So we're a little late with this review of Flower, Sun and Rain, but cut us some slack, interpreting and attempting to understand a Suda51 game takes some time (plus some patience). Since we're a bit late, and it's damn near impossible to find the game despite the fact that it only came out about a month and a half ago we (and by we I mean I) have decided to offer up a critique and not a review.
What is the difference? Mostly semantics, but let's roll with it anyway. A critique delves further into a game than a review does. A review is put out in order to express the quality of the game, a critique is made in order to discuss the game. In that light it's probably best for any of Suda51's games, and possibly especially Flower, Sun and Rain, to be critiqued instead of reviewed for quite often they're more about themes, art, gaming and life than anything else and completely eschew gameplay and story in order to "say something." With this being said hit the jump to not find out if Flower, Sun and Rain is worth your hard earned money and instead learn all about the real meaning behind it. I will also warn you that there are some spoilers plot wise.
Flower, Sun and Rain (Nintendo DS)
I can tell you right now, without having to make you scroll down to the bottom middle of the critique, that Flower, Sun and Rain is a 3. As a "game" it sucks in almost every aspect you can consider in the traditional sense of reviewing a game. It's also an Editor's Choice. Despite this not being a review of the game I'm going to tell you why it's so bad so that I may then go on to more easily explain why it is worthwhile. Where to start...
Background info is always a good place to start and is neither negative nor positive, but only informative. Flower, Sun and Rain is a DS port of a 2001 Playstation 2 game and was Grasshopper Manufacture's second outing. The port features new touch screen controls and a "Lost and Found System" which gives the player some extra puzzles to solve each day. At its base Flower, Sun and Rain is a point-and-click adventure game of sorts. Players take control of Sumio Mondo, a searcher, who has been called to LosPass Island by the owner of Hotel Flower, Sun and Rain, Edo Malicaster, in order to solve the mystery of a group of terrorists who are going to blow a plane up. Well, actually they do blow the plane up -- multiple times.
Things get a little weird as they are wont to do when Suda51 is around. I don't want to give too much away as figuring out the plot might be one of the only things that keeps you trucking through the game if you aren't into the themes discussed later, but it turns out that LosPass (Lost Past without the "t") Island is stuck in a time warp and Mondo must relive the same day over and over until he solves the mystery. Unfortunately for him every day a new problem with a guest or resident of the hotel arises and he must "search" for the answer for them before moving on. The cast of characters Sumio must help range from a buxom babe in a black bikini to a professional wrestler trying to get his edge back to an old man doing calisthenics in a tutu, to a metaphysical little brat who keeps breaking the fourth wall by pointing out the many loopholes and inconsistencies within the game. Players also get to control a female character, Toriko Kusabi, in between Sumio's days as she chases her pink alligator. More on that later.
Right now you're probably raising your hand with questions about time travel, but it's best to ignore them and try not to be too confused by it. This is because the greatest crime of confusion the game commits is not time travel, but the fact that some of the characters are from the previous Suda51 game called The Silver Case, which no one outside of Japan has had the chance to play. Despite this they show up and pretend like you should understand who they are and where they come from. While many of Grasshopper Manufacture's games include references to past characters Flower, Sun and Rain depends on you knowing them to understand some of its story. Of course the game is so full of double-speak and confusing dialog that one probably wouldn't realize this was an issue anyway, unless it was pondered on for about a month and a half. Thankfully, the plot of the actual game has far less to do with telling a story and far more to do with expressing ideas. More on that later, however.
As for the gameplay, it is seriously lacking. Sumio is a searcher by trade (people hire him to search for things) and thus has a tool he uses to search. This tool is a metallic briefcase/computer named Catherine that Sumio uses to jack into items/people in order to search for their inner truths. This is accomplished first by plugging the correct plug into the item (a task that is accomplished by randomly plugging in the nine different plug ends via the touch screen) once the option becomes available and then entering a combination of numbers, like a password. In an adventure game of this ilk one would find the clue by searching around the world and unlocking clues via items or conversation. In Flower, Sun and Rain all the answers -- every single one -- are given to you in the form of a island brochure at the beginning of the game.
This means that one could literally solve every "puzzle" in the game by looking in this book, doing some math problems or lateral thinking and then doing nothing else. It's not that easy though, but not in the good gameplay way, in the annoying "have to do tasks" way. In many instances players can't jack into their target until they have gotten a clue as to where the code is hidden in the notebook. Even for the blatantly obvious puzzles tasks must be completed, and these tasks mostly consist of running from one point to another and talking to someone, and by mostly I mean all of them consist of this. In fact the game takes a sadistic pleasure in making the player participate in routine and uninteresting gameplay. More on that later, however.
