Inside Pulse 12

Review: Flockers (Microsoft Xbox One)

Flockers
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Team 17
Publisher: Team 17
Release Date: 9/17/2014

No matter how far gaming comes or how advanced technology becomes, Lemmings will never die. Well, the concept, anyway; the characters die constantly, in various purposeful and accidental ways, but that’s not the point. Lemmings as a concept, however, will always be around, because it’s a timeless way to make a puzzle game: give the player a bunch of stupid creatures, a bunch of silly powers, and task the player to use the powers on the creatures to help as many of them as possible survive. Flockers is exactly that game, in thought and deed, using sheep in the place of lemmings, a crazy steampunk world in the place of the blank cliff-laden world of the Lemmings games, and oh yeah, a whole lot more blood and gore. Well, the concept was certainly due for a makeover, as we haven’t really seen a lot of games that use this specific puzzle game concept in a while, and Team 17 has plenty of experience in the “retro class” department, as they’re the brains behind Worms, another long-lasting puzzle franchise. That said, Team 17 hasn’t had the greatest track record as of late; while their Worms games have generally been fun, their remake of Alien Breed was a bit more limited than one would have hoped. Oh, and there’s also the matter of them having developed Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, and no matter how many good games you develop, people are always going to question anything you release ever after something like that comes out. It turns out, though, that Flockers is definitely a step in the right direction for Team 17, as it goes back to the roots of the genre and does what the developer is best at: crazy, complex puzzle gaming that’s simple to figure out but challenging to complete.

On the subject of steampunk sheep

Flockers doesn’t have a lot going on in the way of game modes or plot: the plot is basically “you’re trying to help a bunch of stupid sheep escape a hellish steampunk nightmare factory,” and the game is basically just a straight single-player puzzle affair from beginning to end. Instead, the game carries itself significantly on its presentation, which it primarily does by being unlike anything you’ve seen in gaming, if not ever, than in a good long while. The visuals are top-notch, due in large part to the strong contrast between the bleak-looking industrial nightmare stages, the pearly-white, blissfully goofy sheep you guide to salvation, the bright and colorful special effects in the various stage apparatuses you use for victory, and of course, the dark red sprays that accompany your failure, when applicable. There’s honestly nothing bad to say about the visuals, outside of some of the cutscenes looking unimpressive, as everything generally animates well and looks impressive, especially given the sort of game it is, and you can zoom in really close to the action or really far out with no loss in quality or visual impressiveness. Aurally the game is a little less of a show-stealer, however; while the effects in the game world sound appropriately impressive and menacing, and the sheep sound like… sheep, the music is really bare-bones and there are only a few tracks that you’ll hear a lot of. They’re not bad, mind you, but they do get old, and there could’ve been more here than what there is, if only to keep things feeling fresh.

Mechanically, Flockers is basically Lemmings; you’re given a set amount of sheep as they fall out of a machine to start the level off, and you must use the tools provided to you to keep them from dying until they reach the end of the level. The sheep themselves are blissfully stupid, to the point that they’ll often jump into the path of certain death, be it pits, spikes, buzzsaws and more, and you’ll have to put some work into keeping them alive. In the early goings of the game, the game will give you hints on how things work and provide you with the power-ups you need in the early goings to reinforce when it’s best to use them, acting as something of a tutorial to the experience. Later on, however, the game often starts you out with the power-ups you need and tasks you to figure out how to get to the exit on your own, however you see fit. The game world is set up entirely behind the concept of making that a challenge, of course. As the game takes place in a steampunk industrial-style nightmare factory, you’ll see all sorts of steep drops, spikes, buzzsaws, moving platforms, crushing implements, boxes, wheels, lifts and other crazy devices. All of these almost certainly want to kill you in some form or fashion, and as the game goes on, they become more aggressive and the game makes it more of a point to trade things up, putting your sheep on different sides of the map from multiple distributors, changing around the directions you need to move and more to make things tougher.

Of course, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to get things done. The main tools you’ll see allow your sheep to jump long distances, fly directly upward and survive long distance falls, and create platforms, stairwells and blocking sections to keep other sheep from falling to their deaths. You have a limited amount of each, whether you start with them or collect them as you go, so you’ll have to make each count, and experimentation is a big part of the experience. You’ll also find that there are other tools throughout the game world that help out a lot, such as switches to activate (possibly) helpful devices, teleporters that move you elsewhere and gravity swapping devices to help you move around, among other things, which you’ll also use to get your sheep through the stages in one piece. It’s not always possible to save every sheep, of course, and there will be plenty of times where you’ll get to the end only to realize that you miscalculated and half the team gets slayed by something or another, but that’s part of the fun. The game’s challenge is in figuring out the best possible way to get every sheep possible through the stage intact, which is a big part of what keeps the game interesting and fun. Also, the game isn’t just about surviving fiendish puzzles. Every fifth stage introduces some sort of oddball mechanic to make your life more interesting; in the odd numbered stages, it’s some sort of odd contraption or machine, while in the even numbered stages it’s a full-on “boss” fight against a machine that’s often brutal and actively endeavors to make your life miserable. These machines aren’t sentient so to say, so it’s more that the machines are just good at ruining sheep than actively trying to kill you, but they still make for an interesting challenge when they pop up, and one that changes up the experience a bit.

