A lonely flower sits on a table in a dilapidated flat, somewhere deep in the heart of a bustling metropolis. The flower looks droopy weak, with barely enough life to keep itself upright, but it is dreaming of a better place. It is imagining a peaceful field, somewhere far away, and a petal that floats on the breeze bringing life to everything it touches. The dream seems to help the little flower, granting it the strength to flourish and bloom; in turn this growth brings light and energy to the run-down apartment, making it a happier place.
This is more or less the setup for Flower - the latest project from US indie outfit thatgamecompany. It may sound a bit fey and pretentious to you now, but if you're prepared to give it a try then it's highly likely that you'll be completely won over. Conventional it may not be, but Flower possesses the kind of creative beauty that rarely surfaces in full-budget games - let alone a £6.29 PSN title.
Flower's visual achievements are clear from the get-go. The run-down flat that acts as the game's hub level is a great piece of design, instantly conveying a sense of worn-out sadness. This downbeat opening is then immediately contrasted with the vibrant colours and energy of the first stage - a lush meadow under bright blue skies. The game begins with a single flower: at the touch of a button a lone petal will be released into the air, then it's up to you to steer its movement by using the Sixaxis' motion sensors to direct an invisible wind. As you float around you'll pass over other plants and gather more petals to your collective; activate all the flowers in one area and you'll open up the next, triggering some form of transformation in your surroundings: restoring the colour to barren ground, perhaps, or spinning the blades of towering wind turbines. The sheer rush of colour recalls Sony's own Bravia TV adverts, but Flower very much has a feel of its own - a tone that is gently soothing and yet keenly uplifting.
Some of you may still be thinking that this all sounds a bit silly, but then it's hard to do Flower's style justice in an unmoving block of text. The game looks nice enough in screenshots but it's only when you see the game in motion that you really get a sense of its gentle magic, of the way the petals swirl around or the way the grass flattens down as you rush over its surface. Your controls are limited to directing the wind and to increasing its strength by holding any button, but this loose setup somehow works to create a sense of freedom - you never have to think about what you're doing, so you're free to just react to the world of the game. The excellent orchestral soundtrack also plays a large role in establishing mood, reacting to your activities and bursting into energy during the game's more emotive moments.
Yes, that's right - I used the word "emotive". More than anything else, Flower is a game that aims to provoke an emotional response. There are six stages to explore, each of them based around the dream of a different flower. Playing through the whole lot won't take more than a few hours, but the ambiance of each level is fairly distinct - so if you enjoy it the first time, you'll probably be inclined to play them through again, perhaps aiming to activate all the flowers you missed on your first attempt. Between each stage there are short cut scenes that help to build upon the game's themes, and when you return to the flat you'll notice that its depiction changes in response to your progress.
Though it's not immediately apparent, there is in fact a basic plot behind Flower's progression of dreams. I'm loathe to say too much about this for fear of spoiling the experience, but there's something of a dramatic shift in tone that occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the game. This took me by surprise when I encountered it, and for a while I was quite worried that the developers had spoiled the mood that they had so carefully constructed in everything that came before. As it turns out, I shouldn't have been so worried: the new elements that are brought in certainly take proceedings down a dark and somewhat depressing path, but this neatly sets things up for a triumphant final level. There's no arch villain to defeat, but the sheer positivity of the game's climax should be enough to warm even the coldest of gaming cockles.
Flower is not entirely bereft of flaws. The Sixaxis motion controls may be fun to use but they lack tight precision - something that only becomes a vague issue during the fifth stage, where there are hazards to avoid. It's also possible to get stuck from time to time, forcing you to speed all over the level in an effort to find the one plant that must be touched before you can move to the next area. Though rare, this situation can be frustrating when it arises - temporarily breaking the game's soothing atmosphere. To be honest though, neither of these problems is particularly significant. The more pressing issue for Flower is whether or not the masses will be up for trying its admittedly unusual concept. If you're still reading this review then it's likely that you're at least a little bit curious, in which case I strongly urge you to give it a go. Flower is a brilliant little piece of work, gorgeous and moving in equal measures.