You can diminish almost any game to a laughably low level by reducing it to its bare essentials: Harvest Moon's focus is manual labor, Brain Age is portable homework, and Animal Crossing is about paying rent. These games defy their lame concepts and successfully maintain an interested fan. Similarly, while herding livestock may sound like a thankless chore, Flock's delightful style and brilliant puzzles will charm and engage folks willing to game outside the box.
As a colorful flying saucer, your job is to corral hordes of lovable livestock to the suspiciously named Motherflocker, a towering UFO that does who-knows-what to the collected creatures. Each of the wee beasts reacts differently to your hovering menace, but Flock does a solid job of teaching you their properties as you progress. The easily spooked sheep do their best to keep away from you; cattle will knock over fences in a stampede if you follow too closely; chickens can glide across gaps but are reckless and unpredictable; and the roly-poly pigs frequently stop to roll in piles of impassable poop (yes, really). Their qualities are simplistic, but nothing in Flock is as straightforward as it seems.
Navigating your herd across Flock's 55 single-player stages in a quick and orderly fashion earns you medals. But each of the brief brainteasers has a hook, trick, or secret to be uncovered in order for you to achieve a perfect abduction score. One level in the latter half of Flock can be completed in 10 seconds flat, earning you a shiny gold prize, but perfecting it requires you to herd the massive number of extra animals that are isolated on a half-dozen islands. Another puzzle requires you to scare off nighttime predators with illuminated objects, but running the gauntlet and rushing your flock to the mothership without doing so can save substantial time. Rallying a group of animals together creates a flock, and huge herds yield massive multipliers, adding a coating of strategy. Yes, Flock is accessible, but succeeding requires a bit of brain-scratching.
Thankfully, Flock does a good job of training you one step at a time. You'll gradually learn new gameplay mechanics that keep everything feeling fresh. Just when you've figured out how to knock obstacles down, you'll start launching animals over them. When you're used to shrinking woolly beasts with water, allowing them to pass beneath fences, you'll have to force them to blindly follow a female. You'll also learn to plug holes with hay bales, crush fields to create crop circles, and build bridges to avoid dangerous, unguarded cliffs. These nuances periodically come together in a sort of final exam stage that implements everything you've learned to that point, forcing you to efficiently use your abilities together to solve an especially challenging area. It's a satisfying buildup, and you'll have a sense of fulfillment when you complete a milestone stage.
This pace keeps up throughout. Flock consistently rewards you with well-built puzzles with cleverly plotted paths, as well as tangible items for use within the level editor. Ideas for levels will constantly flow from you as you advance through Flock's solo mode, but properly implementing them into a map, which you can upload and share with others, is a taxing process. Adapting to building on three vertical planes, each complete with its own identifying color and grid lines, takes patience. But the payoff is proportional for those willing to put up with the learning process and clunky controls. Combining perilous pitfalls, piles of poop, and pinball bumpers in a way that rivals the developer's puzzles will require an understanding of how the game's physics work as well as what makes a level fun to play. Don't be surprised if you invest an hour into a massive stage full of failed ideas before buckling down to create a puzzle with substance. It's an unnecessarily unwieldy addition that nonetheless holds a lot of potential.
Unwieldy editor controls aren't the only thing that can get under your skin in Flock. For instance, like designing a level, learning the creatures' behavior requires patience. Frustratingly, the occasionally unpredictable animals can occasionally be seen inexplicably jumping to their watery death, getting hung up on obstacles, or ending up stuck in corners. Losing track of your herd or watching it die unfairly results in some seriously annoying situations when your fast track to a gold medal comes to a grinding halt. You'll also endure repetitious music and chirping animal noises, so keep your personal playlist and a pair of headphones close by when you're repeatedly retrying flubbed abductions.
Surprisingly, the cooperative mode is the least appealing part of Flock. There's no online support, so you're stuck sharing a screen with your partner in a local multiplayer mode that, even overlooking that, simply doesn't live up to the standards set by the single-player game. Cooperatively moving rocks and lifting gates on maps specifically designed for co-op doesn't compare to the intelligent level design and challenging requirements you'll experience elsewhere in Flock, and the regular levels are needlessly off-limits to partnered players. The entire addition of co-op feels tacked on, and is barely worth the 30 minutes it takes to complete.
Flock's single-player puzzles are fun while they last, but around three hours after your first successful abduction you'll almost certainly be finished. That lack of solo longevity, along with the limited multiplayer mode and unwieldy level editor unfortunately make this quirky and entertaining puzzler a tough sell at $15.