On depth and inspiration in wooly puzzle solving

Assuming you’re some sort of mental prodigy, you can get through the game’s sixty stages in around six to ten hours, though it’ll almost certainly take you more due to the progressive challenge upgrades as you go. “Completing” a stage isn’t the same as doing it well, however, and you’ll find that there are a whole lot of things that endeavor to bring you back to the game. Each stage is ranked with a three star score, based on how well you completed it, and those who want to get the best scores possible will find plenty of inspiration to do so from that alone. Further, there are two hidden levels in each section of the game (for a total of six) that also present a sizable challenge, providing you with even more to unlock and complete. Additionally, the game also features captured golden sheep in each level that you can collect for even more hidden object fun. For those who might find those sorts of things silly if they have no purpose, they do: every one of the challenges the game puts before you unlocks various customizable skins for the sheep, their power-ups and even their blood. You can run around with zombie sheep, blue sheep, Rambo inspired sheep, sheep in flapper hats or even sheep that explode in a cloud of white blood if the mood strikes you. Best of all, the game opens up five total stages at any time, so if a stage is annoying the crap out of you, you can go to another one and come back to the annoying one later, which makes the game more of a balanced experience than its predecessors. With a more newbie friendly design and so much added content, Flockers is quite appealing, and at the $15 price point, it’s not a bad deal.

That said, the single biggest argument against the game it that it’s not terribly original in concept. Now, the basic concept is, as we’ve noted several times, “Lemmings with sheep,” so that’s hardly a surprising observation, but the game is very much inspired by Lemmings to the point that many of the power-ups in the game take their cues from Lemmings. Further, Sheep for the PS1 did a similar thing with this concept (albeit in a much more bizarre fashion), and while it’s hardly a well-tread ground, it’s one we’ve seen before. Outside of that, the game also really does best in small doses, and honestly would have done better as a handheld game because of that. It’s very “pick up and play” friendly, but doesn’t lend itself well to long binges of play due to its occasionally frustrating puzzle elements, and it would’ve been better served in an environment that lends itself well to quick spurts of play, to be honest. Also, once you’ve completed all the stages, the only thing to bring you back is improving your scores (both in the stages and on the leaderboards) and unlocking all the skins. It’s nice that there’s a full complement of Achievements to earn, and the score and unlockable content is going to be fun for a lot of people, but a lack of, say, a level designer or multiplayer makes this game harder to recommend for the price than it should be. This also shows through, in part, in the mechanics, as the game is very much a “give the player all the tools early and change the world,” sort of game, which means that the game can feel lacking in variety at points.

All told, though, Flockers is a worthwhile purchase for anyone who loves puzzle games or Lemmings, as it’s challenging, fun and appealing to players of all skill levels, even if it’s not as in-depth as it could be. The game looks quite nice and offers a simple enough gameplay system that’s easy to learn, but tests you with devilish puzzles the further you go to keep you on your toes. The systems should be easy to understand for newbies and Lemmings fans alike, and between the sixty core stages that feature various normal levels, specialized levels and bosses, as well as the hidden stages and Golden Sheep and the unlockable content, there’s plenty to keep you busy if you like what it does. The game lacks a defined narrative or any kind of modes outside of the core puzzle path, sadly, and its music can get repetitive at times. Further, the game feels like it’s following in the footsteps of its predecessors instead of breaking new ground due to how much it borrows from the genre, doesn’t offer as much variety as it could to keep you interested, and can wear on you during long play sessions. If you like challenging puzzle games or miss Lemmings as much as I do, Flockers is definitely worth your money, to be sure, and while it’s not extremely original or in-depth, anyone looking to give their brain a workout will find it a good use of their $15.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Flockers is essentially Lemmings with sheep, steampunk industrial worlds and super violent death, and while that might not be interesting to everyone, if you’re a fan of puzzle games or Lemmings, it more than does everything you’d ask of it. The visuals are quite engaging and make good use of contrasting colors and the console’s processing power, and the gameplay is simple to figure out and understand but full of challenges that put your thinking to the test. The game does a lot to try and ease in players of all skill levels, and between the sixty stages of various types, the hidden stages and Golden Sheep and the unlockable skins and scores you can always come back to improve, there’s a lot here to do if the game strikes your fancy. Sadly, there’s no narrative or mode variance to the game, the music is a bit limited, and the game borrows a bit too much at times from the games that came before it to really leave its own mark, unless bloody death counts as “leaving a mark.” Further, the game could stand to offer up a bit more variety to keep it interesting and really only works best in small doses, as it can get frustrating during longer play sessions. Overall, though, if you’ve been aching for a strong puzzle game on the Xbox One, or you’re just a big fan of Lemmings, Flockers fits both needs nicely; while it could stand a little punching up at points, it’s not a bad first attempt at a new franchise from Team 17, and anyone who’s into what it does will find it a must-have purchase on launch.