IGN Review of Flower, Sun, and Rain
Director/Designer Suda 51 and his development team Grasshopper Manufacturer have made a name for themselves over the years. On the Nintendo side of things, Suda has brought some of the more violent and controversial titles to the scene with Killer 7 and No More Heroes as his more recent efforts. Before that, however – over four years prior, in fact – Suda released Flower, Sun, and Rain for PS2 in Japan. As a strange mix of puzzle and adventure, this unique game saw very mixed reviews in Japan, and now eight years later the team is bringing the game worldwide for the first time on Nintendo DS.
Flower, Sun, and Rain is perhaps one of the strangest games I've ever played, and keep in mind I'm fresh off Knights in the Nightmare by developer Sting. The story follows a man by the name of Sumio Mondo who is a "searcher" by occupation. Basically he's an all-around detective who works freelance for the highest bidder. When a mysterious call comes in from the Flower, Sun, and Rain Hotel one day Sumio accepts the job knowing little about the situation, and what unfolds is one of the strangest, "toss you on in" offerings out there. You play as Sumio, you learn what he learns, and have very little at your disposal from the outset.
Since Sumio is a searcher by nature the mysterious man relies on a few tools of the trade, all combined into one do-it-all briefcase he named Catherine. Why Catherine, you might ask? Well in Sumio's own words, "It's better than working with a guy named 'Bob' all day, every day." Ok then. Right from minute one the game bombards you with some strange scenes and nonsensical design, and it's up to you to figure out what is going on. Movies play periodically throughout the adventure, acting as single screen only cinemas that may or may not tell you anything about the game. There's a lot of style here, but not a whole lot of substance. After you're plopped into the first stage of the game – a deserted parking lot – it becomes painfully obvious how the experience will be playing out. You walk around the world with Sumio, can interact with random objects via the touch screen or A button, and they in turn either initiate either a cinema that tells story, inner monologue with Sumio, or jack-in challenge. Jack into people or objects successfully and you'll progress the story.
It's an odd situation unless you've got the game directly in front of you, but basically you're using your Catherine device to literally plug into living and non-living things. When initiated you'll be prompted with a number of colored plugs on the bottom screen, and literally guess through each color by clicking and dragging the plug into whatever dock is shown on the bottom screen. It's totally random though, so you'll usually go through a half dozen plugs until one magically clicks. It's just a random time-taking interaction, and there's no real way to fail. From there Catherine's number dial pops up, as does a number of open boxes on the top screen. Just like hangman you need to spin the dial and imput the right numbers (zero through nine) until you've got the code. How do you get the numbers, you might ask? Well therein sits this game's insane design.
The entire story for Flower, Sun, and Rain is based on that core concept. You find puzzles, research, boot up Catherine, and input the correct answer. The problem that nearly 100% of gamers will find (unless you're a crazed mental freak that can destroy puzzles and absorb dozens of pages of info at a time) is that the game is entirely nonsensical and doesn't do much to steer you in the right direction. It starts out simply enough, having you wander around until you meet a person who checks to see if you know your birthday. Ok… no problem. Your birthday is recorded on the DS's internal system memory, so simply put in the same day you did when you got the DS and you're good to go. From there you get another puzzle that's also birthday related (showing a flipped baby) and you need to monkey with the digits you provided. My birthday is September 19, so I had 0919 to work with. Flip it? That could be 0616 (upside down), 1909 (tweak the month/day order), 9190 (backwards), or 9091 (reverse the two sets in order). As you can see, things get pretty crazy pretty quick, and there's no real tutorial to get you going. As a serious issue I had with the game, you never know when you're going to be chatting with a character or going into one of these challenges, so every time you press A on something suspicious you may be kicking off 10-20 dialogue boxes about a new challenge. This made me think twice before talking to a seemingly random person, or before checking a random object. Would this be another puzzle for me to start, or a piece of one I already had going?
As another annoyance though, everything about imputing answers to these puzzles – which, as you can tell from reading this review, you'll be doing some guess and check work – is slow and pretty unintuitive. The little jack mini-game will always be the same, so that removes that aspect, but every time you want to try a guess you have to walk up to the object, talk to it, listen to Sumio's inner monologue again (since it might have clues in it), play the jack game, spin the dial to input each number, and wait and see if you were right. If you were wrong it's right back out to the overworld automatically; reminds me of the "no retry" issue in No More Heroes… it just drags the game on much longer than it needs to.
To add to the complexity, Sumio gets a 50+ page guide book on the island and Flower, Sun, and Rain Hotel itself. This book is filled with hundreds of pictures, seemingly random info on everything from Lucha wrestling to camera exposure times for specific dates and locations, travel info on the island, info on the hotel structure and much, much more. The game expects you to dig through it too, and not just a little bit. The second main puzzle in the game was based on a camera, and it took forever to figure out. There was a clue that I had to look in the guidebook, but weeding through all the seemingly-worthless info just to find one random exposure info (which was a nine digit code) was extremely laborious and boring. For the uber-niche out there it could be fun to go page by page and dive into this odd world that Suda made – and it's admittedly got serious charm to it – but in the context of a puzzle it borders on masochistic.
For those that know Suda though, you already expect the obscure. In the context of a new DS game though, little was done to make Flower, Sun, and Rain intuitive or truly updated in feel. You've got the touch screen now, which is used for plugs and dial spins, and you can also move by stylus drag, but as far as the visual and audio offering everything feels like a 2001 game. Models have a nice style, but are seriously low poly. Some textures and in-game objects look nice, while others are abysmal, and the locked camera not only makes it so you'll be exploring around blind corners with your character off-screen at times, but also running at odd angles when using d-pad control (a d-pad can run at vertical, horizontal, or 45 degree angles only, while the camera goes in all directions). The music is pretty catchy, the writing is humorous and fun, and the voiceover is actually a hybrid of Animal Crossing-like gibberish and haunting, mature voices. This is an odd game with an odd audio/visual style, but if there was more to the gameplay I would have been pulled in all the same.
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