Version tested: PlayStation 3
FlOw, from Sony's Santa Monica labs and developer ThatGameCompany, is a welcome sign of innovation and experimentation being injected into the PlayStation Store. It isn't so much a game as such, more a trippy ornament of sorts for your PlayStation 3; a bizarre Fantastic Voyage of an experience that propels you into a microscopic fluidic world where cell-based organisms fight for life, all the while evolving into ever-larger, more beautiful creatures.
The objective is extremely straightforward - choose from a selection of amoeba-like entities, then dive deep into the on-screen ocean, patrolling the depths in a constant search for food. The more you eat, the more you grow and evolve, a process that radically changes your lifeform - making you larger, stronger and more capable of chowing down on the more dangerous creatures you come across. Aside from the insatiable maw at your command, the only form of attack you have available is a single special move accessed by pressing any of the major buttons on the SixAxis. Each creature has a different special move (cyclone-like spinning, sudden charging and the like) and the effects of these techniques amplify the more powerful your beast.
Once a particular level has been explored to your satisfaction, you seek out a red-tagged icon which propels you further into the watery domain, or else you can opt to take the blue icon, which takes you back a stage. This is useful as some levels can leave you drained of energy - swooping back to devour some basic microbiotic livestock gives you the edge in tackling a harder level. A preview of things to come takes the form of a far-away blur in the background of each level. Once you're attuned to the flow, you'll be able to ID these murky apparitions and prepare yourself for the next level accordingly.
Control throughout is achieved using the motion sensor built into the SixAxis joypad and in this game at least, it's entirely suitable for the purpose. The game is played at a valium-fuelled pace, and requires little in the way of precision movement. It still feels as though it's a step back in terms of absolute control though, and I've yet to play a SixAxis-based game that would not benefit from more conventional controls (the forthcoming Super Rub-a-Dub does little to disprove this). However, in the case of FlOw, it doesn't matter that much. There's very little in the way of danger in this experience anyway - even if you are roundly defeated, you simply regress a stage and start again, so there's little sense of actual loss.
In terms of the overall scope of what's on offer, there are six different lifeforms to take control of, to grow and to guide through the ether. Each has a very different journey to undertake, opening up a host of different visual effects in the background along with a different cross-section of the submarinal wildlife to engage with. At any time, another player can join you for a spot of co-operative play which adds a miniscule element of additional entertainment to the mix but is really little more than an afterthought as the basic experience barely changes at all.
In effect, FlOw feels like a tech demo in many ways and if there is an overall point to the gameplay, it's essentially to act as a tour guide through the AV experience. It's designed to look pretty, to sound cool, and to let you gorge yourself on all of these treasures with only a modicum of effort. The graphics are basic, but well designed and layered with all the HDR and dynamic lighting tricks that the PS3 can muster (and it's another 1080p game for the collection to boot), with water-based physics that keep everything moving beautifully. Audio is THX-certified, providing a fairly simplistic, but involving surround sound stage. Even the simple act of eating a cell adds a pleasing musical note to the overall ambience, though all of the game's inhabitants have their part to play in adding to the aural soundscape.
FlOw is a difficult game to score. Taking control of each of the six core lifeforms and evolving them to their limits offers little more than a few hours of entertainment with a negligible level of challenge. Multiplayer adds nothing to the longevity and there are no perceivably online features. It's disappointingly bereft of content, but I can't help but like it for what it is, and its mere presence on the XMB often makes me load it up as a distraction during my working day. There's a core experience here that could be developed into a really worthwhile, innovative and compelling game. Give the player the freedom to develop a lifeform with a degree of individuality, set it in an MMO-style online world and add more scope to your core game objectives and this could be something quite special. In the meantime, FlOw is what it is - download it in the full knowledge that you're participating in an experiment of sorts and I think you'll get good value from your £3.49. If you're looking for something more like a conventional game, I'd lop off a mark or two from the final score.
7 / 10