Two days ago, I had a chat with our fearless gaming editor, Marc Normandin, about the almost uniformly awful implementation of the PS3 controller’s SIXAXIS motion-sensing capabilities. We recalled numerous examples of games in which the SIXAXIS elements were extraneous, nonfunctional, or (all too often) both, but aside from Warhawk, Uncharted, and Mirror’s Edge, neither of us could recall an instance in which the controls had behaved as advertised, enhancing gameplay in the process. Had I played Flower (the new downloadable Playstation Network title from developer thatgamecompany) a day earlier, I would have been able to add another name to that short list of SIXAXIS successes. However, while Flower deserves commendation for skirting the pitfalls which felled previous SIXAXIS-based efforts, its true appeal stems not from its technological triumphs, but from the originality and artistry which permeate every other aspect of the game.
Like countless other entries in almost every conceivable video game genre, Flower charges its players with the daunting task of righting a world gone wrong. In its literal interpretation of that enterprise, however, Flower resembles a more exclusive group of games, including Okami, de Blob, and the most recent Prince of Persia. The world of Flower’s ills are reflected in the diminished beauty of its natural landscapes; transform a patch of scorched earth back into fertile ground, and you’ve fixed whatever ails that particular portion of the map.
Feb. 10, 2009
However, Flower takes a unique approach to this familiar undertaking, allowing players to unleash their inner Linka by harnessing the power of the wind. Though a casual glance at the screen (or the title) might yield the impression that the flowers themselves are under the player’s control, it’s really the zephyr that does your bidding-the flowers simply go along for the ride.
Each of the game’s six levels (technically seven, but I’ll get to that later) begins with the blossoming of a single flower, which releases one lone petal to be buffeted by the breeze. Gameplay consists largely of directing that petal towards other flowers (I’m no horticulturist, but they appear to resemble tulips), which release petals of their own when touched. These petals combine to form a sinuous, Katamari-like cloud (or, perhaps more accurately, a more benign version of the smoke monster from Lost) which usually trails out of view behind the camera, though it can be glimpsed on occasion after sharp turns. Since the flowers hail from several points along the color spectrum, the petal potpourri which results from their union constitutes quite a feast for the eyes.
Most flowers are arranged in discrete clusters within the larger level; once you pseudo-pollinate a certain number of them within a cluster, vivid color will be restored to that segment of the map, and the camera will gently nudge you toward another area in need of your attention, which may have been inaccessible earlier. The brief cutscenes depicting the return of color (which usually emanates outwards from the newly opened flowers in concentric waves) are suitably uplifting, and accompanied by a powerful, sustained rumbling, for those of you equipped with DualShock 3’s.
Flower adds a few wrinkles to this entrancing formula as you progress. The first level is little more than an open field, with a few stones scattered over its gently undulating hills. In succeeding levels, signs of human occupation appear, generally to the detriment of the landscape’s natural beauty. At first, only windmills and lampposts mar the idyllic scenery, but before long, electrical towers and unsightly steel girders blight the countryside.
These cosmetic additions bring corresponding alterations in gameplay. With the arrival of electricity comes the appearance of a luminous orb, which can be guided in the same manner as the petals. The passage of this ball of light causes nearby swathes of foliage to glow, illuminating vast tracts of land and unlocking adjacent areas. In later levels, you’ll be taking the fight directly to electrical towers and other man-made objects, breaking them apart with the force of your gusts (thereby robbing the unfortunate occupants of Flower’s universe of the ability to play Flower). Each level features a different stage of the day-night cycle, which helps to keep things fresh from a visual standpoint. More variety in the terrain might have improved matters further, but could just as easily have fallen under the heading of-if you’ll pardon the expression-gilding the lily.
The simple elegance of the control scheme matches that of the gameplay and level design. Tilting the controller determines the wind’s direction, and pressing any button causes it to blow-and I do mean any button, other than Start and Select. Even the joysticks can be used to perform this function, though they can’t be used to control the wind’s trajectory. Occasionally, portions of a level funnel your flowers through a pre-existing wind current, allowing you to release whatever button you’ve chosen and focus entirely on steering. At theses times, Flower is closer to a rail shooter than-well, whatever it is during the rest of the game, though the “enemies” are picturesque plants that don’t return fire. At no point did I become frustrated with the responsiveness of the motion controls. Of course, the game rarely requires extremely precise movements, and perhaps I subconsciously expected some degree of imprecision from a force as nebulous as the wind. Still, the fact remains that tilting the controller produces a corresponding on-screen movement in the direction of the tilt. That shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but in light of other games’ failures to achieve that modest goal, it is.