March 19, 2007 - If there's one thing that the PlayStation 3 needs right now, it's more A-grade titles, both on shelves and available to download from the PlayStation Store. Unassuming in title and appearance, flOw aims to please; almost reaching that must-buy status, but occasionally falling short of the line.
If you've ever peered through a microscope or watched a nature documentary on microbial, uni-and-multicellular life, you'll appreciate the gameplay behind flOw. You eat to evolve, and you evolve so you can eat even more. It's a process that mimics evolution to a point, allowing players to find pleasure in simple and vaguely repetitive gameplay. It's exaggerated, of course - more in line with something like an upgrade-based scrolling shooter - and this is where flOw stands out from more traditional life-simulators.
At its core, when you remove the setting, the spectacular style and the design of the critters you inhabit, flOw plays like a shooter where, instead of controlling a craft and firing rounds of plasma and hot lead into your enemies, you're in direct control of a beast of destruction and digestion.
Movement is handled very nicely through the SIXAXIS' motion-sensing control scheme. Tilting the controller forward propels your creature to the top of the screen, and vice versa. Left and right tilts propel the microbe to either side. The sensitivity is pleasingly accurate - something that hasn't been well implemented in other games on the system thus-far. Guiding your little life form, initially a translucent snake with pincers, lives up to flOw's name. It's a joy to tweak and glide through the viscous murk.
Gorgeous stuff. The more you eat, and the wider the variety, the stranger and more elaborate your creature becomes.
The process of evolving involves devouring either smaller, single-celled organisms, generally floating and drifting in swarms like plankton, or taking on larger, limbed and finned beasts. These are the two varieties of life in flOw; the beasts, as opposed to the plankton and other base life in the waters, actively pursue your critter and compete for the same nutrients you need to grow. They're hardly challenging adversaries, but working out their weak points adds a bit of spice.
Each creature you control also possesses a special inherent ability - triggered by pressing any face button. These can be as simple as a speed boost in the initial form, or later a critter-freezing 'poison' that is activated when you glide over another creature. One of the coolest and most aggressive is an automatic homing attack, allowing for precision biting. Nice.
Progressing through the world - that is, diving deeper and deeper into the seas - is triggered by devouring a glowing, red beacon drifting in the world. You can also swim back up a level by ingesting the blue equivalent. There is tactic in this kind of self-controlled pacing, but it also spells flOw's ultimate downfall. On one hand, you can take your time eating your way through each level of the game, snacking on mitochondria and slowly evolving. On the other, you can rush your way down into the blackest depths, as quickly as you please. As you progress deeper and deeper into the life-filled waters, eating along the way, you'll eventually 'unlock' the five other creature forms. We use the term 'unlock' loosely, since once you've unlocked them, there is no way to keep them unlocked if you choose to reset the game or play something else. This is another critical downfall for flOw.
You see, a lot of the pleasure of playing a leisurely game comes from doing things at your own pace. Having to start from scratch after developing incredible spines, crazy glowing tendrils and a massive trailing tail kind of hurts - especially after working your way through five of the six creatures to get to that point.
The second form, the jellyfish, can draw in plankton by swirling.
From a certain point-of-view, the ability to rush down through the levels means that you can still get to the creature you want to play with, but it'll still take you 10 or 15 minutes, instead of just being able to choose your form.
When displayed in full 1080p resolution, flOw is a sight. It's true, there isn't much going on that couldn't be done on any other system - handhelds included - but the PS3's ability to create gorgeous particle, smoke and depth-of-field effects are demonstrated nicely. In fact, the game looks remarkably like the Nintendo DS title, Electroplankton, had it been ramped up and shifted to a big screen. flOw has also been described as "an interactive screensaver" and this is also true, since you can pause the game and let your partially evolved creature drift casually around the screen. It's a nice touch, but it hardly makes up for the barest-bones game design.
We did notice a small amount of slow-down too, during layer transitions and when there were several dozen objects on the screen and blurred in the distance. We're not concerned - the chop never gets irritating to the point of hampering the game - but it does occur, and it's a little weird and unsettling on a system of substantial power.
The THX audio is a stand-out feature, much like the overall presentation. The environmental effects, boops, beeps and insect-like chirps are almost Rez-like in their rhythm and hypnotic impact. We're fans, and with a good surround-sound setup, you'll understand why.
It’s hard not to love flOw for what it is – a freeware game in a tuxedo. It’s simple and fun and very attractive – but don’t expect a gameplay revelation or anything beyond the basic concept. It can be as short or as long as your patience can stand – a thorough play-through should clock in around the two hour mark. It’s also relatively inexpensive, compared with some of the other content available, but as with most things in life, you really do get what you pay for.