You'll also recognize a crap ton of similarities between No More Heroes and Killer 7, and not just the overarching themes of all of Suda51's games, but actual concrete things that he seems to like to use in all his games. The voices of characters, pixelated overlays and jarring sound effects all make an appearnce in Flower, Sun and Rain showing that Suda51 clearly had an artisitc vision from the get go. The protagonists are often the same as well, especially Travis Touchdown and Sumio Mondo, and the games themselves fallow much the same pattern of repeating actions over and over (for instance, Travis and Sumio both repeat the same morning routine every day). This speaks to many levels of overarching themes that are expressed all of Suda51's work. More on that later, however.
To tie up the rest of the game it should also be mentioned that the player gets to take control of a few other characters during the game (spoiler!), especially after Sumio dies. Also, the graphics are PS2 quality and even then on the down side and the music waffles from amazing to annoying, but every tune in it is an ambient arrangement (thanks for the verbiage Wikipedia) of classical compositions. In short, which is what this part was supposed to be, the game has crappy gameplay, a confusing story, bland graphics, odd music and controls that are so far from special you'd be unhappy to see them even if they were a suprise gift that arrived a week after your birthday.
This game is a flat out 3, you should really play it.
Overall Score: 3 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)
I refuse to believe that Suda51 is an idiot or a bad game designer. This is mostly because he makes the same "mistakes" in every game and those mistakes usually revolve around poor game design and almost always help to express his ideas. So why does a man who clearly understands what good gameplay and game design are create games that often prominently feature poor choices in both departments. It's because he's not simply making a game, but also making commentary, and mostly in a very reflexive way on the medium he is working in. For lack of a better way to describe it, Suda51 isn't making a game, he's making art. About now is when Jim starts making fun of me, right?
I could go on for hours about the meaning behind Suda51's games (ahem), but this is about Flower, Sun and Rain so we'll stick with that. So what does Flower, Sun and Rain really mean? It's about videogames, the characters in them, how we as players interact with our games and what "choice" in gaming really means. The true, and overarching meaning behind the game is to bring the player closer to the idea of what a game is and in doing so, confront many ideas in gaming that are often taken for granted like choice, life, obligation and why we play games. There's also some other really interesting ideas brought up. Let's discuss.
In any videogame you're presented with tasks and problems. By performing tasks you solve the problems. The game will send you out on a task and once that task is complete the game advances because the player can now solve the problem that was related to that task. We can call this routine tasking. Most, if not all, games try to hide tasking behind plot and creativity and gameplay because if a player realizes they're tasking it completely destroys the illusion of choice. However, in Flower, Sun and Rain tasking is stripped bare and gaming is called out on its little charade.
The game does this in a few different ways, the first being the character of Sumio Mondo, who, like Travis Touchdown or the "seven" from Killer 7 (possibly because they are actually different shells of the same character), represents the player themselves, not simply in a avatar-esque role as most game's characters represent the player, but acting as a metaphor for all gamers. In fact, the entire LosPass Island and all its inhabitants can be seen as a metaphor about what a videogame is and how we interact with it. Dissecting this metaphor completely needs to start with Sumio. He is a Searcher; his function in life is to search for the answer to things. Sumio completes all his searching through his computer Catherine. Sumio has a special connection with Catherine, and when he does wind up losing her he is almost helpless and in fact dies, much like any gamer would if they wound up losing their ability to interact with a game's world. Basically, Catherine is a representation of the console itself and thus is the only way that Sumio can truly affect the game world, just as the console is the only way we can affect the game world. In making Sumio so dependent and so attached to Catherine, Suda51 is creating a character that is as dependent on an electronic device to interact with his world as we are. It might seem odd within the context of the game for a man to be so attached to a metallic computer that looks like a suitcase, but extrapolating that idea out to the world of gaming makes Sumio seem completely sane when we consider how attached to our gaming systems we become and how absolutely necessary they are for us to interact with the worlds we want to place ourselves in.
Now that we see that Sumio is indeed connected to us through the way he interacts with the world we can take a look at the actions he does take within the world. Again, Sumio is a searcher. In fact he is so compelled to search that despite the fact that he knows a plane will blow up if he doesn't stop getting sidetracked by people's requests (every day ends with the plane's explosion after he has completed a sidequest) he still helps every person he comes across, even if it is blatantly obvious he could just walk around them (something the game gives much joy in showing off). Such is the fate of every playable gaming character and thus every player. Their and our goal is to "search" for the "answer" or to put it in more generalized terms "proceed" to the "end," whatever that "end" might be. In this way, at the most basic level, Sumio is a representation of us as gamers. Most often we progress through games without questioning the motives of what we're doing or without challenging the fact that we're literally tasking over and over again.
