When I first saw The Firefly Diary, I was more than intrigued. It immediately made me think of Limbo, an indie game that has an interesting art style, no dialogue, and a fair bit of trial and error. The idea for The Firefly Diary actually came out of an inner-company contest for new games. The game that won was turned into the full game that is The Firefly Diary. If anything can be said about the creation of the game, it’s that more companies should look inside for new ideas that they can put out with minimal resources. As for the game itself, you’re not going to hear any dialogue or see any text past the first few minutes. It’s this minimalist design that was one of my favorite parts of the game. There is no map taking up a part of the screen, no health meter, no anything. The screen itself is dark and seems to flicker, adding to the mystery and atmosphere in the game. All in all, I love how the game looks, but looks can definitely be deceiving.
The game starts with Mion, a girl with branch-like horns, waking up without any idea how she got there. You won’t directly control Mion, but you will a green firefly named Lumen and a pink firefly named Umbra in order to move her or interact with the environment. My playthrough was done completely with the touch screen and rear touchpad, but you can also use the Left Stick as well. You’ll have plenty of time to look at your mysterious surroundings as you walk around because you are quite slow. You will lead Mion around with Lumen, but can switch to a sort of shadowed mode wherein the game stops and you can use Umbra to push buttons, attack enemies (though you won’t kill them), interact with switches, and more, so long as there are shadows leading from Mion to your target.
The normal enemies you come across are of the shadow nature. They won’t actually attack you, but your shadow where Umbra lies. Depending on where Lumen currently is, the shadows will react accordingly. That means, you can actually narrowly avoid dying if you move Lumen to a more advantageous location, keeping your shadow away from the enemy. It was a small thing that I didn’t necessarily notice until after a few deaths in one particular location and, speaking of deaths, you’ll be dying a lot.
Don’t let the cute main character fool you, you’ll be seeing her die and have your screen splattered with red a whole lot during a single playthrough. There are plenty of puzzles and timing-based platforming sections on offer and many of them will result in multiple deaths. The Firefly Diary is not a forgiving game by any means and, at first, it was actually quite nice. I found myself glad that the game wasn’t going to be completed with hardly any difficulty, but as time went on and the deaths piled up, I simply found myself frustrated.
Mion isn’t the fastest moving character you’ll ever play, but it’s even harder to get through some obstacles when you factor in the delays. Not only is there a delay from when you move Lumen ahead to when Mion actually moves, but there’s also a delay when you activate Umbra to interact with the shadows. These very small delays in transition can (and likely will) result in death after death after death. I love figuring out tough puzzles, but not ones that seem to be too reliant on precise timing with less than precise controls. Portal was a game that had me yelling at the television over and over again, but I was always granted relief and happiness upon figuring it out. The Firefly Diary never left me with this final feeling. Instead, I was just frustrated that it had taken so long, that it had cost so many deaths, or because the controls weren’t tight enough.
As you go throughout the world, you’ll come across collectibles which will seem to break the game for a second prior to showing you a flashback, all of which is done in a very different style than the normal game. I was intrigued by the life that Mion had in flashbacks and how it differed from where I was now, but I hated that this large part of the narrative relied completely on obtaining these collectibles. I felt like I was being punished for not going for a particularly hard to get collectible, something I didn’t always want to do if I had already died 20 times leading up to that point.
If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted, story driven game, this won’t be the game for you. At its best, The Firefly Diary is an intriguing, dark, mysterious experience. At its worst, it’s a frustrating, difficult, slow, death simulator. It’s not the game I hoped it was going to be or could have been, but it’s not bad by any means. If you can deal with the frustrations of dying over and over again (not always from your own mistakes) and playing a game that seems to stay a mystery from beginning to end then you may find something worthwhile here long after the frustrations have left.