I recently said in my Flockers Preview that Team 17’s first original IP in nearly 20 years was shaping up to be a grueling new adaptation of the classic puzzle game Lemmings. Now that the game is out, I can confirm that Flockers is more than gruelling; while it is a fun little game in its own right, Flockers is a Marmite game – you’ll either love the insane difficulty level, or you’re just not that into punishingly hard puzzle games and end up hating it.
To quickly recap, in Flockers you must guide a flock of sheep through a steam-punk factory/abattoir-themed level from an entry point to an exit point. Like Lemmings, you can’t stop your sheep from moving forwards unless they hit a wall and turn around, or you assign them the role of blocking other sheep, which will simply make those behind them turn around when they hit them. The crux of the game is that the factory is filled with a number of deliciously gory ways of killing your sheep in ways that will have you curse like a sailor; with the sheep continuously on the move at a uniform speed through continuously moving traps, the goal is save as many as is humanly possible, as quickly as you can. While the concept is practically identical to Lemmings, there are a few new mechanics added such as triggers, switches, teleporters and anti-gravity, as well as a 3 Star ranking system and an online leaderboard once you finish a level.
To put it simply, Flockers may be Team 17’s adaptation of Psygnosis’ classic Lemmings, but with a few twists to the formula and a whole new level of gore layered on top; the similarities are too close not to compare the two directly. Granted, in the original Lemmings there was a button where you could nuke your entire playing field and start again – your lemmings would count backwards from 5, stick their fingers in their ears and explode into colorful confetti after a mournful cry of “Oh no!”; in Flockers if you make a mistake and march your sheep towards their death, there is no colorful confetti to amuse you over your mishap. If your sheep fall to their death, they will hit the ground and explode on impact with the floor like a woolly bag of strawberry jam. Team 17 really aren’t sheepish about gore; if your sheep march off the cliff into a spike trap, they will impale themselves with such ignorant abandon that you don’t know whether to be horrified or amused at first – but after your umpteenth attempt at the same level, it gets very frustrating very, very quickly.
Herein lies the biggest flaw that I see in Flockers; it’s simply not the kind of game which eases you into the puzzle genre, but instead says “here’s a puzzle, fuck you.”
Lemmings is a classic for a reason; it was a simple concept which was elegantly executed. It eased you into the game with simple levels you could blitz, one or two mechanics at a time. You’d get a perfect score on your first attempt and it’d make you feel good. After 10-15 levels you might get to one which makes you stop and think, but Lemmings wasn’t gruelling unless you stuck with it to the end. Flockers starts difficult and gets even harder; if you’re not all that into the puzzle genre or are simply looking to try a puzzle game for the first time, Flockers is not for you.
That being said, if the puzzle genre is your cup of tea, Flockers has the potential you amused for untold hours. The cartoony graphics clash delightfully with the sheer level of gore on hand, and the game will really keep you occupied if you’re the type of person who likes to 100% things. Think of the vanilla Flockers as a 3×3 Rubik’s Cube – sure it’s not for everyone, but when you finish your first Cube, you feel good about it. The problem with your sheep in Flockers is that unlike the lemmings of old, they can climb and even fly over each other with the correct (or incorrect) job assignments. It’s hard enough looking after a single stream of sheep, with all the switches, traps, gravity-altering mechanics and teleporters, but when your level opens with two streams of sheep which are picking up more sleeping sheep scattered through the level as they take their separate paths towards oblivion, that’s when the swearing starts.
Still, you get that one sheep through the level and you get your rating of 1-Star at the end. You didn’t fail, but after the 7 attempts it took, wincing every time your sheep stepped on a switch and a hammer or swinging axe eviscerated your sheep, you beat the damn level.
You try the level again and somehow manage to get that 3-Star rating. That was a 4×4 Rubik’s Cube that you annihilated, and you feel like a badass – but you still aren’t done. Hidden throughout the game are Golden Sheep in gilded cages which you can collect only if you’re smart enough and have the timing of the suavest of super-villains. Getting that sheep and 3-Starring the level – that, my friend, is the completed 7×7 Rubik’s Cube you place down on your desk as you look at your global ranking and say a quiet “screw you” to whoever the hell just beat your score. Seriously, how the hell did those people beat your score??
Now that Flockers is available as a full game, there are a generous 60 sheep-smashing levels for you to throw yourself against, but that’s just the vanilla version. If you’re the kind of person who looks at the people around you and thinks “screw you Batman, for I am smarter than you”, then Flockers has you covered. The Community area of the game allows you to build your own levels and share them with your friends and the community as a whole. If, by some miracle, you think Team 17 isn’t punishing people hard enough, there’s nothing to stop you from making a level which is even more disgustingly hard, and lording it over your mates until they finally meet your expectations. Flockers is a game which lets you be that cruel.
Flockers is indeed a lot of fun, and it’s a thoroughly amusing modern interpretation of Lemmings as previously stated, but the inclusion of Community levels aside, it doesn’t really bring anything to the table. There are fewer jobs you can assign your sheep than Lemmings ever had, and the jobs you can assign don’t feel as intuitive as the ones we’re all used to. Instead of stacking Builders to build your stairway to heaven/nowhere, you can simply stack 3 sheep on top of each other to make a mini staircase – you can’t even stack stairs, and there is only one possible route through each level. Granted, the sheep are far less dextrous than what DMA Design and Psygnosis once thought a lemming looked like, but compared to Lemmings, Flockers just feels somewhat lacking.
For many players, Flockers will be a game where you’ll only play for two or three levels and come back to it in a few days, because it’s that frustrating playing simply by trial and error. While you can pause the game and try to figure out the path your sheep should take, there’s no way of telling what a switch will activate, or where that teleporter will take you. Unlike Lemmings, you can select multiple sheep at once – which is fantastically useful in a tight spot – but this comes at the sacrifice of being able to pause the game and assign jobs at the same time, which was one of the best things about Lemmings, and one of things that made that game so accessible to everyone.
As engaging and intense as Flockers can be watching your sheep miss the swinging blades by a hair’s breadth, it lacks any real and meaningful innovation. The Community functionality is nice, but the lack of cool abilities and the trial and error gameplay is frustrating to the point where it will put many off and entirely turn away those who are new to the genre or don’t play puzzle games often. Flockers lacks the accessibility Lemmings has, and the innovation that Lemmings once brought to the table, but it’s still a good game – just one that will have you grinding your teeth on more than one occassion.
As their first new IP in a very long time, Flockers feels like Team 17 trying to jump back in the saddle of something that isn’t another Worms game. It’s a commendable first effort, in that regard; but it will probably take a sequel or two before it really comes into its own.