The similarities between Team 17's Flockers and Lemmings are as honest as they are obvious. This isn't so much a game inspired by DMA Design's 16-bit classic as a direct sequel, albeit with suicidal rodents swapped out for oblivious sheep.
It's also Team 17's first original IP in over 10 years, those similarities notwithstanding, and while it's great to see one of Britain's last surviving old-school indies breaking out of its Worms-centric routine, it's also slightly dispiriting that the result is yet another retro riff rather than venturing into more innovative territory.
The developer hasn't even strayed too far from the franchise that has kept it in business all these years. Flockers may not be a Worms game, but it is - technically - part of the same franchise. The sheep you must guide to safety in each level are the same ones you deploy in the turn-based strategy series, only here they've broken free before they can be stuffed full of dynamite and shipped off for use in annelid warfare.
True to the Lemmings formula, a procession of sheep plops out into the level and begins clomping methodically along. Deadly drops, pulverising weights and spinning saw blades await those that blunder into them, and your job is to use a suite of different abilities to stop that from happening. Mess things up and the roving ruminants get shredded or pulped in a surprisingly horrific shower of gore.
Your most basic orders will make the sheep form barriers or steps, preventing the herd from wandering blithely to their doom or helping them reach new areas. You can also enable sheep to jump from the edge of platforms rather than plummet over (the game inexplicably misses the chance for a "woolly jumper" gag here) or give them a superhero cape that lets them zoom straight up vertical walls. You can also, of course, turn one of them into a walking bomb and use it to destroy wooden blocks that act as barriers.
A few more options and sheep types become available deeper into the game's 60-level campaign, but these are the basic tools that most of the challenges are built around. While that's enough to warm the cockles of any Lemmings fans pining for familiar action, Flockers never quite advances the formula.
What it does do is tinker in the margins and tweak the structure. Levels sprawl in all sorts of directions and use features like gravity inverters to make even more use of the same screen space. You won't always start the level with the abilities you need, but must guide the sheep to collect them from crates in the level. Sometimes you'll find sleeping sheep who join the flock, replacing any you've lost.
There are also different routes to access, rewarding your exploration with bonus collectables and secret levels. All of this is welcome, but none of it really changes the core of the game, and some 23 years on from Lemmings they feel like fairly minor twists to a well-worn formula.
Where Flockers struggles most is in its often fussy and frustrating execution. There's a chaotic quality to the game that is at odds with the methodical nature of the game it's paying tribute to, and it makes getting that perfect three-star rating on each level an achievement you'll reach more often through luck than judgement.
There are too many automated traps that descend from nowhere, slaughtering a good number of your sheep without much chance of stopping them. Sometimes you can use some sheep to hold the others back, releasing them when it's safe, but the game has a habit of using this basic test of timing as frequent filler, and it soon becomes irritating rather than challenging.
More problematic still is the game's slightly obtuse nature, which leaves you without vital information when you need it most. There are teleports that will beam your sheep elsewhere in the level, but it's hard to tell where they end up. Similarly, on several stages you're given a second group of sheep, plopping into the level off-screen, and the game doesn't tell you they're there. It's not uncommon to fail a level more than once as you struggle to keep tabs on everything you need to be watching.
The scrolling is also skittish and sticky, and it's easy to lose precious seconds trying to find the cursor and drag it to where it needs to be. You can zoom in and out, and freeze the action, both of which allow you to locate errant herds, but it's a clumsy way of getting your bearings and leaves you feeling like you're having to jump through hoops to compensate for the game's poor communication. Trial and error or frantic plate-spinning, rather than in-the-moment skill and careful planning, is too often the route to victory.
It's also not all that funny. The art style is charming in theory, and the loading screens and opening cut-scene suggest a darker take on Aardman's whimsy, but that tone never translates into the actual gameplay. The grisly deaths might raise a gasp or two at first, but otherwise the sheep are sorely lacking in character. It desperately needs a little touch - like the plaintive "Oh no!" of a doomed Lemming, or the cheeky "Ooh, ya bugger!" of a wounded Worm - to bridge the gap between the cutesy character designs and their unironic bloodthirsty dismemberment.
Flockers is clearly sincere in its affection for Lemmings. This is a genre that has been left to gather dust for rather too long, so for the nostalgically minded there's a sense that any criticism is going to be weighed against a lot of pent-up demand. If being a lot like a beloved older game is the only criteria for success, then Flockers certainly does well enough.
Much like the recent MouseCraft, which at least had a Tetris twist, Flockers struggles to move out of the shadow cast by Lemmings' brilliantly pure concept. While that adherence to a classic template yields considerable amusement, over time the features that should have lifted it higher start to become frustrating. Not only does it not move beyond the 1991 formula in any meaningful way, in the long term it struggles to match it. Flockers is not without its appeal for the patient and nostalgic, but Team 17 is ultimately just grazing on DMA's old patch when it could be striking out for pastures new.