More than any other form of entertainment, handheld gaming intends to transport us away from the realities of daily life even if it's only for a the odd precious, brief moment.
Few games have ever done this quite as effectively as flOw. Beyond being a simple distraction, its unabashedly plain gameplay is as soothing as it is stimulating. It's like having a Japanese zen garden in your pocket minus the pebble raking and bonsai upkeep.
flOw charges you with guiding a microorganism through a rainbow-hued ether. Surviving in the multicolored microcosm means munching on the minuscule creatures floating about. The analogue nub serves to move your microorganism, while the face and shoulder buttons give you a short speed boost instrumental in chasing down quick prey. With each meal, your organism grows until bit-by-bit it becomes a formidable life form that nearly spans the screen.
Most creatures can be devoured in a single gulp, but there are larger animals lurking about that demand more work. Long snakes slither around the ether, joined by overgrown stingrays and jellyfish wading through the chromatic waters.
Eating these larger enemies requires biting on designated weak points – glowing white appendages signify where to chomp. Hit each soft spot and the creature devolves into a school of bite-sized organisms that you can easily ingest. Occasionally it's difficult to determine where a creature's weak point lies, but after a few passes it's either clear or you've chewed it to bits.
Just like you, these larger creatures have hungry mouths. Get in the way and you'll suffer from bites of microcosmic proportions. While you can't die in flOw, taking enough damage sends you back to a safer area. Levels consist of multiple two-dimensional planes stacked on top of each other.
You move between planes by touching single-celled red and blue organisms. Red sends you into the background, whereas blue brings you to the foreground. The transition is seamless, blurring the previous planes as you hone in one your destination.
Sadly, the presentation isn't quite as smooth. Sure, flOw boasts a beautiful visual style that brings together vibrant colours and unique geometric designs, while gorgeous lighting effects transform creatures from plain shapes into vivid glowing life forms. You're even able to see the glowing silhouettes of creatures in the background, shifting the light as they swim.
Cram too many of these organisms onto the screen, however, and the game has difficulty rendering all the beauty. The noticeable 'slowdown' that occurs breaks the trance of play. That sensation – the feeling of truly being transported through the game mentally – ends up suffering under an occasionally choppy frame-rate.
A similar issue appears during multiplayer sessions. Turn on the WLAN switch during play and the game automatically joins up with other players in ad-hoc mode. Up to four players in total can swim together, although too much thrashing makes the water unpleasant. In other words, whenever there's too much action onscreen, the frame-rate dips.
But then actively sharing the experience may not even be something you want to do. flOw is an extremely personal, introverted game that loses something when expanded to multiplayer. It's like busting into a friend's bedroom during their most private moment. And no one wants that. Encourage your chums to download and play the game for themselves, certainly, but you'll have a better time playing flOw solo in our opinion.
And play it you should. Despite the graphical hiccups, flOw is a unique and most worthwhile experience. What it lacks in depth it gains in player engagement and while it's unlikely to cater for massmarket tastes, it comes highly recommended to anyone wishing to escape the dreary reality of their daily commute.