Firework review: a gentle horror-puzzle game that’s as thoughtful as it is sad
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Firework actually came out almost exactly a year ago, but the English language version (translated from the original Chinese) was released just before Christmas. Which is a good thing, because Firework is well worth checking out if you have an interest in either horror games or puzzle games. The horror isn’t blood-chilling, but rather twisted up with grief and sorrow in how inevitable it is. Similarly, the puzzles aren’t going to stump you for long, but they fit very well with the story. These two strands of the game weave together and create a nice, thoughtful experience that’s worth the four or so hours of having it.
You play as Lin Lixun, a new police officer on his first case investigating a fire at a funeral in a small mountain town. This soon leads Lixun to a recent family annihilation that was considered a closed case, where a couple, their daughter-in-law, and their grandaughter were all found dead some months after the death of their son. Lixun, who is able to communicate with the dead, goes on a surreal and frightening investigation into the Tian family’s deaths to find out what really happened.
Firework is pretty simple in its presentation – it’s all in 2D, and if you can interact with something a little magnifying glass appears over Lixun’s head. Likewise, puzzle solutions are rarely more than a room away, and are often in the same place. They are, for the most part, about bringing one thing to another thing. There’s no combining of weird stuff in your inventory or tracking back and forth to NPCs. The most delightful ones are when the game gets a little more abstract – like the puzzle where you figure out how to tune a radio correctly, or when later sections make you change how the world looks using a camera. But the puzzles also feel like they’re less about being puzzles, and more about the emotions and themes of the story as you gradually uncover what happened to the Tian family.
There is a lot about grief, expectations, parents, superstition and science. The local teacher and doctor keep popping up doing slightly suspicious things. Lixun’s exploration of the Tian family begins crossing over with his own childhood memories, and his feelings about his (long-deceased) father. The resolution of the mystery comes with a kind of crushing inevitability, but also a note of surprising sweetness and hope. There are some really arresting images in Firework that will stay with you, which I won’t spoil here.
There are some interludes from the horror where you play through a doodle in a child’s book, or float along a river as a paper lantern. Even so, the horror itself is quite gentle. There aren’t jump scares, but rooms will change when you’re not looking at them. Staring dolls will appear. An autopsy room becomes host to a giggling lump of hair.
It’s creepy, but Lixun treats it all as quite ordinary, even when he’s trapped in a haunted mirror verison of the Tian family home. The fear is more bound up in what happened to the Tian family itself, because in a way it could happen to any family – and, indeed, does. Firework spins a lot of plates, and it’s worth playing just to see them all being kept in the air.