Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Do you remember Lemmings? The goal was to guide a torrent of seemingly suicidal Lemmings to the end of the level by issuing commands like dig, or equipping them with parachutes so they could fall from great heights without problem. At its core it was a puzzle game, but with the added sadism of watching Lemmings die in horrific ways when you got it wrong. Hurrah for violent videogames!
In essence, that’s exactly what Flockers is. For Team17’s first fresh IP in a very long time it’s easy to feel a touch disappointed that they opted to create something that runs so closely to the Lemmings template, although perhaps not totally surprising when one considers that Team17 ported Lemmings to PS3. The little Lemmings have been replaced with sheep that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played the Worms series, and the abilities are slightly different, but underneath it all this is an updated version of Lemmings. Is that a bad thing, though? Lemmings was a lot of fun after all.
Here’s the gist: from a floating horn thingy a herd of sheep are fired into the landscape, their goal to navigate the many buzzsaws, sharp spikes and other deadly objects that scatter the land in order to reach the finish. Being sheep they have a tendency to simply plod forth into whatever danger awaits them, falling straight off cliffs and walking into spinning blades with reckless abandon, the blood, gore and pained bleats of their fellows failing to perturb the rest of the herd. As the player you must use the abilities given to you at the start of the level or gained through crates scattered around the environment to ensure as many sheep survive the ordeal as possible. Once the level is finished your points will be tallied based upon a number of factors, including the amount of sheep that made it through and the time taken to reach the finish. Succeed and you’ll be almost instantly transported to the next area.
Your wooly friends can be commanded to create staircases of varying heights using themselves as steps, given hats that lets them jump small gaps and even granted the ability to fly up walls via the Super Sheep skill, a familiar sight to Worms veterans. You can even select a sheep or two to self-destruct in order to blow up a wooden crate that’s blocking your path, a tension inducing tactic as your herd are often so cluttered together that a single exploding sheep can cause a lot of blood to be spilt. It’s even worse toward the end of any given level when you have just a few sheep left and just one explosion could be the end.
Indeed, blood and gore is one of the big selling points here it seems, though it can be turned off if the sight of a sheep getting splattered in a variety of ways is too much for your delicate sensibilities. The contrast of surprisingly realistic blood seepage and entrails and whimsy, cute graphics is odd, to say the least. It does works, but only barely. There’s a sort of clumsy humour at work that never manages to quite tickle the funny bone. There’s a few cutscenes showing sheep doing various daft things and they elicit a small smile, but the enjoyment of little white animals being murdered in various wears off surprisingly quickly. Maybe it’s because the sheep are just sheep. The Lemmings used to utter the immortal phrase, “oh, no!” as they met their death, while Worms are known for their one-liners, but the sheep here are exactly that…sheep. You don’t really feel attached to them at all, and so their gory deaths quickly becomes just a common occurrence unworthy of your notice.
Early levels are a breeze. While the game often doesn’t do the best job of explaining the basics, the solutions to each obstacle are obvious. The game grants you the perfect amount of abilities, and even goes so far as to show you where to place certain things, like steps, a sheep wall to stop your herd advancing etc. As the game progresses, though, things begin to become challenging. You’ll often be granted extra abilities merely to confuse, while levels become more complex, introducing other paths to victory and even multiple herds of sheep to coordinate at once. Triggers activate things you need in order to advance, but could also bring a sharp object into play that results in the unceremonious slaughter of many innocent quadrupeds. Maybe you should get the sheep herded closer together before stepping on a trigger in case they all need to pass through the area quickly, or perhaps you should just send a lone victim in to see what the problem is? Either method will cost you some of your abilities, potentially compromising you later. Bonus points are also awarded at the end of a stage for leftover abilities as well, giving you an extra reason to consider when they are needed.
Other things get thrown into the mix, mostly physics based. Things will roll and fall and swing, forcing you to consider the timing of your moves, a tricky proposition given that a herd of sheep are inherently imprecise things to control. Some levels even features moving contraptions that force you to keep up with them or ahead of them. You’ll also find teleporters that send your herd across the map, leaving you to search desperately for where they have come out. Random things that flip the gravity are also to be encountered, and even sleeping sheep that can be awoken to replenish your numbers.
Where Flockers trips up is in its controls which feel like they would be far more at home on the PC. Ability selection is controlled via the shoulder buttons, while the triggers act as a zoom function. Meanwhile the d-pad lets you pause and fast forward time. It all sounds okay on paper. However, your primary control is done through a sluggish cursor that never feels fast enough or accurate enough when using a controller. Couple this with a finicky zoom and sticky camera pan and you’ve got a recipe for control system that suffices, but that is also clearly far better suited to a mouse and keyboard. The game attempts to combat this somewhat by giving you a handy paint tool that allows you to select numerous sheep at a time, important if you need to deck out the entire herd in capes or hats quickly. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I felt like I made it through a deadly trap by the skin of my teeth, not because of a lack of skill or because of the game’s actually quite good difficulty curve, but because the controls weren’t good enough.
The early stretch of the game features a dull factory environment that your sheep amble through, and no number of saws and deadly drops can make it look more attractive to the eye, but thankfully the game does open up later with grassland and desert environments. In fairness to Team17 the early factory setting is due to the lightweight backstory of the sheep attempting to escape their captivity, but I still feel that more could have been done to spruce the place up a bit. On the technical side there’s not a whole lot to talk about. Animations are a tad stiff, and naturally this is not the game to show off the raw power of consoles or PCs.
The points system and stars awarded at the end of each level are clearly designed to give you a reason to replay levels, as are the global leaderboards. Throw in a method of comparing scores with friends and you’ll almost always breed at least a small amount of competition with which to tempt players back, but sadly I never personally felt much of an urge to replay levels for higher scores Your rewards for doing well include new designs for your sheep, such as the 8-bit look. Very fetching. You can even get some cool new blood effects, but it’s just not enough to draw players back, especially when you consider the controls which go completely against the level of accuracy required to achieve those big ratings in later sections. There’s some bonus levels to unlock as well by grabbing a floating icon found in certain levels, and along the way you’ll also encounter around twelve “boss” battles, which are actually just slightly harder levels. One has your flock attempting to outrun a massive trolley of death, for example.
It’s also a little sad to note that while the PC version gets a level editor and a way to share those creations the console version does not, leaving us with the admittedly meaty sixty or so stages that the game ships with. I honestly can’t see any reason why console gamers shouldn’t get the editor as well. Perhaps it will be added in an update later.
When it all clicks it’s enjoyable stuff, but lacks a certain something to elevate it further. Managing your herd across the many deadly traps is rewarding in its own right. But truthfully despite the many years between them Flockers isn’t much of an improvement over Lemmings, although one could argue that if you wish to make a game in the image of Lemmings there’s not much more that can be done with the template. It looks better and has a few added tricks and abilities, but the overall experience feels mostly the same. Saying that makes it sound like I’m incredibly negative about Flockers, but the simple fact of the matter is that I had fun with it. It’s a solid game, albeit perhaps not the great break from Worms that we were hoping for from Team17. Still, it’s worth taking a look, though you may want to wait until the price drops a bit. Also consider grabbing it on PC, where the controls feel like they would be better suited and a level editor means plenty more interesting content.
+ Enjoyable puzzling action.
+ Some great level designs.
+ Like Lemmings, but shinier! And woolier.
– Awkward controls on console.
– Like Lemmings, but shinier. And Woolier.
– Missing the humour.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Solid A to be B puzzler filled with blood and innocent sheep.