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There’s little in the world of gaming that’s more frustrating than when a game with tremendous potential for excellence is hamstrung and ultimately let down by one glaring fault. Unfortunately, NISA’s htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is one such example. Despite stunning visuals, compelling and challenging puzzles, and simple storytelling that gets the player invested emotionally, despite it’s non-verbal methods, htoL#NiQ is plagued by awful controls that sully the experience, and prevent it from attaining the heights it should otherwise reach.
The game’s controls are entirely mapped to the Vita’s touchscreen and rear touchpad by default. Using the screen, you guide Lumen, a firefly, who in turn guides the heroine, Mion, through the game. Tapping the rear touch pad allows you to switch to a “shadow view”, where you control a second spectre. In this mode, you can reach things you otherwise couldn’t, activate traps to block the path of enemies who inhabit the shadows, or outright kill them, with the catch that you can only move within intersecting shadows. It’s an interesting idea, but the rear touchpad isn’t terribly responsive when it comes to moving around, and this gameplay mode quickly becomes a chore. The touchscreen isn’t much better in terms of responsiveness, and too often you’ll find Mion standing there, unsure of where you’re guiding her or what you want her to do. Things go south even further when the game demands you navigate Lumen through tight, winding corridors, where touching the sides results in death. In these sections, it’s often difficult to see where you are in relation to the walls, due to your finger being in the way, and given that you’ve got to be pixel-perfect, it really tests your patience. Worst of all however are the sections where the game forces reversed controls on you, turning an already dire mess into an unresponsive catastrophe. These sections drove me insane and made me want to put the game down – with one section in chapter three making me want to quit altogether – the controls reducing them more to luck than skill. It’s not the puzzles themselves, but rather the controls that provide responsibility for most of the game’s issues, and in many ways, htoL#NiQ is it’s own worst enemy. The use of the screen and touchpad is finicky at best, and feels like a needless gimmick. Worse still, the controls break the sense of immersion that the game builds through it’s visuals and sound design. You can opt to use the left stick if you dig through the options menus a bit, but even then the controls are clunky and floaty at best, so while it’s more tolerable, it’s still not good.
The game also struggles with some trial and error gameplay, with many of the puzzles coming down to the player’s ability to correctly time things. Too often, you have to be absolutely perfect, as if even one pixel is off, Mion will meet her doom. Once or twice I noticed traps on the other side of a wall had to be completely avoided due to some slight clipping issues, but this wasn’t exactly game-breaking. htoL#NiQ isn’t particularly long – there’s only two to four hours worth of actual content here, and it feels like the poor controls and trial and error puzzles are there by design for no purpose other than artificially lengthening the experience. It’s poor design, and it’s really unnecessary. Thankfully, checkpoints are frequent – typically following each puzzle – so you’re never gonna find yourself trudging back through an entire level to cover your mistakes, and despite the trial and error gameplay, the puzzles never really feel like they’re being unfair to you. It’s crucial to any puzzle game that players are challenged without feeling like they’re being subjected to purposefully obtuse trials. Thankfully, htoL#NiQ succeeds in this respect, with very little that’s outwardly egregious standing in your way, and you do feel genuinely accomplished when you advance past a particularly mentally taxing section, and even better on the occasions where you nail a puzzle on the first try.
Where the game really shines though is in it’s world-building, aesthetic, and sound design. The game is drop dead gorgeous to look at, and for my money, might just be the best looking thing on the Vita. The visuals are reminiscent of Child of Light, but with a slightly more Eastern disposition, and everything pops right off the screen. Even the industrial backdrops, so often reduced to bland, cookie cutter set-dressing in games, have their own personality and feel curiously vibrant, when combined with the serene, elegant soundtrack and great foley work. We know very little about the world in which htoL#NiQ takes place, and yet it feels like a world with it’s own story, identity and history. It’s truly an accomplishment in terms of what the Vita is capable of doing from a technical standpoint, and stands above essentially everything else on the platform in that regard.
The game’s story is barebones in terms of it’s execution, but this actually plays perfectly into the world with which we are presented. There’s no dialogue nor voice acting, just brief, playable flashbacks, activated by finding glowing pink flowers in the stages. As short as these are (on top of being entirely optional), they’re bursting with life, energy and color, and serve to add a layer of emotional tenderness and depth to the gameplay that’s hard to put into words. Through these aphoristic scenes, Mion’s character becomes one the player genuinely feels for, and wants to succeed, meaning that you’ll want to go and find each one to reveal more of the backstory. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a game that tells it’s tale through such simple visuals and non-verbal imagery to make you root for it’s protagonist to such a degree, and it’s something for which htoL#NiQ deserves praise.
Regrettably though, htoL#NiQ is a beautiful and fiercely interesting piece of art hampered not by it’s own ambition but by poor gameplay. The game’s atmosphere, world, and visual panache are up there with the best of them, but it just can’t get over the shackles placed on it by it’s gimmicky controls. It’s brief but untoward, an utterly charming experience despite it’s significant flaws, and if you can stomach those issues, it’s something worth experiencing, especially given the cheap $20 price point. The short tempered, however, should look elsewhere.