It’s hard not to be charmed by Flock, the puzzle game now available on XBLA, PSN, and Steam. It’s so adorable you practically want to pinch its cheeks, and its Lemmings-meets-Sheep gameplay is well-designed and clever, a satisfying change from the typical arcade-style games that tend to show up on download services. Its endearing nature will make you want to love Flock, but whether or not you actually do will depend rather a lot on your personal saturation point for frustration.
To complete each level of Flock, you must use your tiny UFO to guide a certain number of sheep, cows, pigs, or chickens back to your alien mothership, or, as the game calls it, the motherflocker. The animals are afraid of your craft and will run away if you get too close, so leading your livestock to the welcoming glow of the mothership is largely a matter of buzzing around them just the right way. It’s actually far tougher than it sounds. The critters almost never want to go in a straight line, love hiding in corners, and loners will frequently splinter off from the main group and go in entirely the wrong direction. Probably a lot like herding actual sheep, really, except you don’t have a border collie helping you keep things tidy.
As if the animals’ unruly behavior wasn’t enough of a pain in your extraterrestrial rump, a host of obstacles stand in between you and your desired quota of test subjects (at least I figure they’re test subjects – what else do aliens want with cows?). Fences, gates, hedges, cliffs, pits, mud, tall grass, narrow bridges, and piles of poo are sprinkled liberally across the game’s many maps; sometimes avoiding them is simply a matter of skillfully steering, but most of the time, you’re going to have to take advantage of each animal’s particular ability. Chickens, for example, will fly for a short distance after jumping off a cliff, allowing them to fly over gaps and water. Get cows moving fast enough, and they’ll stampede, knocking down just about anything in their path, including fences and tall grass. Most animals won’t go anywhere near a steaming pile of poo, but pigs will happily roll around in it, clearing the way. The sheep, being made of wool, shrink when they get wet, which makes them tiny enough to slip under fences.
Flock does a fine job of easing you into the puzzle mechanics, introducing each animal and obstacle individually before throwing them all together into an agita-inducing mélange. Good thing, too, because the game does its best to frustrate you just about every other way it can. For starters, levels are timed. You can take as long as you like to finish, but you’ll have to get a shove on to have any hope of earning the gold, silver, or bronze medal bonus. Once you’re past the first few levels, getting a gold medal on your first run through is virtually impossible; you’ll use up most of your allotted time simply figuring out what to do. That’s one way of encouraging replay, I suppose.
Sometimes, levels just plain work against you. They’re all very cleverly designed, oftentimes relying on you to execute a specific series of events in order to succeed, and when it works, it’s a lot of fun. When it doesn’t, it’s agony. You might have to roll a boulder down a hill to push open a gate, for example, leaving the way open for your herd. If you don’t move fast enough, the gate swings closed and you have to do it again. Worse, if one of your animals moseys into the corner – which they love to do – they can get trapped behind the gate, unable to skirt around it, forcing you to wait for it to close, so you can re-roll the boulder. And just like that, what’s supposed to be fun becomes a chore. If moving your flock around was a wee bit easier, or if the gate stayed open longer or if the tractor beam on your ship worked better, it wouldn’t be such a hassle.
You can also simply run out of animals. If you fall short because too many of your sheep fell in the drink or into a pit (they are oh-so-cute, but ungodly stupid creatures), then too bad, you’re just going to have to start the level over again. It’s not such a big deal early on, when you’re only trying to capture a handful of animals, but it’s extremely aggravating in later levels that require you to collect several different species. Nothing will make you put your controller down faster than having to retry a particularly grueling level because you’re one chicken shy of quota. Yet even with all of that, it’s tough to stay angry at Flock. It’s so smart, creative, funny, and cute that you want to keep playing it, even as it continually kicks you in the shins.
Bottom Line: Flock is as frustrating as it is charming, but has enough going for it to merit your attention. Besides, if the levels drive you nuts, you can always pay your aggravation forward by designing one of your own using the game’s editor.
Recommendation: Give the demo a try, if only to hear the little squeaky sound the sheep make as they run along.