HtoL#NiQ: An apology

There was a time when I was all excited about Nippon Ichi’s stylish puzzle-plaformer, HtoL#NiQ (Hotaru no Nikki, if you’re wondering how to pronounce that). I’d even preordered it! Me! The weird lady that’s incapable of buying anything that’s not a decade old! Then it came out and… it wasn’t so bad, actually. The game had atmosphere seeping out of every beautiful pixel and the “boss” at the end of the first chapter was tense but not impossible to defeat.

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Then the designers threw chapter one’s pacing out of the window and the rest of the game is only slightly less painful than smothering your fingers in fish bait and dangling them over a piranha tank.

To be more specific: before the patch (which of course came out after I swore and shouted my way through to the end) the game could only be controlled using the Vita’s touch screen; by default using the screen for the light firefly and the rear touchpad for its shadowy counterpart. This made holding the Vita uncomfortable at best and made the game’s already demanding firefly controls difficult to manage. So the only alternative was to have both fireflies controlled using the touch screen, with a small icon in the corner to switch between the two. An icon that may or may not respond depending on whether it’s in the mood to acknowledge your desperate jabbing at that specific moment.

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In some puzzle games this could have be a niggle – an annoying inconvenience in an otherwise interesting game – but not so with HtoL#NiQ. The problem with this game’s puzzle design is that the solutions are invariably very simple – don’t touch the shadows (that are positioned to give as many cheap deaths as possible, including being hidden behind foreground objects), flip that switch (it’s on a timer), push that box (assuming it falling from the sky didn’t kill you first) – but executing them is infuriating due to the game’s insistence on having even the slightest error “rewarded” with the adorable Mion’s instant demise as well as the designers apparently not accounting for the fact that nobody outside their development team has transparent fingers. As such relatively simple requests like “navigate through a maze without touching the sides” become horrific avenues of death with players literally unable to see where they’re going as their finger is of course covering the part they’re trying to pass through and somebody thought it’d be a great idea to add Moving Bars of Electro-Death and other “fun” hazards to these already difficult sections.

So what about that patch I mentioned earlier? With everyone complaining about the unwieldy touchscreen controls Nippon Ichi released a patch that added analogue control support, so in the interests of fairness I restarted the game to see if this improved matters… and it did – sort of. Although with the major control issues mostly gone all that was left to focus on was the poor level design that “rewarded” your successful trap-avoiding antics with more traps and more whirly death saws and mushrooms that reverse the controls… you get the idea – “not fun” is something of an understatement here.

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I’ve bought bad games before, and HtoL#NiQ is not the first, last, or the most expensive one either. But it’s been a long time since a game was so promising, so almost good, that I felt so let down by the end result. HtoL#NiQ’s fragmented and cyclical story is absolutely fascinating, and the art direction is not only unique but also suits both the game and the Vita well. It’s just a damned shame the game you’re forced to endure to experience these highlights is so ceaselessly unfair and poorly designed.

In short: should a Let’s Play become available then by all means watch it through and get busy discussing Mion’s curious tale, but please, please spend your PSN credit on something –anything- else.

Think I'm overreacting? It really can't be all that bad, can it? Feel free to head on over here for a second opinion from the eternally fantastic Ant of Gaming Hell