a dangerous situation. In fact, in a later stage, Mion will be under the influence from a mushroom, and her movements will all be backwards. Maneuvering Mion will be a skill, as the firefly’s controls are normal, yet Mion follows the opposite of it. Second, when there are two interactive items next to each other (and Mion herself counts as she can be interacted by telling her to sit in place), tapping on the right item is imprecise.
Again, imprecision can mean game over in mere seconds. Finally, in the later stages of the game, such as the last stage before the final boss, the player will need to control the light firefly in a shadowy maze where touching the dark sides of the maze is yet another instant game over. Using the touchscreen to navigate this maze is a disaster: it is timed, needs precise maneuvering, and the player’s fingers can block the screen to further increase the difficulty.
The recommendation to help alleviate this touchscreen frustration is to hit the pause button, go to options, and switch to option C in the controls in order to use the joystick and the buttons to control the fireflies. However, this option still does not help with the other issues such as the slow movement and the imprecision. Expect Mion to die a lot in her journey.
Although marketed as an adventure puzzle platformer, htoL:NiQ should be marketed as a timing game. The puzzles are unforgiving and need the most precise actions and angles at the right time. As already hinted in the paragraphs above, faulty controls do not help with the gameplay. For example, in one stage Mion must use the light firefly to control a seed-spitting plant to hit buttons and kill enemies as well as Mion. A slightly-turned wrong angle in a very narrow hallway can send a spiky seed flying into Mion’s head easily.
htoL#NiQ is an overall disappointing experience. While the art style of the game incorporates the NIS-style elements that make the Disgaea series popular, it is bogged down with a vague story, frustrating controls, and gameplay elements that need perfectly-timed and perfectly-angled executions to advance. Interested players should test this game out via a demo before purchasing this game.
Gameplay - 3/10
Plot - 4/10
Design - 2/10
+NIS-style art (from the makers of the Disgaea series)
+Novel concept of using the PS Vita's front and back touchscreen
-Storyline may depend heavily on assumptions
-Puzzles require perfectly-timed or perfectly-angled executions