When it was initially released in 2007, flOw faced an audience that wasn't used to seeing artsy indie games on consoles. It was quirky with a very simple premise and a calm, ethereal soundtrack. It also happened to be a technical marvel with the way it handled depth and the motion controls of the SIXAXIS. More importantly, it establish Sony as a company that championed indie titles, a claim it continues to this day. Sony has decided to release thatgamecompany's first title to the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita.
Though the game has no real setup as far as story or directions are concerned, it is pretty easy to understand. You start as a small sea creature similar to what would be seen under a microscope. Tilting the controller in any direction moves you in that direction, and hitting any of the buttons on the controller causes you to do something special. You discover that your survival depends on eating other creatures. Eating many of the smaller creatures causes you to slowly grow in size, and attacking and defeating the larger creatures produces special items that, when consumed, help your creature evolve. Each stage has other special organisms that, when eaten, send you deeper into the ocean or ascend, giving you control of when you want to progress. Eventually, you reach an egg at the deepest depths that, when consumed, ends the campaign for that creature and gives you a chance to start a new campaign with a new organism.
While the main objective remains the same for each creature you control, their abilities are different. The first creature puts forth a burst of speed once you hit the controller button; it's useful for approaching or getting away from other creatures. Other creatures also contain the speed burst ability, but a few other abilities include paralyzing victims, acting as a magnetic pull for other creatures, and encasing yourself in a protective shell to prevent being eaten.
Despite the somewhat aggressive description of the game, flOw is meant to be a calm experience, and this is partially accomplished by the lack of some video game conventions. There's no scoring system, and there's no experience system to replace that, either. Bosses are nonexistent, and without a grand narrative to follow, there's no real ending. In fact, you won't even know you're at the end of the game until you realize you're playing through an interactive credits sequence. Even death doesn't exist, as being defeated by a larger creature simply sends you back a level to recharge and try again. The only expectation is for you to swim around and play at your leisure, with no limits or goals except for those you set for yourself. In a way, it is liberating.
Despite this freeform method to relaxation in gaming, flOw is bogged down by a few things. The first is that the game is short. Even if you're as thorough as possible when it comes to cleaning up a level, it would still take you a maximum of two hours to complete the game. It feels like a tech demo at that length and without the hooks of traditional games, but it remains a fun experience for those who are open to it. The other thing is simply a matter of timing. flOw was the first game from thatgamecompany, and while it makes an impact, its next game, Flower, expands on the initial ideas of pure motion control and relaxing gameplay but integrates it with a story, goals and a much prettier landscape. It wouldn't be much of an issue if it weren't for the fact that Flower was also given cross-buy status and made available on all the systems on which flOw is available. As a result of that near-simultaneous release on both the Vita and PS4, Flower is a more recommended pick-up for those new to the PlayStation family. It relegates flOw to something for those curious about thatgamecompany's library or those who really want to play their games in chronological order.
Graphically, the PS4 game is no different from the original PS3 title. Both feature nice lighting and blur effects, and both have character models that benefit greatly from simplicity. The frame rate on both versions is at or very near 60fps, and the resolution on both versions is still at 1080p. With the exception of seeing the Option button in the opening screen instead of the Start button, you'd be hard-pressed to tell which console version you're playing.
On the Vita, however, the graphics are a much different story. Compared to the PSP version released years ago, the creatures have a sharper appearance. The lighting effects are enhanced significantly thanks to the OLED screen, and the blurring used to signify depth of field stands out more, especially with the increased resolution. For those who own the PSP version and still want the game on the go, the Vita version is the more definitive one.
No matter which system you're playing it on, the sound remains superb in its minimalism. There are no voices, and the few sound effects consist of chimes that vary in their pitch, depending on whether a creature is aggressive or afraid. It is the soundtrack that carries the game with its constant tone. Calming and zen-like, it is a relaxing score that never changes its mood, no matter the situation. It's different from most game soundtracks and is the type of material that can live on its own but enhances the game significantly. A good set of speakers or headphones is the recommended way to play the game.
flOw is still a good game, but its presence means different things, depending on the platform you're playing it on. On the Vita, it represents the better port of the PS3 game when compared to the older PSP release due to the better graphics and the presence of motion controls. On the PS4, it only benefits those who have just joined the PlayStation family, as the experience is largely unchanged from the PS3. The cross-buy option means PS3 owners will have this version either way, but unless you need a trophy boost or are a big enough fan of thatgamecompany that you need to play every available version, PS3 vets who have moved to the new console can know they aren't missing any improvements.
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