When I first saw the promotional video for Nippon Ichi software's upcoming game, Hotaru no Nikki, I was instantly captivated by the overall aesthetic. It had the feel of a game like Ico, but with less action. And that's pretty much what I got.
Hotaru no Nikki is atmospheric as hell. The simple innocent children's book-esque imagery, the soft lines and colors, the soothing music, the tranquil aloneness you feel throughout – the game world is both captivating and pleasantly haunting. If you're like me and fell in love with the game's promotional trailer, this game is worth it just for the atmosphere alone.
The character design of the little girl, Mion, stole my heart at first glance. Yeah, the "innocent little girl" imagery is cliché and overused, but it's overused because it's effective. I had no problem whatsoever feeling sympathy for this mysterious little girl who would follow me around without question or hesitation. Throughout my time with Hotaru no Nikki, I never got bored of watching her walk, run, crawl, climb, or float as I tried to guide her from danger. Seriously, kudos to the visual design team on this game.
In Hotaru no Nikki, you play the part of the guiding firefly. Gameplay is through the PS Vita's touch screen. You move around by touching the screen where you want to go. This is an interesting game mechanic, but it's also mortifyingly disruptive. Any immersion I had in the game's world was often and quickly broken by my knobby digits getting in the way of the pretty pictures. The last thing I want to see when enjoying an atmospheric fantasy is something from the real world butting in.
The shadow mode gameplay element which uses the Vita's rear touch panel was equally as disruptive. You switch to and from the shadow mode by tapping the rear touch panel. In the shadow mode, you can only move within and along overlapping shadows, however, you can interact with things that you normally cannot touch as the guiding firefly in the main game world.
As a puzzle element, this helps to mix things up, however, having the rear touch panel as a control mechanic leads to the potential for accidents, and restricts how you hold the Vita. There were plenty of times where I died because I accidentally switched to or out of shadow mode at a crucial moment. It's bad enough I had to deal with my fingers getting in the way of the front screen, but I had to be constantly aware of where I was touching the back of the console as well.
I did try to play the game on my PlayStation TV, and it did work for my finger disruption problems. However, the touch mode is a nightmare and the controls are much less refined when using knobs to move around. Even using the touch pad of a PS4 controller was too broad and had me flying around the screen causing more frustration than it alleviated. Honestly, the game probably would work better on the PC with a mouse and keyboard rather than on the Vita.
You're going to die in this game. Correction: Mion is going to die in this game, and she's going to die a lot. Hotaru no Nikki is very much a trial and error sort of game with an emphasis on memorizing where and when things happen. The deaths aren't gruesome and savepoints are frequent so there aren't a whole lot of areas where you're going to have to brave a gauntlet of frustrating traps and tricks before you reach a point of safety (Note: not a lot, but there are some). That said, some of the puzzles are pretty unforgiving and Mion is going to meet her demise a shit ton of times before the day is through. Let me put it this way: The game has an achievement for dying 100 times... I got that before I finished chapter 2.
Even with the non-ending stream of deaths, the satisfaction of successfully navigating the dangers is quite an endorphin rush. The game strikes a decent balance of challenge and reward and while I did find my blood pressure rising whenever I couldn't get past a certain point, once I did get past, it felt pretty damn good.
The backstory of Hotaru no Nikki can be uncovered by collecting glowing plants that are hidden throughout the stages. By finding and touching a plant, you are given a brief interactive scene involving people in Mion's past. It's possible to clear the stages without finding the plants, but doing so leaves out what is probably an important part of understanding and better empathizing with Mion. I kind of wish that they had made the hidden collectibles something else than a plot line that helps add to the game.
This is a singular point, and not an overarching element of the game, but it bears mentioning. The boss battle in chapter 2 has random elements. The boss has 3 different attacks, so it's pretty much a crapshoot if it's going to dish out the one you want. One of those attacks causes debris to randomly fall from above, so if you're unlucky, you're going to die and there's no amount of skill or timing that's going to save you.
While this sort of thing can happen in other games, in a game like Hotaru no Nikki, where a lot of the gameplay lies in timing and memory, adding random elements for what felt like no other reason than to amp up the difficulty felt like a cardinal sin.
Simply put, despite any problems Hotaru no Nikki has – and it has quite a few – in the end, the game's atmosphere and visual style made it all worth it for me. As a game, it's flawed as hell, but even so, I still enjoyed it for its look and sounds. However, while it worked for me and allowed me to forgive a lot of what would have had me smashing my Vita against a brick wall with other games, visual and atmospheric appeal is a very subjective thing, so if the promotional videos don't tickle your fancy, you may want to save yourself the frustration and pass on this game.
Hotaru no Nikki was released in Japan on June 19th, 2014. No word on an international release, but Nippon Ichi does a pretty good job with localizing their stuff, so, fingers crossed.
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