What the Flock?!
by David Baxley aka xRogue 5x
In a gaming landscape dominated by brown toned guns fired by jaded and cynical players sometimes it takes something as ridiculous as sheep to remind us why we became gamers in the first place. FUN! Flockers is a fast-paced puzzle game from the independent developers Team 17, the same studio that brought us the Worms games. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the target audience for indy games at all. Most of them rub me the wrong way and leave me with my middle finger pointed at the screen shouting “Be gone hipster nonsense!”. I’m not saying I’m a whore for graphics, but I think there are too many games out these days that are trying to cash in on the nostalgia thing without bothering to make sure there game is fun. I don’t mind something that looks like a turd, but at least make it fun to play with. I pressed play on Flockers and prepared to suppress these familiar feelings when something strange happened. They didn’t come, instead, I found myself smiling like the five-year old kid that lives somewhere inside this thirty-four year old manchild.
Flockers manages to tickle that nostalgia spot without sacrificing quality. The game is a blend of the old with the new. The game tasks you with getting your sheep safely from point A to B. The core design of Flockers is essentially that of Lemmings. While playing I was suddenly fourteen year-old Rogue sitting in the school library playing Lemmings on an Apple computer all over again. Flockers hit a spot for me that had been left unpleasured for a long time.
Right from the beginning the games “old-school” style was apparent. After a short cinematic of some sheep being sucked up by a vacuum device and being dumped into a crazy factory of death you are in the thick of it doing your best to keep the blood of your flock off your hands. There was no drawn out story being forced down my throat and no tutorial level or hand-holding sequence getting in the way of me and some sweet gaming. Admittedly, it was jarring at first. Modern games have left me a bit lazy. I have come to expect games to treat me like a drooling idiot. Flockers doesn’t do that. You press play and you are right there in the game playing the game. This is something I hope more developers take note of. While the controls would be best with a mouse and keyboard playing it with a controller wasn’t an issue. They are intuitive and I didn’t find myself fighting with them. After about five minutes or so I had them down and I was leading my flock like a master shepherd. There was only one issue with them. In some instances your flock gets massed up or there is a lot of sheep in an area and you need to hit a specific one to apply one of the power ups. In those cases it can be difficult to select the sheep that you wanted. But this was a minor issue and wasn’t game breaking.
The game takes you across three worlds comprised of twenty levels each with two bonus levels in each section. I finished the game around the six hour mark but don’t let that number fool you. Each level grades your performance and your score is tallied from your time, unused powers, and the sheep that made it to the end alive. That score then translates into a star rating of one to three. While each level can be completed in just a few minutes it takes much longer to master each level and get that three star rating. While the game may have taken me six hours to finish it will take probably closer to the thirty to forty mark to wring it for every drop of game play. You won’t get those stars with just vanilla sheep, however, and to that end the game has a number of power-ups for you to use. Some of these include capes for your sheep that gives them the ability to soar up vertical surfaces and to soften their landing to avoid becoming a greasy stain. The game also allows you to throw down Tetris-like blocks and then your sheep form the shape of the block. These can be used to block paths, form stairs, etc.
What stands out and what I enjoyed most about Flockers was the visual aesthetic and how it blended with the game play. The game creates a vivid and memorable juxtaposition. On the one hand you have these cute artsy sheep and on the other you have blood, gore, and hyper violence. As you work to maneuver your sheep to the exit vacuum you must dodge things like meat grinders, crushers, spikes, landmines and many other dangers. On one level I failed to create a block in time and watched in joy and horror as my cute flock marched one-by-one into a meat grinder. Their bleats for help and their severed bodies will haunt me for weeks. By having brutality as the price for failure it created this compulsion to try harder. I found myself caring about them. I was their shepherd. It was up to me to get them safely to the end. I would retry levels again and again trying to get as many sheep safely to the end as I could.
This can be a challenge, especially, as the game progresses and really opens up. The level design was top-notch. Flockers does an excellent job of mixing it up and keeping you guessing. Almost every level adds something or throws a new twist at you. One of the craziest additions was when sheep started pouring out of two separate starting points. You then have to keep track of two separate flocks and the actions of one group affects the other group. There are a decent number of unlockables and rewards as you progress and combined with the drive for a higher score adds a great deal of replayability to the game. This won’t be game that you feast on but more like one you come back to again and again for a quick bite here. It has a very Peggle-style feel to it in the way I found myself playing it. I would play for an hour or so and then switch back to something else. Flockers makes for the perfect pallet cleanser between bigger titles or when you don’t have hours to sit down but you still want to get some gaming in.
Flockers is not a perfect game and there is some manure in the pin that holds the game back. I would have liked to see a bit more variety or some extra game modes. Flockers kind of does this with the bonus levels, but these are not enough of a deviation from the core game. The biggest let down was the lack of co-op game play. This would have been an absolutely amazing feature. Controlling the sheep with a friend would have been awesome, especially, on the levels where you have to manage two separate flocks. A versus style mode where one player controls the sheep while the other controls the traps or something to that effect would have been great. Maybe these features will show up in DLC or in future sequels but for now they are sorely missed.
At $25 Flockers isn’t a “baaaaaad” deal. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Flockers is a polished blend of cute meets absurd violence packaged within a game that is responsive and fun to play. While I was playing it brought out that early gamer in me before he was buried under a mountain of big budgets, sequels, and cynicism. For a while I got to be that kid again who just loved to play games. Flockers is a Flocking good time. So go Flock yourself and save some sheep.