Review: Flowerworks (WiiWare)

Gardening and fireworks combine in an orgy of floral destruction!

Normally, flower gardens and fireworks don't mix - unless you're trying to destroy the neighbour's petunia beds with roman candles - but Aussie developers Nocturnal have managed to turn what could have been a horticultural nightmare into a fun, happy game about making pretty (explosive) gardens.

At its heart Flowerworks is a puzzle game wherein the object is to grow flowers from seeds which then explode into fireworks (they're alien flowers so it all makes sense, almost) and of course get the highest score possible in the process. If that was all there was to the game it would be nice enough, but what makes the game even better is the Adventure Mode which connects the levels together through a narrative whilst adding new features to the basic gameplay.

You're put in control of Follie, a green plant-like alien who is on a trip to her Grandma's planet or something and crash-lands on an alien world. The seeds she was bringing are scattered everywhere and she's stranded, but she's more concerned with the state of the native foliage than figuring out how to leave. Planting the seeds to beautify the surroundings becomes her new mission in life and this is achieved by collecting seeds and playing game levels to plant them and transform the world.

The game world is a nice green affair with a few flowers here and there, but definitely in need of touching up with non-native species (you'd think an Australian developer would know better!). There are clearly-marked paths as a guide, though you can move more or less where you like. Moving through the world is the weakest aspect of the game: you can use the (DPAD), but the screen scrolls rather jerkily and it's slow. The intended method is moving around a cursor with the pointer and clicking (A). This smoothly scrolls the screen and puts Follie wherever you were pointing - even around corners if the distance isn't too great. You can also pull up a map screen by pressing (+), click on a marked area, and then click the "Teleport" button to transport Follie there instantly. For quick level replays, simply click levels on the map and click the "Play" button - though you will have to be able to access areas normally before you can use these short-cuts.

The game world is quite large and there are a few inhabitants to meet in the form of friendly foliage who will sell you game-changing power-ups in exchange for found coins, and unfriendly gnomes who will block your path until you've earned enough "Star Power" to "pacify" them. Star Power is earned by playing game levels. The lowest scores will earn one star, but each level has up to five stars to earn - if you can score enough points to make the grade. The gnomes each have a star rating written on their hats (though you can also view this by standing next to them or by pointing at them on the map) and when you've earned enough to pacify them you can walk over and do so. The gnomes never speak, so it's not clear if Follie's view of them as hostile living things is just in her mind or not. If not, the act of "pacifying" them by burying them alive with a few Remote shakes seems a bit extreme!

In each of the areas you you'll find a few game levels, and in order to play these you need different coloured seeds. In the game world these are large, rainbow-coloured objects, but each represents one or more seeds of different colours: red, blue, purple, yellow and so on; more seeds are earned after a level is completed. The game levels themselves are large glowing circles which you move Follie into. If she has the required number and colour of seeds then you can start play.

The game is played initially using the pointer and (A) and (B) buttons. Using the pointer the player moves Follie about the screen. She starts out placing the seeds into depressions in the ground and then the game starts proper with little coloured shapes floating up from the bottom of the screen. These are "pollen" bits which you collect to "feed" the flowers (alien plants, remember?) so they can grow and explode. You feed the flowers by simply clicking (A) after collecting the pollen, which is as easy as touching it with Follie. She can hold only one kind of pollen initially and can carry more than one piece at a time. If you touch a different colour you'll dump what you're already carrying, so careful pointer use will be required on levels with multiple colours and a lot of pollen on-screen. If the level has two or three flowers (which becomes the norm after the first one) then you need to ensure you're feeding all of them rather than focusing on one at a time. Once a flower is big enough to bloom it will start a countdown towards the level end; if the timer runs out on a flower before all have bloomed it's "Game Over." If you neglect a flower after it starts growing it will begin to wilt and shrink; if it shrinks away completely, it's also "Game Over."

When Follie is near a flower she automatically targets it and a box is placed around the flower with a faint line connecting Follie to it, and pollen will ride down it when (A) is pressed. This focus will shift automatically as you move Follie across the screen which can be a bit annoying if the required colour is on the opposite side of the screen from the matching flower; if you send the wrong colour pollen to a flower it doesn't do anything but pop-up a "?" in a word balloon. You can lock focus by pressing and holding (A) - this causes the connecting line to glow brighter - and then switch it to another flower with a click of (B). If this is all you do then you can certainly beat the levels, but you'll end up with a pretty rubbish score and you'll never be able to access many levels of the game because of those pesky gnomes.

The strategy you need to master is hitting other pollen when you send pollen to the flowers, which causes them to turn into fireworks and send more pollen streaming to the flowers. This not only racks up the big points but also helps grow flowers without the need for endless re-targeting of them (it's also nice to see because it's so pretty). You can hit multiple pollens at once, giving you bonus points for combos and releasing bonus bubbles which sink off-screen, but can be juggled by hitting them from below with Follie. Bubbles will also burst into fireworks just like pollen, and as with pollen the further away from them you are, the higher they burst and the more points they're worth. If you hold (A) to lock your focus any pollen or bubbles crossing your path will flash, indicating they can be hit by fired pollen if you release (A) and press it again. Once you've got your head around this mechanic, Flowerworks reveals its true colours, with addictive and strategic gameplay belying its cutesy aesthetics.

In the course of playing you can purchase more abilities from the friendly-but-greedy natives, such as being able to collect more pollen (you start out with a capacity of three), combine pollen colours and set off your own fireworks from pollen being carried. It helps keep the game fresh and creates additional motivation to explore for coins and characters to chat with. Records are kept of all your conversations as well as the help notes you find scattered about. There's even a tutorial to show you how to play (though it does a surprisingly minimal amount of hand-holding, requiring you to read help screens just to complete it!) and four profile slots for various players to have their own games going at once. If you feel things are too tough or too easy you can just change the difficulty level (along with the usual volume levels) from the options menu. If you want a quick game with a limited ability set, there's a "quick play" mode where you can just pick a difficulty level and get started, but the Adventure mode is a lot more fun and engaging.

The game has a clean cartoony look with background objects like trees and shrubs looking like 2D cutouts standing up from the vibrant green fields of the world. The gnomes look like photos from a book and are quite striking; the original character designs are cute and engaging. After finishing a level the surrounding area transforms (in a manner reminiscent of De Blob) with the degree of transformation depending upon the star level of your performance. It's a nice touch that fits in well with the narrative of the game and adds further incentive to better your score.

The sounds effects are nicely done with what sounds like real baby cries when Follie gets frustrated by gnomes blocking her path initially, fireworks explosions and the rumble of gnomes being buried ali... sorry, pacified. The background music is a subtle ambient electronic which is fitting and unobtrusive and nicely completes the package.

Conclusion

Flowerworks is the kind of thing we like to see on WiiWare: it's a bit goofy, cute and colourful and a lot of fun. If you take the time to get the hang of things you too can find that fireworks and flowers go great together!