flOw Review

  • First Released Apr 14, 2006
  • PS3

There's not an awful lot of game here, but flOw still makes for an attractive and soothing showpiece.

FlOw has more in common with something like a lava lamp than an actual game. It's something to be watched. You'll find yourself infinitely more intrigued by the shapes and colors that evolve throughout its experience than its relatively scarce gameplay mechanics. It's basically a piece of computer art that happens to be controllable via the Sixaxis controller. And the really crazy thing? Despite its incredible simplicity and heavy emphasis on aesthetics over gameplay, it is still something you could designate as actual, honest-to-god fun.

Think of flOw as a threesome between Feeding Frenzy, Electroplankton, and Brian Eno.
Think of flOw as a threesome between Feeding Frenzy, Electroplankton, and Brian Eno.

FlOw's dedication to austerity is immediate from the moment you boot up the game, where you're presented with a simple screen dictating the core controls and nothing else that even resembles a real menu. From there, it's off to the races. The race, in this case, is anything but, of course. You're presented initially with a small, eel-like creature that's built from a number of peculiar shapes. Using the Sixaxis tilt controls, you steer the creature around a fluidic environment that's teeming with other forms of life, all made from the same types of goofy shapes that you are. Your job is to eat that other life. That's it. Swimming up to smaller creatures causes you to immediately devour them. Larger creatures often require you to eat multiple chunks before they finally break down into the smaller pieces you want. But by the same token, larger creatures can also try and eat you, so it's best to stick to the proper food chain of command and attack the littler guys first.

When you clear an area of all available life, you simply move downward to the next section of the environment, until eventually you reach the bottom and unlock a new creature. There are six creatures in all, each with a unique form and ability. Any time you press one of the buttons on the controller, you'll perform that creature's ability. One circular creature can do a sort of spin attack, while another has the ability to stun other life forms with a green poison. These abilities are neat, although they also make an already undemanding game even easier. There's no real death to speak of in flOw. If you're mostly devoured by other creatures, the game just moves you to a safe plane where a few harmless creatures hang out for you to eat and replenish your health. All you really need to do to avoid being eaten is to keep mashing on your special ability, especially if you have any of the attacks that aren't the poison one. The poison requires a bit more timing and precision, but anything else can be hammered on endlessly to provide quick success. The trickiest thing about the game is getting the tilt controls to a point where you feel comfortable with them. The steering doesn't have the most natural feel to it at the outset, as you have to tilt the controller downward to move up and back to move down, all while rotating the controller left or right to go in either direction. Initially, the scheme is likely to throw people off, but after a short while, the movements become natural and effortless.

The fun inherent to flOw's design doesn't go beyond creating the most elaborate creatures possible. The more you engulf, the bigger and gaudier your creature gets. That first creature you get goes from being a simple little piece of insignificant life to this incredible snake dragon...thing, full of different colors and movements. It's interesting to watch your creature slowly evolve, though once you reach the end of an environment, you have to start all over again with a new creature. There's no saving what you end up with, but considering that each time you play through, you tend to end up with the same basic evolution, maybe that's not such a big deal.

Stoner college kids would probably go absolutely bonkers for flOw's ethereality...assuming stoner college kids could afford PlayStation 3s, of course.
Stoner college kids would probably go absolutely bonkers for flOw's ethereality...assuming stoner college kids could afford PlayStation 3s, of course.

Still, while the aesthetics clearly take precedence over all else in flOw, it's hard to argue with those aesthetics. The game makes great use of color, giving each creature's environment a palette that feels unique, even if you are just swimming through liquid over and over again. The collections of abstract shapes that make up the creature designs give the game the vibe of an art-school project, but not in an annoying or pretentious way. They're pleasing to look at, and there's something beautiful about the way they grow and mutate as the game goes on. Of course, all that beauty belies the relative simplicity of the graphics. You're basically working on a plane similar in scope and design to something like Geometry Wars, but zoomed in and with much slower pacing. The game also has some weird frame-rate hiccups, mostly when you're moving from one level of an environment to another, and especially if there's a lot of smaller life swimming about. Still, it's a game that's pleasing to watch unfold, even if there isn't a lot of visual fluff going on. The audio is similarly fluff free. The ambient soundtrack takes up pretty much all of the aural space--even the sound effects are directly tied to the music, with small, dynamic notes replacing the normal sorts of sounds you'd hear from creatures in a game. It's quality work that further adds to the game's trippy nature.

It won't take you more than a couple of hours to unlock and play through all of the creatures' "campaigns," and though the game does offer two-player multiplayer, it doesn't add a lick of depth to the experience to play with two people instead of one. At an asking price of $7.99 on the PlayStation Network, flOw is ultimately geared toward those that are looking for something ornamental, as opposed to a lasting gameplay experience. It's basically like buying art. You buy it as something to look at and appreciate from time to time. It's a way to cool out--not something to compete at. Not everyone is going to have interest in spending money on a game that's equivalent to an attractive screen saver you can steer, but those with a penchant for arty pieces of gaming ought to enjoy flOw for what it is.

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The Good

  • Pleasantly austere graphics and audio
  • Creature designs evolve beautifully
  • Tilt controls work surprisingly well

The Bad

  • After a couple of hours, you're pretty much done with it
  • Challenge is nonexistent
  • Cooperative play doesn't do much for the experience

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