Review: Flower, Sun and Rain (Nintendo DS)

Flower, Sun and Rain
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Xseed Games
Release Date: 06/15/09

Goichi Suda, AKA Suda51, is one of those developers who puts the artistic merit of the product ahead of everything else. As a result, many of the games coming from his development house, Grasshopper, are divisive products amongst gamers. Their three most notable US releases, Contact, Killer 7 and No More Heroes, all share similar aesthetics, despite featuring different artistic styles and mechanics. The stories are self-referential and break the fourth wall like they were written to star Zack Morris. The story concepts themselves are often simultaneously strange and complex, yet also familiar and basic. The writing vacillates between intellectual philosophical observations and crude jokes without any distinct transition. Fans of Suda51 and, by extension, Grasshopper, will argue that the games are artistically interesting and there really aren’t any games on the market that do what theirs do in the same way and for those reasons they are fantastic, while detractors will argue that the artistry of the products doesn’t make up for the problematic nature of the games themselves. Flower, Sun and Rain is the most recent game from Grasshopper to come to the US, though it’s actually one of Grasshopper’s earlier works, having been released in Japan before any of the three prior mentioned products. Despite this, it almost stands as an example of a prototypical Suda51 game, as every element of the experience is turned up to eleven. The end result is a game that will appease fans of Grasshopper’s quirky concepts and artistic style while frustrating everyone else with some incredibly frustrating and poorly thought-out design choices.

You take on the role of Sumio Mondo, a “searcher”, which the game more or less implies is someone who finds, well, anything. Mondo has been summoned to the Flower, Sun and Rain hotel on Lospass Island, where he is told an airplane will be blown up soon, and he is asked to stop it. As he progresses through the case, he finds that this isn’t anywhere near the task he first thought it to be, as each day he ends up resolving some completely unrelated case, only to black out after dreaming of a plane exploding. Then he wakes up in his bed and repeats the process again the following day. Mondo plays the role of the genre-savvy “normal” protagonist, meaning that his dialogue often revolves around how absurd everything around him is and guessing, correctly, that everyone he deals with wants something from him before they’ll allow him to progress in his mission, while everyone else around him is absurd to various degrees, which is an interesting dynamic, if not an original one. Whether or not this appeals to you will probably depend on whether or not you like stories about fish out of water genre-savvy main characters being tormented by the ridiculous needs of others. For what it’s worth, the actual writing and dialogue are perfectly fine for what they are. The concept itself seems like it would have been more interesting if played straight instead of being implemented how it is. A not insignificant amount of the concept will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen Groundhog Day, and it has a bit too much in common with other Suda51 works, but the story works well enough and moves things along fine

Visually, Flower, Sun and Rain is artistically pleasant, but technologically unpleasant. The art style presented through the menus, dialogue boxes and cinematics is excellent, with an 80’s flair that seems to be a part of Grasshopper’s MO in all cases. Neon-styled intro clips come together with Atari-esque bits and pieces, which then combine with some solid character artwork to make the presentation itself fantastic. The graphics themselves, on the other hand, are pretty awful. Now, the DS as a console is generally pretty bad at displaying 3D graphics, as has been noted before, but there have been a few games that have shown that the console is capable of displaying 3D visuals that are quite solid. Flower, Sun and Rain is not one of those titles. The character models are blocky and jagged, the textures are low resolution and ugly, and the background environments are poorly textured and uninteresting, and since this is a good portion of what you’ll be seeing throughout the game, that’s unpleasant. This IS a port of a PS2 title, so it’s understandable that the game is in 3D and that said 3D isn’t especially impressive after being downgraded to the DS. Still, this really seems like the sort of title that would have benefited from a visual makeover, perhaps in 2D, and not just for aesthetic reasons. Aurally, Flower, Sun and Rain fares a bit better, thanks to some strong, enjoyable background music. The soundtrack is fairly diverse and sounds very clean and well done on the DS speakers, and it’s mostly enjoyable to listen to as you move around and solve riddles. There isn’t any real voice acting to speak of, though there’s the now-standard gibberish speak whenever the characters converse, and that’s fine enough. The sound effects are also acceptable, and fit the product and the particular events fine, though there’s this one explosion effect that you’ll be hearing several times before the game is over that is, frankly, really underwhelming in context.

