Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Flotilla



Overview

Flotilla from Blendo Games is an interactive storybook. Each new adventure is randomized and lasts an hour or less. As the commander of a couple of tiny spacefaring warships, you'll visit numerous planets on each short playthrough and have either a battle or a text-based encounter, often involving a binary decision on your part, with unpredictable consequences.

Flotilla is available on PC and X-box 360.

Style

If you've heard of the game at all, you've probably seen screens of the battles. Excellent graphics are not what this game's about. The grid is a cleverly-devised, no-frills interface for facilitating tactical space combat between multiple vessels on both sides. After a few rounds, you'll have figured out how to properly control the clunky camera and determined the critical significance of all the horizontal and vertical lines.

Now that I think about it, Flotilla probably looks similar to what Ender was seeing when he unknowingly committed mass xenocide on the nevermind, no spoilers.

Anyway, the reason to play Flotilla is not its graphics, clearly, but an aspect that was not highlighted nearly enough on game's store page within Steam: it's irreverent sense of humour. This game does not take itself seriously, to it's credit. The textual encounters you'll have when travelling to new planets almost always feature adorable personified animals, with a single picture so you know that you are, in fact, being attacked by fuzzy penguin spacepirates, or negotiating with fleeing criminal businesspigs.

Not the strangest thing you'll read in Flotilla.

In combat, after you've given commands to your ships and are watching the drama unfold, classical piano music plays, giving this portion a fantastic space-opera feel. The soundtrack matches the serene, frictionless motion of the vessels as they glide to and fro through silky space. Suddenly, the peace is disrupted by the ding of an egg-timer whenever you manage to score a hit on an enemy ship's weak spot. Oh, and when you've scattered your opponents' atoms across the quadrant and achieved victory, you're rewarded with raucous hooting, hollering, and applause.

Return on Emotional Investment

It's a sad tale, really. The impetus for beginning your extrasolar venture is that you've been given a 7-month life expectancy, and decide to have one last kick at the can.   With so somber a beginning, it's a relief how comical your misadventure quickly becomes. “Quick” is the name of the game, too, because after swinging by about a dozen planets, you're informed of your death, and your undertaking abruptly ends. There's never any character development or resolution (when would there be time?), and those whom you encounter are never met again.

Return on Monetary Investment

Flotilla reminds me of Spelunky in the way it presents players with randomized environments and encourages multiple restarts of the game because each playthrough is unique. The difference is that with Spelunky, it's your own fault you're dying (you'll do better next time), and you're restarting because you know there's more content you've not yet reached. In Flotilla, you're dying because you have a terminal illness and your time just runs out. More than that, after a few plays, it's easy to get the impression that you've seen most of what there is to see, read most of the humour on offer. Some critics say the artificial time limit squanders the game's potential; it was a stylistic choice by Blendo. I believe their goal was to tell short, flashy, funny, stories. Any chance it's a commentary on the inconvenience of our inescapable mortality?

If you happen to catch the game on sale, like for $2.50 today on Steam, for example, Flotilla deserves a little deeper of a look than what the demo allows. The $10 asking price on Steam is a bit steep, though 400 Microsoft Points is a little more palatable. 

Return on Temporal Investment

As a mostly click-through, choose-your-own-adventure style journey, the time you put in is largely rewarded by the farcical writing. Combat is the other half of the game. It's tactically intriguing to work in three dimensions. Lateral and vertical movement is critical, as well as the direction in which your ship is facing, since the bottom and rear of each is its weak spot: projectile shots to the top, sides, and front bounce off. 

"Don't worry about it."
Maybe it's me, but battles tend to go on a little long due to the slow movement speeds of every ship. Compound that with the fact that each vessel you own will need to be given separate orders during the planning phase, before you end the turn and watch it all unfurl. This has the effect of making success after a long-fought bout feel rewarding, as well as usually delivering a strong sense of relief.

Experience will teach you the ins and outs of setting up strong flanks while remaining defended, how to outmanoeuvre slower ships, and ways to play to your strengths versus diverse enemy fleet compositions. Still, it sometimes feels like such a shame that even following a brilliant streak of decisive victories, you're living on borrowed time, and your story is doomed to end one way or another, possibly sooner than you'd like.

To Conclude

The combination of challenging, funny, cheap, and replayable is tough to come by and tougher still to ignore when found. While it may be hard to justify devoting dozens of hours and hours with Flotilla, it's nice to know that whenever I'm craving a quick mental break, the option of a short, entertaining, and engaging space jaunt is a double-click away.  

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