Review: Flower (Sony PS3)


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Flower
Publisher: Sony
Developer: thatgamecompany
Genre: Zen
Release Date: 02/12/2009

Playstation Network has quietly become a treasure trove of unique and new game experiences by small independent developers given a platform on which to shine. 2009 is barely two months old and already a completely original IP has been released in the form of Flower.

The debate as to whether games are art has been going on for a while, and games like Flower are attempting to prove that games have their place amongdt other artistic mediums. The developers of Flower describe it as a “Zen game” – the video game equivalent of a poem. While this sort of pomposity is initially a turnoff, the developers’ intentions are unique and relevant to understanding and enjoying the game itself.

Flower is a new type of game, impossible to fit into an existing genre and difficult to describe without the imagery to back it up. But with great ambition comes great expectations and Flower‘s release makes inherent promises about a completely new video game experience. Does it deliver on these lofty expectations?

1. Modes/Story

So many times the story in a game is somewhat or completed detached from the gameplay itself. Through cutscenes, pre-rendered dialogue and story-progressing cinemas, games tell stories and choose which areas you, as the player, get to impact.

Flower does something very few games have been able to do – transcend the traditional storytelling methods and allow the gameplay itself to tell the story. Each level begins in a dead state, with flowers as bulbs, darkness, deadness or drab colors. As the level moves along, the level, surroundings and music change, directly impacted by the amount of territory covered by the player.

By the end of each level, a story has been told. A meadow has been restored with fauna and color bursting with life. A storm has been cleared out. There are a few short cutscenes that set the stage, but overall the story is driven by the gameplay itself.

In terms of modes, Flower is very straight forward. The first time through, the levels are played in order, with six levels and a credits level that is akin to half a level. After that, all of the levels are unlocked and can be accessed individually at any time.

Modes/Story Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

The bulk of Flower takes place in a large, sprawling meadows in which the breeze blows and collects flower pedals. As each level begins, there is a lone flower from which a single pedal is plucked by the player tapping the wind. From there, the wind blows the pedal towards other flowers, where an approximate contact will free another pedal and it joins the original. Each pedal is added to the group and the pedals move and flow along with the wind. There is a gracefulness and peacefulness to how the pedals move, as if always in poetic motion.

At once the colorful collection of flowers will be moving in a giant bee-like swarm, and within the swarm, each pedal moves at once independently and with the swarm, somewhat like a flock of birds. The pace of the game allows the player to take in the colorful environments, and the visuals become a large part of the game experience. As more and more pedals join the swarm, the meadow bursts with additional growth and color, with realistic but still fantastical wonder. Sometimes large chain reactions mimic the feeling of watching a fireworks closing routine – more and more colors exploding in every direction, with the music building alongside.

One the most remarkable parts of the Flower graphical experience is the way that all of the blades of grass on each meadow are independently rendered and animated. As the wind and the flower pedals blow through the grass, it reacts naturally and realistically, bobbing, moving and swaying as one would expect. The amount of grass is impressive on one hand, but it also has a slight tinge of unrealism, almost resembling a koosh ball or bad hair plugs. Not a huge criticism and truly a technical achievement for 2009, but does show how much room for additional processing power exists for future generations of consoles.

The graphical engine in Flower is something that makes the game so special and is a use of technology that creates a new experience. It’s hard to imagine Flower being the same game with more primitive 3-D graphics or in the confines of 2-D.

Graphics Rating: Classic


3. Sound

Normally I’m someone who doesn’t enjoy games with sounds. Most of the time I’ll mute the game and listen to music or something else. However, the sound design in Flower is not only a joy, but an integral part of the entire experience.

The music itself is orchestral and melodic and changes in tone and tempo often. The tempo of the music goes up and down, depending on the speed of the wind behind the pedal swarm, Each flower bulb activated creates a unique note sound. By the way each level is designed, the path of the flower bulbs correlates with the melody in the song, so unlocking a flower bulb creates a note that harmonizes the music. Bulbs required for access to the next portion of the meadow have louder or more impactful notes, and secondary bulbs that are optional generate notes that add further depth to the song.

The mood of the music changes as the level progresses, usually becoming more upbeat and inspirational as the meadow is reborn. The sound design goes hand and hand with the visual design and game theme, and does an inspired job of gluing the experience together. It is a truly inspired sound design that has a profound and deep impact on the game experience.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control & Gameplay

The control scheme in Flower is remarkably simple, and speaks to how motion controls can be effectively used to boost gameplay rather than simple replace button presses with waggles.

There are only two control mechanisms in Flower. The Sixaxis controller is used to guide the direction of the wind, and each button is the equivalent of a wind accelerator. There is no break.