You will spend the entirety of your time in Flower, Sun and Rain either wandering around the island of Lospass, talking to the residents, or unlocking various things with your personal computer Catherine. Walking is accomplished with either the D-Pad or the Stylus, and you can interact with people, places and things by pressing A or tapping them, which makes things simple enough to understand. Interacting with most people and things initiates a dialogue or monologue, depending on the circumstances. Most of your time will be spent alternating between these two tasks over and over until you get to a puzzle, which the game tries to liven up a bit with the lively cast of characters and the different locations to travel to throughout the island of Lospass. This is all pretty standard, as far as adventure games are concerned, so if you’re a fan of the genre in general, you should pretty much be prepared for this. The game is divided into eighteen days, during each of which Mondo will try to reach the airport to stop the terrorist from blowing up the airplane, only to be accosted by someone else he has to help for… some reason or another. This will initiate the various sequences of wandering about and talking to folks as you attempt to solve whatever problem is on the menu that day.

Sooner or later, though, you’ll eventually find your way to something that needs to be hacked, and this is where Flower, Sun and Rain’s most interesting mechanic comes in. Mondo is, as established, a searcher, and he searches for data with the aid of his computer Catherine (Who, as we learn, is named as such because it’s better to work with a Catherine than a Bob.). Mondo can use Catherine to jack into virtually anything, from speakers to PDAs to statues to mops to people and beyond, and once he’s jacked in he can attempt to do his business. Catherine comes equipped with eleven different jacks, so you’ll have to take a minute to figure out what jack goes into the thing you’re hacking. Once in, you’ll be asked to plug in a code, which will then accomplish whatever it is you were attempting to do. Finding these codes is the real challenge, however, and this is where a significant amount of your time will be spent. No one just gives you codes on the island of Lospass, you see; instead, they lock down things with codes you will be expected to figure out on your own, with liberal use of the Guidebook. The Guidebook is a tour guide for the island of Lospass that also contains the various and sundry pieces of information you’ll need to decipher the codes presented to you, whether these codes be directly presented in text or be hidden in the words and images of the articles themselves. Finding the pages you need to read over is simple enough in the sense that you’ll know you’re in the right location as soon as you begin reading the contents, but complex in the sense that the game leaves it to you to figure out what pages you need to read, so you’ll be spending a lot of time reading through the guide.

Now, there are unlockable collectibles to find throughout the game by way of solving puzzles with Catherine, you’ll also unlock a few nifty tools and such by increasing your pedometer as you wander around the island. You can go back and play through any missions you’ve completed at any time, but make no mistake about it: the single biggest reason to play Flower, Sun and Rain is because the challenge of the experience is very much reminiscent of 80’s adventure games, minus the fear of death if you fail. You will be spending a good bit of time researching through the Guidebook for clues and puzzling through codes until you find the right one. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys a challenge, you’ll love this. The game does not hold your hand beyond the first two days, and aside from the odd explanation of, “go talk to this person,” or, “look in the Guidebook for this… somewhere,” you are completely on your own, which is a surprisingly refreshing and glorious thing. It’s a wonderful thing to see a game that is perfectly content to challenge you with a puzzle that can be figured out through logic and research, and while not everyone is going to like the degree of challenge on display in Flower, Sun and Rain, there will be definitely be people looking for such a product.

So it’s kind of a shame that, with such an interesting concept and well executed puzzle system, that the rest of the game isn’t very good.

See, here’s the thing: Suda51 games are like that guy at the party who tells you a thirty minute long story about an alien in the desert that ends with a bad pun: they think they’re way more clever and interesting than they actually are. Flower, Sun and Rain is, unfortunately, no different. Yes, the core concept of the story is interesting, many of the concepts are well conceived and well implemented, and the puzzle challenge is awesome. Then we get drunken angels and masked wrestlers and characters from games we, as Americans, have never played and characters who break the fourth wall with every word they say and, well, we have the same problem we had with No More Heroes: the story doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it serious? Is it a farce? No, IT’S BOTH! Some people out there will love this as if it were chocolate and peanut butter, but most will find it to be more like pizza and chocolate pudding: two great tastes that DO NOT taste great together. The camera in the game is also absolute crap, as there’s no way to control it and it swings around and disorients you a good portion of the time, making something as simple as moving from place to place annoying. There’s also no real reason to go back to the game once you’ve completed it, unless you want to unlock the collectible items that really don’t do much of anything to change to the experience.

