Before flower and Journey, there was flOw. Swimming onto the PlayStation 3 in 2007, this trailblazing title from thatgamecompany was one of several games that paved the way for the thriving indie scene found on consoles today. Six years later, it’s fitting that the release has washed up on the PlayStation 4 as part of its own first wave of downloadable titles.
The underwater excursion throws you in at the deep end, plunging you into the ocean as you take control of a bioluminescent organism. Without a menu and only a fleeting splash screen to show you the controls, the games asks you to work out what you should be doing for yourself. After a spot of aimless floating, you’ll realise that you need to glide across each two-dimensional plane feeding on other inhabitants in order to advance your creature. Meanwhile, special red and blue cells – once eaten – will cause you to move deeper into the sea world or return to a previously visited layer.
The only option available to guide your protagonist is through SIXAXIS motion control. Tilting the DualShock 4 in the direction that you want to move gets the desired result, while pushing any of the face buttons or triggers will briefly boost you forward. This is useful for chasing down cells that you want to munch – or away from anything that’s trying to snack on you. As with most gyroscope-focused titles, the motion controls work most the time – but we did endure some instances where our actions didn’t quite translate as we anticipated on the screen. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough for it to become a problem, and there’s no penalty for failure or death in the game, subduing the issue further.
As you venture into the depths of the ocean, you’ll discover that there are others that share your goal – and a lot of these are bigger than you are. These aggressive creatures represent the only threat to your biological progress, as they attempt to chomp on you when approached. If too many of your segments are eaten during one of these encounters, you’ll be forced to retreat to the layer above in order to regroup and try again. With careful timing and planned attacks, you can turn the tables on these larger predators and devour them instead. Once defeated, these larger organisms offer a great opportunity to gain more segments and cells that cause decorative protrusions to sprout out from the body of your creature.
Once you’ve progressed to the lowest level, you’ll come across an egg that’s just asking to be eaten. This returns you to the starting point of the game, where you’ll find yourself in control of a totally different organism. There are a number of these to unlock throughout the course of the game, but we thought that these new forms were quite disappointing, as even though they all handle a little differently, most of them feel like variants of the first snake-like creature, with only the jellyfish representing any meaningful change.
The gameplay is enjoyable, but it doesn’t take long for you to realise that what you do in the opening moments will be repeated throughout the entire campaign. There’s very little variety or new challenges to overcome, and the game never really layers any complexity on top of its starting point. The inclusion of local multiplayer does mix things up a little bit, but the core mechanics remain the same and they can get somewhat repetitive.
Fortunately, this is not an especially long game. This is entirely due to the approach that it takes towards player agency. The lack of any guidance as to how to tackle it leaves you to build up your own picture of how the game’s systems interact. This in turn forces you to determine how you want to play, and will impact hugely on how much time you spend with the title.
For example, we spent as much time as possible on each layer eating every last organism, but we could have easily swam through each plane not eating a single thing and avoiding any confrontations. These are both legitimate routes to take, and the flexibility in allowing you to build up your own understanding of the world and determine just how you want to play is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. As a result, it’s easy to see how the title acted as a test bed for a lot of the ideas that years later would be expanded upon and refined in flower and Journey.
The mere mention of thatgamecompany will always elicit a reaction among gamers. Whether you see the studio’s output as games, art, or a bit of both, it’s hard to deny that the developer delivers unique experiences that will challenge your view of what games can be. More of an interactive experience, flOw won’t float everyone’s boat, but if you can overlook its shortcomings and immerse yourself in its world, then you’ll be able to see why this indie hit rose to the surface when so many others sank without a trace.