htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary Review

By Shawn Collier on March 16, 2015

Japanese developer Nippon Ichi has been known for their strategy RPGs alongside their other unique more traditional RPGs. So when the developer, and later on their North American publishing branch NIS America, announced the release of The Firefly Diary, many were surprised to see such a deviation of their usual norm.

This extends to the entire design of the game, as htoL features essentially no spoken dialogue or text as it employs a near-purely visual presentation to the player. The developers made especial use of the environment as they are low-lit to feature what's important in the given level. It has a unique look with its cutesy deformed character design, which is juxtaposed by an unsettling gloomy-like atmosphere similar to what you'd see in a vintage film projector. There's also a separate isometric-style view that's used in the flashback scenes throughout the game.

Using the fireflies Lumen and Umbra, your goal in htoL is to guide a silver-haired waif named Mion, who wakes up in a foreign area she doesn't recognize with no recollection of how she got there. htoL utilizes both the front touch screen (Lumen) and rear touchpad (Umbra) to help guide Mion through the unfamiliar world, although there are optional controls which use a combination of the front touch screen and physical controls, or purely physical controls if that's your preference.

The twist with the controls is that you can't directly control Mion in htoL. Mion will move to where Lumen's current location is by default, although you can use Lumen to signal Mion to throw switches, push boxes and other such interactions. Umbra is controlled when the rear touchpad is pressed. Umbra's powers revolve around the ability to move freely through the shadows, including those cast by Lumen's glow. This ability allows Umbra to interact with objects that Lumen, and thus Mion, can't reach. Utilizing these two characters to their fullest makes up the majority of the mechanics in htoL.

That isn't to say htoL is a cakewalk or less of a time investment than some of the developer's prior titles, though. Due to the puzzle-like nature of the levels and the dual gameplay mechanics you can and will die a couple times until you realize the proper solution to clear the level. This in and of itself isn't an issue, as nobody wants a level that can be cleared every time on the first try in a puzzle game --- it's an issue with the non-directly controlled Mion.

Since she only moves when Lumen is moved, there's a slight delay between the two and she moves at her fastest at a strolling speed. The optional physical controls alleviate this somewhat but it's not as precise as one would wish for. If you've played games such as the PS2 title Ico you'll have a general idea of the issue that is at play here.

There's also an issue with the lag that occurs when you switch between Lumen and Umbra. The game often includes hidden enemies, surprise hazards and some elements that seem almost random as I got different outcomes each time I restarted the level. Not all of the levels do this thankfully, but it's extremely annoying to die from something outside of your control on the ones that this is the norm.

The disparity between the good and the bad levels feels odd, as the good ones do a wonderful job of rewarding clever thinking, while the others create a frantic sensation that is at odds with the art style and general theming of the game. That said, there is something about the game that makes the player want to return again to those levels, as I did during my time reviewing the game, as some of the flashback scenes are unlocked by perfectly completing the levels.

Final Thoughts

The Firefly Diary is an new experiment in more ways than one from Nippon Ichi. The gameplay deviates heavily from their usual Strategy RPG norm and it shows, as the polish over the years those games have received is traded for a game that is brilliant in some aspects but needs more time in the oven in others. There's enough here for those who can overlook the faults to be engrossed by the game, but those who don't want to take a leap of faith from the veteran developer might the unpolished nature of the game off-putting.

Welcome inclusion of physical-based controls alongside the unique touch screen controls.
The two art styles give the graphics a nice vintage film touch.
The levels that are implemented well feel tough but not too tough.
Some levels feel exceptionally unbalanced due to the cheap deaths.
The physical controls alleviate it slightly, but there's still somewhat of a lag between Lumen moving and Mion following.
There's a slight lag switching between Lumen and Umbra.
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