The biggest flaw in Flower, Sun and Rain, however, is that the VAST majority of the game is incredibly tedious and boring in ways that any reasonable developer would have either excised from the DS version of the game or would have never even implemented in the first place. See, for a sizable portion of the game, Mondo has to walk everywhere, because the game says so. We’re told he can’t take his car because the island is a protected habitat, he has no access to other vehicles, and for a good portion of the game, he makes no effort to change this situation. In a game like, say, Phoenix Wright, this isn’t a problem because the characters simply teleport from place to place, while in something like Hotel Dusk that does ask you to walk around, the locale is small enough that this doesn’t matter. Flower, Sun and Rain takes place on a decent-sized island, however, meaning that there will be points where you will have to, and I am not exaggerating, walk for about five minutes in one direction to get to a location only to have to walk another five minutes back because there is literally no other solution. This sort of thing might work in cinema, but when the player actually has to force themselves through ten minutes of holding a direction on the D-Pad and doing NOTHING ELSE because the game says so, that’s a design problem, and if the developer did that on purpose, that’s not a good thing. Unfortunately, this happens a lot, whether it be walking from the ground floor to the roof of your five story hotel multiple times in a row because the developer decided an elevator was unnecessary, or wandering around the island for ten minutes because the game says so.

Look, I get it, okay? I get that the point was to upset the player so that, when this arbitrary ban is eventually lifted, the player is meant to feel pleased about it, but to borrow a line from David Wong, “Humans only find repetition enjoyable when they choose it.” The game never warns you it’s going to do this to you, it just does it. Seeing a character suffer through a ten hour walk in a film is fine, because we don’t have to be there for the WHOLE walk: we can witness the results, empathize with the character, and then feel gratified when they circumvent this. You can do the same thing in a video game to achieve the same result, but actually MAKING the player do this is inane. No matter how fans of Suda51 might justify this to themselves, no one WANTS to spend half of their time in a game walking from place to place, especially since just about every other adventure game ever has done something far more reasonable than Flower, Sun and Rain does. This isn’t World of Warcraft, where endless repetition is rewarded with increased experience levels and nifty loot. This isn’t a sports game, where endless repetition is rewarded with well-developed teams that can take on the world. This is an adventure game, where endless repetition is reward with a puzzle I could probably find for free on the internet, or alternatively, in any one of about twenty other adventure games available on the DS.

The bottom line is this: Flower, Sun and Rain is a game that is unique in as many ways and areas as it is flawed. The concept is interesting, but the story itself is incapable of deciding if it wants to be serious or a farce. The artistic merit is high, but the actual visuals are ugly and lacking. The puzzles are interesting, complex and well designed, but the remainder of the gameplay is tedious and you’ve seen it done better about a million times before. You might have some fun with the puzzles themselves when you eventually get to them, but even if you WANTED to come back to the game, there’s no reason to once you’ve completed it. The only nice thing you can really say about the game without having to point out a corresponding flaw is that it sounds nice, for the most part, but nice sound does not a good game make. Flower, Sun and Rain, with some significant gameplay tweaks and visual changes, had the potential to be a sleeper hit for the DS. Instead, in its present state, the only people it’s going to appeal to are Suda51 fans, which, unfortunately, can be said about pretty much EVERY game he’s made.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: POOR
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Flower, Sun and Rain is pretty much like every other Grasshopper game that’s found its way to the US. Iseems, at first glance, like something interesting that should be fun for everyone, but thanks to some questionable design choices, it ends up being a game that will really only appeal to, well, fans of other Grasshopper games. The concept is interesting and many of the story elements are well done, but the story itself is uncertain of whether it wants to be taken seriously or wants to be a parody, and ends up being a confusing mish-mash of incompatible concepts. The art style and presentation are nice, but the visuals themselves are technologically unpleasant and generally ugly. The audio is mostly good, but isn’t good enough on its own to carry the rest of the endeavor. The puzzles are well thought and challenging, but the rest of the gameplay is tedious and boring, and you won’t want to fight your way through the hours of wandering around for the (relatively speaking) minutes of puzzle solving that reward you for doing this. Even if you find the puzzles enjoyable enough to take you through the game, there’s no reason to return to the game a second time, as nothing changes and the unlockables are mostly pointless. Fans of Suda51 and his prior works will likely find something to enjoy here, or at least convince themselves they did, but everyone else will find this to be, to paraphrase my review of Rule of Rose, a fruit with a small, delicious inside and huge, rock-hard outside that you have to cut open with a dull plastic butter knife.