Nippon Ichi, perhaps best known for its Disgaea role-playing game series, has recently released a new PlayStation Vita game in Japan that’s very different from its usual output. htoL#NiQ is a puzzle game, and is best – or perhaps most lazily – described as Japan's answer to monochrome indie die-lots-‘em-up Limbo.
Taking place in the post-apocalyptic year 9999, the game has you controlling a pair of fireflies – one light and one shadow – that must guide the adorable Mion through deadly hazards and protect her from shadowy monsters. By default, this is all conducted entirely with the touchscreen and rear panel; the former controlling the light firefly and the latter the shadow firefly. Alternatively, both bugs can be controlled with just the front touchscreen if you prefer.
Each firefly has a slightly different job to do: the light firefly guides Mion in real time, directing her movements, and is even able to scout around for oncoming dangers – of which there are many. Meanwhile, the shadow firefly freezes movement in the real world, and can only travel through connected shadows, including Mion’s, monsters, and even gaseous clouds. It can also operate switches, levers, and similar devices by itself. Constant alternating between the two is required in some areas if you don’t want to see the protagonist squished under a piston or eaten by shadows.
Which brings us to htoL#NiQ’s central inescapable flaw – it’s a puzzle game, although it’s one where most of the difficulty comes from performing the actions required rather than working out what to do in the first place. Precise and well-timed movements are often needed to progress, and these are rather difficult when your finger is covering the one part of the screen that you really need to see or when Mion is walking ever so slightly to the side (and to her death) because you didn’t leave the light firefly in a perfectly neutral position while riding on the latest moving platform. There’s little satisfaction to be had in successfully navigating a puzzle when you already worked out the solution twenty deaths ago, or when your only reward is yet another gauntlet of spinning saws designed to test your patience rather than your skill.
The most upsetting thing about all of this irritation is that the opening chapter is wonderful – the mystery surrounding the heroine and her environment is engaging and atmospheric, and the puzzles in this area are based more on your ability to think things through than rote memorisation of death trap patterns. The game ditches this style all too quickly, though, leaving you with nothing more than an all-too-brief taste of how good it could have been. There are a few small breathers later in the adventure that prove that, when the designers aren’t taking delight in punishing the mildest positioning error, the combination of dual fireflies coupled with Mion’s own abilities can make for some entertaining and engaging puzzle-platforming, but it’s difficult to enjoy this return to form when it’s always sandwiched between death-by-vaguely-brushing-against-something-sharp segments.
htoL#NiQ should have been a lonely adventure through a destroyed and hazardous world, lit only by a firefly’s glow. Instead, it’s often an exercise in frustrating repetition, with woolly controls in a game that demands pixel-perfect timing and precision. The one upside is that so long as you have a Japanese PlayStation Network account (the physical release was a limited edition that appears to have sold out on pre-order), the game’s very import-friendly with almost no text whatsoever. Alas, whether you feel that that makes struggling through Mion’s death-filled game worthwhile is another matter entirely.
Has this curious touch-based adventure piqued your interest? Guide your firefly into the comments section below.