In Flock!, you control a UFO and abduct cute, defenseless animals. If little Billy and Suzie ask where all the animals end up, remember to look them straight in the eye, smile and say “Animal heaven.” We all know the animals will be whisked away to have their organs and blood harvested and later fed to the gangly ambassador of some xenophobic alien race threatening to destroy the galaxy if their demands are not met. But, there’s no reason we can’t keep things happy.
I was drawn to Flock! because of how odd and unique the gameplay sounded. It didn’t seem like a typical puzzle-solver, which intrigued me. When I finally got my hands on the game, I came to the realization that different doesn’t always mean better. Flock! has its ups and downs, and depending on which of the quirks you can tolerate, you might adore Flock!, or you might hate it.
Flock! is inventive for its approach to simple gameplay. The primary goal of the game is to herd a given number of animals as quickly as possible across an island-based maze of fences, hills and hedges, all the way back to a patient mothership. This goal is achieved through the use of a player-controlled UFO that frightens animals away whenever it draws near. Animals flee in the direction directly opposite of the UFO’s approach, which makes the idea of guiding the animals rather straightforward.
I found the UFO mechanic to be a little frustrating. Using scare tactics to direct helpless animals to their doom may seem like a breeze, but the degree to which animals respond to an oncoming UFO in Flock! is a tad too sensitive. Flock! is presented as a puzzle-solver, and indeed there are some puzzles to work through, but most of my time was spent just trying to keep the animals behaving nicely. Imagine running a daycare, alone, with 30 kids to watch over, and you’ll get the idea.
To the benefit of Flock!, animals have a decent group mentality. When animals do come together, they form a flock that tries to move as one. This works great for moving lots of animals through open spaces and around easy obstacles. The other grouping method is to get the animals to follow the lone pink-colored female of the pack. They’re rare to see on a level, but when present, the female can be used to direct all the other bull-headed males into a conga line — the female can also mate at certain locations and produce offspring. Once they’ve joined up, the males will follow the female blindly (those fools!), ignoring the UFO completely. Try leading the female off a cliff is fun. I accidentally did this once, dropping my jaw as the faithful lemmings plummeted to their graves. Afterwards, the males that stopped in time and survived the tragedy actually started crying at the loss of their beloved queen, which made me feel guilty. I didn’t mean to kick her off the cliff, honest!
Getting back to some basics, there are four animal types in Flock!: sheep, cows, chickens and pigs. Each animal has a special ability. If a sheep gets wet, it shrinks, allowing it to move through smaller spaces, such as through a fence. Cows, when pestered enough by a UFO, will stampede and race forward, smashing through anything in the way. The chickens are cliff-jumpers. Chase a chicken off an edge, and it will leap into the air, flying momentarily before drifting ahead and down to the ground (or deadly waters) below. Finally, the most difficult animal to control are the pigs, which roll around like marbles instead of walking like other decent and upright four-legged pigs. Not only do they roll, they also bounce off specially placed bumpers like in a pinball machine, making them extremely hard to manage at times.
These abilities are more of a hindrance, if you ask me. I lost so many sheep because they shrunk and slipped away through odd narrow gaps or down darkened pits, and many of my chickens often flew off target, falling into the endless waters and drowning. They must be very curious to see what the bottom of an ocean looks like.
To alter matters a little, there are two tools in the game that the UFO can acquire: the tractor and depressor beams. The tractor beam can pick up objects for carrying and dropping, but it can’t transport animals; the beam will kill them (whoops!). Meanwhile, the depressor beam can flatten fields of meddlesome grass or crops that might otherwise slow the animals or cause them to feel lost. I liked the depressor beam best because I could do crop circles with it. In fact, there are a few levels in which additional points are awarded for drawing particular shapes in the crops, which added some extra flavor to the game.
Flock! has 55 levels in the campaign. If you want more out of Flock!, give the multiplayer co-op mode a try. I got a friend to play the multiplayer portion of Flock! with me, and we had an OK time. The multiplayer levels have some interesting teamwork moments, such as having one player hold up a gate while the other coerces the animals through. However, those small gems are overshadowed by the fact that managing the animals doesn’t become any easier with an extra player. It’s harder, in my opinion, since the second player is also a new obstacle — if the players’ UFOs collide, they bounce off each other wildly, which scares the animals skinless. Having each player manage a separate bundle of animals is the safer way to go.
If the original set of levels isn’t enough for you, Flock! also comes equipped with a level editor. I gave this a try and struggled with the controls for a good hour. My first impression of the editor was that it was clunky, but at least it’s there and ready for those willing to dedicate the time to learn how to properly use it. After you build a level, you can share it online, and you can download levels made by others, which is neat. There’s certainly no reason to ever run out of play time with this game.
Flock! is the first in hopefully a long lineup of titles by developer Proper Games. Even though I personally didn’t enjoy Flock! that much, I can easily see someone else having a blast with it. The potential is there for Flock!; all it needs is the right kind of attention. I’d pass on Flock! for now, but don’t let that take your eye off Proper Games. Its next title could easily be a best-seller.