While investigating an accidental fire at a funeral, rookie cop Lin Lixun buys some torch batteries from a local shop owner. Minutes later, lost and disoriented in the town of Qingtan, he comes across the same shop again. Entering, he finds out that the owner he just spoke to died two days earlier…
Firework is a creepy Chinese horror puzzle game from indie developer Shiying Studio, and has received an English translation after an overwhelmingly positive response on Steam. Lin’s initial discovery leads to a wider investigation of a cold case about the murdered Tian family. You see, it turns out that Lin has the ability to communicate with the dead, just like all decent supernatural cops.
Gameplay is simple. A lot simpler than the story, but we’ll get to that. Lin can move left or right on a 2D plane, and examine things in each area. Sometimes a magnifying glass will pop up to indicate a point of interest that is key to the main story, whereas at other times you can simply click away at anything else you walk past to get some flavour text. Most rooms don’t have more than three or four hotspots, and you’ll revisit some places a lot. Lin isn’t alone for a lot of the game. He soon meets a teacher/journalist called Chen who is doing some research of her own into the fate of the Tians. At certain points, you’ll flashback to controlling one of the family or their associates (to say more risks spoilers) but otherwise things tick along in a very linear fashion.
Puzzles are usually dealt out and solved in one or two locations. The interaction between Lin and his environment is heavily ordered, requiring you to trigger specific scenes or dialogue in a way that sometimes doesn’t feel logical. For instance, investigating a pair of jeans on a washing line yields nothing initially, but after hearing a voicemail stating that there’s an order slip in one of the pockets, you’ll discover it when you return to the clothing. You can’t pick up a pair of scissors until you have found the hair that they need to be used on (literally right next to them). As detectives go, Lin isn’t particularly thorough at the best of times — or rather, Firework isn’t willing to let you discover anything out of its proper sequence.
The game derives its scares from small, creepy moments, as simple as a lifesize paper doll falling over, or lights flicking off and then on again with a weird face or figure suddenly appearing in the interim. This isn’t a gory or even vaguely bloody horror; the fear is derived from the psychological. Unfortunately, this is where Firework stumbles. A lot of the game is set within the Tian house as Lin explores it. The house shifts around with no explanation other than “creepy”, but it feels more like a way to reuse assets. Music and sound, so fundamental to horror in general, are used sparingly here. A loud noise accompanying a jump scare does the job, but it's cliche to a fault. The plot flits back and forth between timelines too, though it isn’t clearly explained whether Lin is hallucinating these, living them out in real time, or simply just dreaming. I also found it incredibly confusing to follow what was going on at any point. Perhaps this was because of the stilted translation to English. There are plenty of typos and weird turns of phrase to deal with; oddly, this added more to the creepiness factor rather than being irritating — at least to start. As proceedings got weirder and more obtuse, the lack of decent localisation really became offputting.
Puzzles, conversely, are engaging. They aren’t going to tax anyone who has either played a puzzle game or been in an escape room, but all the favourites are here: sliding tiles, connecting fuses, completing a jigsaw of skeleton bones… the usual. Most of the answers you need to work out how to open locks will be either in the room you’re standing in, or the one next door. The most frustrating part of the game was ironically one of the most innovative - a toy camera that turned the entire room into a negative, essentially flipping Lin into a parallel world drawn in crayon. That was fine until I had to navigate my way back through similar-looking rooms and doors and got repeatedly lost.
I’ve never played a Chinese horror game before, so perhaps I’m coming down hard on what may be a stunning narrative that just lost its way in translation. It was nice to play a horror that didn’t rely on buckets of blood or exploding heads, but Firework really didn’t click for me. An unsettling start led to a confusing ending, with motivations that felt contrived. It clocks in at around six hours at most so isn’t a huge outlay of time for those interested in the genre. Whether it’s enough to convince you that this is a firecracker rather than a damp squib is another matter.
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