Version tested: DS
Sumio Mondo has a 1970s Toyota Celica and a briefcase he calls Catherine. He plugs Catherine into things - in the first instance, a bus driver's eye socket - and uses her to dial in combination numbers, as if cracking a safe, or using an old telephone. In this way, the mysteries of life are unlocked. Or the mysteries of Lospass island, at any rate - its enigmatic hotel, its bizarre inhabitants, and the endlessly time-looped aircraft explosion in its sky.
Like its creator Suda 51, Flower, Sun and Rain gives an initial impression of pretension that soon melts away under the warmth of its mischievous, self-deprecating sense of the absurd, and its willingness to take risks. Like the man himself, that makes it hard to dislike - initially. But Flower, Sun and Rain was first released for the PS2 in 2001, in Japanese only, and it probably seemed anachronistic even then. It's stuck in a time-warp of its own, re-enacting a pedantic and detached cul-de-sac of adventure game design that, mercifully, never actually happened.
Mondo, a "searcher" and finder of lost things, arrives on Lospass at the behest of Edo Macallister, manager of the Flower, Sun and Rain, the island's only hotel. Macallister, a grinning cypher in a sailor suit who seems to have stepped into the game from a warped Broadway musical, wants Mondo to solve the island's Groundhog Day problem. Every day is a repetition of the last, ending abruptly with a terrorist bomb destroying a plane high over the island, and beginning with Mondo waking groggy and fully clothed on his bed.
Mondo proceeds to unravel this most odd mystery in the time-honoured manner of the videogame detective. He walks around looking for objects he can examine; stumbles across arbitrary obstacles blocking the path of logic (or least resistance); talks to a surreal supporting cast of variously quixotic, funny and plain incomprehensible characters; gleans clues, solves riddles and - eventually, inevitably - helps people find what they've lost, whether it's a football-shaped handbag or a sense of self-belief.
There's a lot of fetch-and-carry, talk-and-unlock makework involved in inching the game's one day forward, step by step. In a narrative sense, this ought to be irritating. Much of it is (or at least seems) irrelevant to the plot's main thread, and many of the detours are absurdly forced - must we really help a professional wrester in a suit and tie recover his lost form, instead of simply stepping around him to get to the floor below? And what exactly is this interlude with the small girl looking for Chris the pink crocodile all about?
That said, as far as the game's story is concerned, this isn't a problem at all; it meshes perfectly with Flower, Sun and Rain's twisted dream logic. To begin with, Mondo is simply trying to reach the hotel lobby for breakfast, but he's repeatedly thwarted, diverted or distracted by the guests' bizarre demands, waking up, and trying again. It's exactly like a dream. Unfortunately - despite the entertaining supporting cast and Suda 51's snappy, surreal and passionately detailed dialogue - it's a bad one.
In contrast to the finer examples of videogame detective fiction - the Phoenix Wright games, for example - Flower, Sun and Rain's plot and puzzles never seem to meet in the middle. The strictly numerical codes by which every problem is solved are laboriously laid out in text - lost-and-found notes, or the hotel's guide book - and then signposted with painful awkwardness in the dialogue. You won't ever use deduction or intuition to solve a problem. Worse, you'll often find yourself a few steps ahead of the game: the solution will be clear, but you're forced to to-and-fro between a few more heavy-handed hints, or open your guide book at a certain juncture, before you're allowed to input the code and move on.
You can't divert from Flower, Sun and Rain's meandering, infuriating trail of breadcrumbs for one second. This game has a mind-numbingly dogged linearity. At first, this is an annoyance, but as the physical scope of the game expands, it takes tedium and irritation to new heights. Where Phoenix Wright sensibly flattened its world into a 2D slideshow of pertinent elements - people, places, objects, text - Flower, Sun and Rain makes you take every step back and forth between them in a crudely rendered 3D world, broken up with needless, vestigial loading animations. It even counts every pace you make, to add mocking insult to weary injury.
If there were any satisfaction to be had from teasing out the puzzles themselves, this might be bearable. But the reduction of every interaction in the game to a meaningless, arbitrary copy-and-paste or, at best, simple bit of code-cracking, makes Flower, Sun and Rain an entirely unrewarding game design.
All of that said, we still can't bring ourselves to entirely slate this little oddity, and we have to applaud Rising Star Games for taking the trouble to translate and release it, and for keeping the cheeky, off-the-wall charm of Suda 51's writing intact. Although the DS graphical downgrade is a little clumsy, the stylised characters and beautifully observed interior design - every inch the glossy, late-nineties, post-modern luxury hotel - survive it well enough. There's a pleasantly louche atmosphere to the whole thing, thanks in part to the strangely hypnotic electronic remixes of Erik Satie, Bach and Gershwin that provide the soundtrack.
In the end, the game's dated feel is a double-edged sword. It might be odd to feel nostalgic for a time that's less than a decade ago, but Flower, Sun and Rain will make you feel exactly that. It won't fail to surprise and entertain you with the unhinged mood and unique frame of reference you expect of Suda 51 and his Grasshopper studio, either. Whether that will be enough to compensate you for its turgid and alienating gameplay depends only on how dedicated you are to the pursuit of the cruel and unusual.
5 / 10