Flower, Sun, and Rain (DS) review
"Sumio immediately finds the entire island is stuck in a time loop, though he perceives it as a sort of dream. Every morning he rises with his singular goal in mind, but he always gets sidetracked by an unrelated request. Hell, it takes him a week's worth of days just to make it outside the hotel grounds. Once his daily task is completed, the doomed airliner explodes overhead, right on schedule. Time for the next wakeup call."
Flower, Sun, and Rain explicitly addresses the element of inspiration necessary for its type of puzzle-solving adventure game. It's that moment when all your analysis clicks into place, and a logical solution to a tough problem gels in your brain.
Here's the thing: has anyone ever used the word logical to describe Suda51? This guy has built his reputation with the surreal, schizophrenic Killer7 and the geeked-out violence of No More Heroes. They're creative oddities borne out of his unbalanced mind, and here comes FSR with an invitation to squeeze ourselves into the thought process of this avant-garde game creator. My head hurts already.
I'm sure Sumio Mondo suffers from a similar ache. Sumio's a searcher, a guy who can find anything for anybody. He's been summoned to the remote Lospass Island by the manager of a local resort, the Flower, Sun, and Rain Hotel. His job: seek out a terrorist. Someone has placed a bomb on an airplane set to takeoff that very day.
With Suda51 involved, it just can't be that straightforward. Sumio immediately finds the entire island is stuck in a time loop, though he perceives it as a sort of dream. Every morning he rises with his singular goal in mind, but he always gets sidetracked by an unrelated request. Hell, it takes him a week's worth of days just to make it outside the hotel grounds. Once his daily task is completed, the doomed airliner explodes overhead, right on schedule. Time for the next wakeup call.
It's an intriguing situation, but Suda51 continually draws the focus to his directorial decisions, rather than engaging the player with brilliant brainteasers. Consider the step counter. It ticks up every time our hero moves his feet, and you unlock bonuses as it hits certain thresholds. Numbers like 1,000, 20,000 and 75,000. These ridiculous figures aren't out of reach. To travel anywhere on Lospass, Sumio has to sprint hundreds of paces down long, straight roads; you're holding down a directional key for a minute while nothing interesting happens. Movement could've easily been handled in a more user-friendly manner, but perhaps this is meant to convey some meaningful lesson. For me, it's that Suda51 has to be a bit of a sadist.
That's just a piece of this weird little world, and there's no doubt that the famed developer constructed it entirely to his exact specifications. I saw it in one mundane detail. Like many other DS games, FSR approximates spoken dialogue with muted noise. Here it sounds like the voices have been unrecognizably garbled by an electronic scrambler. The pitch ramps up when a character becomes agitated, but it's more unsettling when their tone is consistently low and calm, as with the enigmatic manager of the hotel. This style had to be a conscious decision, and it punctuates the barriers that keep the player from understanding this bizarre reality.
Sometimes, though, you just have to read the dialogue off the screen to feel hopelessly confused. Many of the characters exist in their own universe. One of the first guests you meet is clearly insane – possibly homicidal – but he's also a rabid footy fanatic. Talk of legendary matches anchors his nonsensical ramblings as you search for his ball-shaped suitcase. When a lucha wrestler blocks the stairwell with his training routine, it's crucial to seek the advice of his mentor Mr. Pirate, who speaks exclusively in the dialect of his name. There's even a provocative father and son duo who break the fourth wall and make fun of the game... and mock you for playing it. As I wonder why a teenage girl scampers around the island, following the trail of her escaped pink pet crocodile, I think I've earned their ridicule.
Even Sumio slips into fits of ambiguity. He speaks about his partner, Catherine, as if she's a human being, rather than the computer contained within his briefcase. This extraordinary machine can jack into any object, inanimate or living, and somehow unlock its secrets with a simple numerical code. She'll supply the number of digits, you just have to provide the correct values.
Catherine's the tool, but the key is the 49-page hotel guidebook, provided to Sumio upon his check-in. It contains a table of contents, but you'll basically need to comb it from cover to cover. Whenever you run into a problem, there will be an oblique reference to some article or image in this comprehensive tome. For example, you'll meet a drunken woman – she claims to be an angel by profession – rambling about killing vampires. Open the book to a section on cocktails, find the recipe for a Silver Bullet, and Mondo will have taken a step to solving her problems. Keeping Catherine in mind, each passage contains some numbers. Occasionally they can be entered verbatim, but usually it's a matter of adding, reversing, concatenating, or performing a more nonintuitive operation. You just need to try different things until you manipulate them in the right way.
There are some mazes and fetch quests, too. (More chances to buff that step counter!) They're the physical manifestation of the guidebook puzzles; just stumble around until you find the solution. In the infrequent instances where the game breaks out of this mode and poses a direct mental challenge, it's way too easy. The grand finale includes solving twenty-four simple arithmetic problems. Can you figure out the quotient of 81 / 81? Then you can stop a terrorist.
In the end, the secrets of Lospass Island abruptly mushroom into an outrageous, overblown conspiracy. As the climax approaches, the game pulls in characters from a previous Suda51 effort, The Silver Jiken (The Silver Case), which hasn't seen release outside of Japan (yet). Even if I were familiar with these reappearing players, the transition isn't a smooth one. There's no bright (or faint) line connecting Sumio's actions throughout the game, the random cast members, and this ramshackle conclusion. I'm sure some will be captivated by Suda51's abstract brand of genius, but you only get so many points for being different. Flower, Sun, and Rain can sell inspiration all it wants. With a combination of disengaging story and gameplay, it merely infected me with apathy.
Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (July 29, 2009)
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