The Game Atelier knows a thing or two about putting together a visually pleasing experience. The developer’s previous endeavour The Flying Hamster served up a kitschy twist on the classic bullet hell shooter. Armed with acorns as opposed to artillery, the agonisingly undervalued PlayStation Mini prompted an experience able to warm the cockles in even the coldest heart.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, SunFlowers is imbued with a similar simplistic charm. Playing in vertical perspective, you take control of an anthropomorphic sun able to fire beams of light at the fertile soil below. Your objective is to target the sprouting seedlings on the ground, but unfortunately your power is too potent to grow the buds without assistance. Indeed, you need to shoot your sun rays through moving clouds in order to create rain drops which, if aimed correctly, cause the infantile saplings to blossom into beautiful botanical beings. Miss your target – or hit a sinister storm cloud – and you’ll set your flora on fire, giving you a few moments to douse them with water before losing a life.
And that’s pretty much it. The game follows an arcade format where the difficulty advances as your score increases, but on the Casual and Normal settings the game lacks urgency. It takes far too long for the challenge to grow, and by the time you hit the 20th level or so, you’ll be wishing a mistake would put an end to your run so you can go and do something else instead. It’s not that the gameplay is unpleasant – it’s actually very slick and enjoyable in minute-long stints – but it fails to advance in a manner that keeps it engaging over extended sessions. The Hard difficulty level doesn’t really improve things, because while it increases the number of storm clouds and hazards, it mostly relies on the removal of assists to increase the challenge. Unfortunately, that just makes things infinitely more frustrating.
There are a couple of minor activities that add much needed variety to the gameplay. As the seasons change in the background, you’ll be hindered by a handful of themed hazards. Winter, for example, brings with it a frost, forcing you to fire direct sunlight at your plants in order to remove the ice attacking them. Elsewhere, autumn adds fallen leaves which need to be manually shaken off your garden via the Vita’s gyro, while a bonus stage sees you shooting dew drops at your blossoming buds in a lovingly crafted night scene.
While it’s a striking concept, the whole experience suffers from repetition. It’s definitely the type of game you’ll want to play in short bursts rather than long stints, and even then, we’re not convinced you’ll be returning to the game’s comprehensive LiveArea screen particularly often. It’s a shame, because the experience is brimming with content that’s desperately waiting to be unlocked.
As you grow new flowers, they're added to an ever expanding garden which keeps track of everything you’ve nurtured. You can then opt to combine plants to create new species, or send your friends a gift basket via Near. Some flowers are rarer than others, so you need to play on the highest difficulty levels in order to unlock these – or hope your friends do, instead.
While it may not always be the most engaging experience to play, SunFlowers certainly looks the part. There are two themes to enjoy: Classic and Tropical. The former portrays an idealistic English garden setting with a blue backdrop and a beating sun. Each and every flower is given a unique identity, which is part of the appeal of unlocking new species. Some wear shades, while others, particularly in the Tropical campaign, boast Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired beards and hats. It’s all delightfully twee, and the bold uses of colours really pop on the Vita’s gorgeous five-inch screen.
SunFlowers is a whimsical timewaster with a striking visual style. The gameplay is slick and simple, but it lacks the urgency and variation required to hold your attention over prolonged periods of time. As a distraction, it’s certainly worth the asking price – but don’t go in expecting Chelsea Flower Show-esque layers of depth.