Nippon Ichi Software seem to be reliant on Disgaea for a reason. The second they step too far away from the SRPG genre, whether publishing someone else’s game (i.e. Battle Princess of Arcadias) or making it in-house (i.e. The Witch and the Hundred Knight), you get unnecessary grinding everywhere, or some other annoying trait that just tells you they don’t understand other genres.
It is for this reason that, while curious, I was not particularly enthused when I first heard about htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary. Okay, stop. Let’s just get this out of the way—I’m going to refer to that ridiculous title by “The Firefly Diary” from here on out, since the rest of that title is just wonky stylization for “Hotaru no Nikki,” which literally means the exact same thing in Japanese.
In any event, knowing that there was no way to shoehorn excessive, necessary grinding into a post-apocalyptic puzzle game, I was immediately on my guard for any other player-hostile behaviour. As such, I was unsurprised to find myself exclaiming, “Oh no, not another one of these” the instant I started up the game.
The Firefly Diary is a Vita game. The Vita has dual analog sticks and a full set of face buttons, if you weren’t aware. However, it is a touch screen-only game. Or, rather, you use the touch screen and the rear touch pad. To understand how this quickly became an annoyance, I suppose I need to explain how the game works.
[Update: Commenters have pointed out that the game has an alternate control scheme that uses the analog sticks, which you can select from the options menu. Having tried this out, I can safely say this form of control is just as unnatural and unwieldy as the touch controls in the game.]
When you start the game, a girl named Mion wakes from her slumber in what seems to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of ruined building. Two fireflies quickly show up. You do not directly control Mion for most of the game, but these fireflies instead. There’s a green firefly controlled by the touch screen. Mion will try to move to wherever the firefly is, and the camera will move to show both of them on the screen. You can tap on an object to make Mion interact with said object if she’s close to it or tap Mion to make her sit in place and stop moving around.
(If Mion is standing in front of an object she can interact with, the game will, for some reason, default to assuming you wanted to tap Mion.)
There’s also a purple firefly you control via the rear touch pad. By tapping the rear touchpad, the game will pause all movement and allow you to control this firefly. The game’s lore is that this firefly travels through shadows, but this is inaccurate since the game outright ignores the shadows displayed on the screen. Rather, it is more accurate to say that it travels through solid objects based on screen space, even if said objects are not logically connected.
By tapping the rear touchpad again, the game will unpause after interacting with an object if the firefly was near one, allowing manipulation of objects Mion cannot reach. Note, however, that if you activate this mode by mistake and Mion’s position (your starting point) is in front of a big red button that will kill her if pressed, and you tap to cancel, the game will, of course, assume you want to press the big red button.
Using these two fireflies, you must lead Mion to safety. You must be careful, however, as everything seems to want Mion dead. Spike traps, balls of fire, mean-eating plants, sawblades, shadow monsters, and just plain falling too far will kill Mion outright.
Dotted throughout the stages are memory fragments, showing you Mion’s happy life with her family prior to the events of the game. This is presented in a colourful isometric pixel art style that’s different from the usual art in the game, and you will only be controlling Mion directly at these points. You get one freebie and you must find the rest of them yourself at difficult or non-obvious locations.
In my playtime, I made it through the first two chapters of the game and tried the start of chapter 3 (there’s apparently four plus a “Chapter X”). What I can say with certainty is that a lot of the game is trial and error. Also, thanks to the controls and player-hostile behaviour on the part of the game, you’ll even have trouble acting on the solution after you know what it is.
No part of the game shows this better than the boss at the end of chapter 2, which appears to be some manner of sentient trash compactor. The boss randomly alternates between breathing fire and trying to eat anything within a set range. To damage the boss, you must hit a switch to drop a bomb crate, which you must push into the boss’ attack range, hope it chooses to do the eating attack (or the fire will set off the bomb and you’ll need to fetch another one), and run out of the range before it lets off the attack. Worth noting is that the bomb will kill you if you’re underneath its spawn position as it falls.
There’s also random falling debris throughout the fight that instantly kills you without warning, which is more threatening than the boss is. You can hide underneath a flipped mine cart, Metal Gear-style, to protect yourself, but the boss can destroy the cart and you need to get out of it to do anything. Not to mention, I said it was without warning and getting back to the mine cart may actually be the point where debris chooses to fall right next to said cart and kill you. Then, after hitting the boss three times, it fires a large missile out of its mouth and kills you, whether you’re under the cart or not.
What you need to do is use the purple firefly as it’s firing the missile, but not even slightly too early or too late or you’ll miss your chance and die, to detonate the missile in its mouth and kill it for good.
Other player-hostile behaviour of note in The Firefly Diary includes the second non-tutorial stage’s solution requiring the use of the purple firefly during an attack animation that would kill you if it completes. This game is rather punishing from the get-go. Additionally, there’s a timed maze where you must control the green firefly without touching any walls or the moving obstacles or you die. The best way to get through this maze is by pretending the touch screen is one of those laptop pointing sticks nobody uses, since the firefly is extremely over-responsive and you’re dealing with pretty tight spaces in the maze.
I consider much of this game’s difficulty to be artificial difficulty. If it weren’t for the free respawns and plentiful checkpoints, I’d be even angrier at it than I already am.
But I’m still pretty angry.
Food for thought:
1. This game is actually very short. I looked up the contents for the rest of the game to make sure, and my suspicions were confirmed. If you know what you’re doing, this game can be completed in just over two hours.
2. As an addendum to the first point, you won’t know what you’re doing so you can expect the game to last longer.
3. I actually did not collect more than the free memory fragment. I only saw one other one, out in the open, but I haven’t the slightest clue how to get to it.
4. This game is mostly textless. However, there is text for the tutorial, pause menu and title screen.