Who let the sheep out? Meh. Meh. Meh.
When you think about aliens in games, a lot of things may come to mind - spaceships invading Earth, abduction of humans, or even a horrendous game adaptation of a beloved film. But herding farm animals into a mothership? Sounds like a first.
[image1]That is the premise for Flock!, an extremely cute puzzler from Capcom, that carries this apparently simple premise across fifty-five unique and challenging levels. The challenge comes from the puzzles that are intelligently designed... most of the time [Take that, athiests who don't believe in aliens! ~Ed] . Some unforeseen issues get in the way as well.
Levels in Flock! come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with their own obstacles and time constraints, but the goal is always the same: herd a set number of livestock - chickens, sheep, pigs, and cows - to the alien mothership dubbed "Motherflocker" by the Samuel Jackson Naming Institute. 'Herding' might not be the perfect word to use; it's more like 'guiding' these animals, since their driving force is the fear of the beam that your little space saucer emits. Flying this spaceship proves to be another element to learn, due to the grid-like nature of the level design and the camera angle, which orients the square grid from 45 degrees as a diamond.
Each type of animal has its own set of quirks, like cows causing massive stampedes or pigs getting distracted by mounds of dung along the way. Guiding animals proves to be challenging, even if it might seem too simplistic at first, since some levels require you to herd more animals than there are at first, encouraging a lot of (pro)creative thinking from the player. Other levels make the environment work against your efforts, with nighttime predators that seek to prey on your animals if you are not careful.
[image2]However, the challenge that brings the difficulty to a higher level is the bad path-finding of the herd. While it's understandable that a flock of sheep isn't a gathering of Nobel Prize winners that can surmount any obstacle, a herd of twenty sheep getting stuck in the same corner that was nowhere close to the path gets annoying after a while, especially if you are aiming for a low time or high score. To add to the problems, sometimes your animals also get stuck in the environment, or even worse, become invisible under trees, thus becoming untraceable and demanding a (yet another) restart. They also tend to exhibit suicidal behavior at times, jumping off ledges and corners for no apparent reason, other than making you want to go postal.
An interesting build-up of abilities comes into play as you progress through levels and earn upgrades - like a tractor beam that can pull fences or trees away. Levels gradually ask you to use everything you've learned up to that point, similar to how Blast Corps played back in the day. Learn a new power, try it out at a few levels, and then use them under pressure.
The charm of Flock! mainly comes from its unique visual style, which resembles stitched cloth, like quilts your grandma might have made for you for your fifth birthday. Sheep look like little lumps of cotton, and pigs roll around like plush little dirty balls of filth. This presentation, however, is hurt a bit by an inconsistent frame-rate that goes all over the place when a large number of animals is moved across the screen or when certain effects happen to occur too many times at once.
[image3]Speaking of things happening at once, there is a limited multiplayer mode in Flock! worth mentioning. Twin Beams pits two players locally, where both have to share the same score board and must cooperate to complete the level's challenges. The other is Split Beams, which has the same objective, but in a competitive setting. However, the maps in these modes aren't the same maps with the same challenges as the single-player campaign, which actually limits the gameplay to less demanding challenges and simpler objectives. You can also download custom maps created by Capcom itself and other players. Creating these yourself might prove to be yet another annoying challenge due to its less than friendly user interface, which does not provide any sort of apparent tutorial. There is no online support for these multiplayer modes, either.
Flock! is an interesting, inventive, and mostly enjoyable puzzler, with its own style and challenge. On the one hand, the fifty-five levels plus the extras you might go through the effort of building and/or downloading, can take quite a while to complete, especially if you are a completionist who wants to earn every gold medal and top time. On the other hand, the asking price for Flock! is $15, which might prove to be the game's defining factor for deciding whether it's worth, err, flocking into.