Being the home of completely unhinged game concepts, Tokyo Games Show is perhaps the ideal venue to debut a game as completely contrary as flOw. At first glance, the uncluttered abstract outline form of the cell-like visuals and sky blue background palette make it look like some sort of Electroplankton rip-off. Some casually ill-informed remarks might sneer about Sony's attempt to ape Nintendo's recent innovative streak, but actually getting your hands on it proves to be a strangely calming, almost serene experience. Quite some feat over the manic bass throb that pulsates across the cavernous hall.
Apparently devised by the winner of last year's GDC indie games competition, flOw offers no explanation to the player - not that the non-English speaking Sony rep manning the lone demo pod could either - but luckily that doesn't matter in the slightest thanks to its delightfully intuitive design. In simple terms, it plays a bit like Snake. You control what appears to be a cell-based life form, swimming around the inky blue looking for things to eat. As you come across strange-looking single-cell organisms, you line up your pincer like jaws and attempt to grow your form. As you weave your way around, the more you consume, the longer and more complex your segments become, and so it goes on.
Deep deep down
Eating the red blobs takes you deeper into the water, while heading for the blue blobs brings you closer to the surface (where the 'flOw' logo resides). Swimming towards the edges of what appears to be a fairly small circular play area (think of it as a fish bowl) makes the colour grow darker, so you eventually start to suss out that the idea is to keep swimming down, down, down and down and continually gobbling up everything you come across.
There are several different types of organism in flOw, and each quickly become familiar. Although it's hard to discern without the benefit of any explanation, some seem to bulk out existing cells, others add more segments. Others swim around in the depth and look a bit like you, but the idea appear to be to gobble them up too by simply swimming up to their body segments and then clearing up all the segments they leave behind when they've fallen apart. On this evidently 'safe' demo level, none of them appear to want to attack you, although perhaps as the game progresses you'll come across those that also want a piece of you.
The only piece of Engrish we got out of our smiley Japanese host was 'boss' as she pointed to the first angry looking red cell monster, composed a little like a fishy bicycle wheel, if you can imagine that. As expected, we managed to suss out their weak spots by chomping off the segments away from the central 'head'. Sure enough, the whole structure began to collapse and we were left to feast on the remains of our prize, and grew longer and longer- again, like Snake, but without the penalty for tripping over your own tail or bashing the edges.
Sleeping with the fishes
Within a matter of five, ten minutes, we we'd grown from a wee dot to a stringy fan-finned organism that spanned almost the height of the glorious 42" Bravia 1080p screen. Evidently, this is hardly a game that requires high def, but you certainly won't complain when all the little touches float by your eyes. It's clearly a left field experiment, a high concept idea that may turn out to be rather, er, shallow. But, assuming it builds on the Feeding Frenzy idea of growing into something bigger and more powerful, then it definitely has the potential to be the sort of serene and original idea that will attract the kind of cult audience Sony evidently has in mind for this Santa Monica Studio-developed title.
As far as the audio goes, sadly, with no way of hearing what kind of otherworldly underwater noises accompany the game, we can't tell as yet how much the soundtrack or audio effects enhance the experience, but you can bet they'll be suitably spooky and watery. All whale noises and watery bloops.
flOw is certainly not going to dominate any headlines in the aftermath of TGS (this one aside), but it's these kinds of games that make coming halfway across the world all the more worthwhile. Released at the right price and targeted at the right audience, it's the sort of game that makes the PS3 a far more interesting console for its surprise inclusion. It's calming, interesting, entertaining and utterly different in so many ways that would scare most publishers witless. Let's hope Sony Computer Entertainment Europe believes in it as much as we do. Go with it, Sony.
FlOw is coming to the PS3 sometime in 2007 from Sony Computer Entertainment, and will be distributed via the console's online component. A European release has yet to be confirmed.