With such a simple control scheme, there is a surprisingly amount of variety in how the gameplay is executed. The core of the game is navigating the meadows, aiming for flower bulbs and freeing a pedal from each as its power is unlocked. There is often a defined path for the flower bulbs and following it will lead to some beautiful patterns and camera spans.

If you choose to fully accelerate the wind, and follow the path set forth in each level, there is a high-speed rollercoaster effect that takes you on a ride with the flower pedals. It’s most similar to some of the best parts of a 3-D Sonic game, such as the memorable Whale scene that opened Sonic Adventure. It’s a feeling of partial control at max speed on a fantastic ride – and like a rollercoaster, the feeling of lost control but the rush of going super fast into the unknown.

There are a few other gameplay mechanics employed in the game, especially in the last two levels. The swam of flower pedals grows larger and larger in most levels, but without spoiling too much, there is a time when the pedals can be reduced. The feeling that Flower conveys when the pedals are lost cuts deep – how could they be gone?!

That’s not to defend Flower as a deep gameplay experience. It’s very basic and non complex. The simple controls that are in place are executed to perfection, conveying a true feeling of control over the wind and the swarm of flowers that starts and remains consistent in all environments.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

5. Replayability

All told, Flower takes less than two hours to play through, so it’s a short game. There are only the six levels, and while they can be replayed for different experiences, they are what’s available.

On the first play through, I only earned one trophy, so thatgamedeveloper did build in some fun trophies to keep players going back through the levels for achievement purposes.

Flower is also something that can be used to just relax. I could envision the same types of people that have sound machines to mimic the ocean just turning on Flower to relax and get lost in the colors. Granted that’s probably a limited group, but it’s also a new group largely unexplored by video games in the past.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

6. Balance

Based on a traditional scale of measuring a game’s difficulty or relative balance, Flower isn’t much of a challenge. It’s impossible to die, and there is no way to avoid completing a level unless you simply quit the level. There is an absolute progression from level to level in terms of what is expected out of the player. At first, the wind simply blows pedals around the meadow, but in later levels, the pedal swarm must be used to solve super simple puzzles, or as an offensive tool to clear away debris.

In all there isn’t much challenge or obstacle to Flower. It’s more like something you just play through for the experience.

Balance Rating: Mediocre

7. Originality

Flower set out to be something completely original and succeeded on all levels. No matter what you think of it, there is no doubt that it is unlike any other game before it. It’s also a true example of a game that truly needed modern technology to be fully realized. Without sprawling HD meadows and subtle motion controls, the experience of Flower would be severely hampered.

Originality Rating: Unparalleled

8. Addictiveness

The first time I sat down to play Flower, I ended up playing through the whole game, and then the credits, and then a couple levels a second time. The time needed to do all this was only a few hours, but since I have gone back through and played each level several more times.

There is a path on each meadow that needs to be followed to unlock everything, but there is also a fair amount of free motion possible. You could spend hours just floating around the meadow exploring or enjoying the experience without going to the final flower.

With that said, it would have been cool to have had more meadows, or other modes, but what is present is strong.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average


9. Appeal Factor

As gaming matures into a full, robust medium, a progressive fringe of game developers has surfaced that are looking to create new experiences and redefine game paradigms. However, much like indie rock or art house films, the appeal for games like Flower might be extremely limited. Just a quick perusal of the comments on the official Sony site for Flower show a minority of positive comments, but a majority that just don’t find the game appealing.

If you’re looking for something new, something different and something that isn’t brown and grey, then you’ll love what Flower offers.

Appeal Rating: Dreadful

10. Miscellaneous

As a collector, I’m just sad I will never have an official Flower box or instruction manual or even a strategy guide. (Or you can see how truly crazy I am and check out the Flower box I designed and printed).

As someone who follows gaming and its evolution closely, Flower is a landmark game. A first party risk (although limited risk) much like Electroplankton around the launch of Nintendo DS – a game that redefines what gameplay and what a game is, and hooks into a style of gameplay that can be useful to a new range of players.

Obviously I loved Flower from this review, but also see how it wont appeal to everyone. The rush and adrenaline of action games or the competition of sports games is not present in Flower – instead it’s trying to do something entirely different.

I would love to see something where players could record trips through the meadows and share them, because just watching the game as background on the TV is sometimes fun too.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores

Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Classic
Sound: Unparalleled
Control & Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Dreadful
Miscellaneous: Great
Final Score: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Flower is a groundbreaking video game that shows the sheer potential of video games to reach heights of beauty and emotion not previously seen. As Flower moves from level to level, the power and splendor of unleashing the marvels on each meadow will awe you at first, then settle in and appreciate the subtly of the gameplay and majesty of the experience. Flower puts a stake in the ground and at once declares that games are indeed art and redefines what a game can be.

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