So what do we do when we game? Well, we basically repeat the same action under different circumstances, much like Sumio does every day when he wakes up. In fact as gamers we replay levels constantly, much like Sumio replays each day. Every day he wakes up and repeats the same actions, but with slight variances: find problem, solve problem, plane blows up. He doesn't realize he is living the same day over and over again until very late in the game when he is confronted with the fact that he is one of sixteen "clones" or memories of a character from The Silver Case -- a pleasant metaphor for the numerous amount of lives gaming characters often get and another way that Sumio represents the gamer as it is the player who played as the previous character in The Silver Case. Eventually it is revealed that every time a day ended a new Sumio came into being or in another way, every time the player failed at the game's goal he got another chance. It is even explained that the final Sumio is indeed a special one because he is destined to go on to another life, much as the gamer will at the end of the game. As gamers we play as different characters all the time and this is the game's representation of that. On a philosophical level it is a very interesting point to make that every time we play a game we are the same person, but the character has changed. Are we playing with he same character after we die or has a new representation of our self arisen? Are we simply "cloning" ourselves into different bodies over and over? The game's preoccupation with time and memory also raises the question of what happens to those characters we stop being when we stop being them. If we forget them do they still exist as characters since so much of what they do is under out control and through our input?
I don't have the answer for those questions here so let's move back towards the ways in which Sumio works as a metaphor for the player and gamers in general, and thus allows the game to function as a commentary on how and why we game. Sumio's perception is never anything outside of what the player sees. He is in fact tripped every morning by a character hiding under the bed, but since the player never sees this fact until near the end (the screen always fading to black after Sumio falls) Sumio doesn't realize it either. His world, the world of the game, fades to black as well. Throughout the game the player never knows why Sumio falls over every time he gets out of bed in the morning despite the fact that the reason is something that would be blatantly obvious if there was any choice to see it. Our view is completely controlled by what the game shows us and since Sumio is us he knows just as much. This is one of the many ways that the game confronts and dismisses the idea of true choice in gaming. Players, outside of discovering a glitch, are only shown what they are meant to see. We may have control within walls that have been constructed, but they are still walls. By keeping Sumio as in the dark as the player is even to very obvious things Suda51 is beginning to point out the falacy of true choice in gaming.
Which brings us to the main gist of the metaphor for the game. Sumio has no control over what he is doing, everything is laid out before him. He is given the solution to all of the puzzles at the beginning of the game in the form of the guide book handed to him by the hotel owner, Edo. In fact it is the hotel owner who directs and motivates Sumio in every direction, acting as a blatant motivator for almost every action he takes. Thus it can be seen that Sumio is not simply a character in a game, but a metaphor for us, the gamer, as we enter games believing we are making our own fate but are actually nothing without the motivation to move forward by the NPCs and enemies in the game. Sumio is gaming stripped bare and LosPass Island is simply a place where tasking occurs and tasking is not something we choose to do. We task, much like Sumio, simply because the challenge was laid before us. Then, once done with that task, we task again. Flower, Sun and Rain confronts what a videogame is by presenting a game's parts without any gloss over it. It's confronting gamers about why we game and what pushes us forward to complete what are essentially virtual goals.
For instance, at one point in the game the player (and thus Sumio) is tasked to run back and forth a great distance between two characters in order to send messages from one to another. Except the responses to each other make no sense and Sumio simply gets angrier and angrier as he has to run back and forth over and over. In any review this would be clearly sited as bad game design, but it isn't that simple. The insanely annoying bit of gameplay, which is metaphysically referred to by Sumio himself as annoying, is there not simply to test the players ability to run really far (a task already tested by that point in the game), but instead to express and confront in a very clear way that tasking is occurring. Sumio gets annoyed with the running, but he keeps on pushing on because he is a searcher and his purpose is to find the answer. On the other side of this is the player him/herself who finds themselves pushing on because they have been told to do so by the game. Eventually, if you're thinking deeper than just beating the game, this forces the player to connect with Sumio and thus simultaneously consider why he is pushing forward and hopefully once that line of thought is reached question why you push forward in any game.
If Sumio is a representation of us as gamers, then his eventual death and revival in the game does raise some interesting points as well. Sumio's death isn't about the player though, it's about the entire metaphor of LosPass Island. If Sumio is the gamer then LosPass Island is gaming. Sumio's death and eventual revival is at the hands of Sandance Shot, who it later turns out is one of the 16 clones of the character from The Silver Case. To reestablish what was explained before, each "clone" is actually one of the lives that the player used during each day and each clone is now considered a resident of the island. This also makes Sandance Shot a representation of the many lives gamers live. Why would a player ever be an antagonist though (even when you're the bad guy in a game, you consider yourself in the right in some way, which is yet another interesting philosophical discussion). Well, it isn't as clear cut as that.
See it eventually turns out that LosPass Island was actually an artificial island created by some rich people to breed special hyenas and also make clones like Sumio is. The hyenas had silver eyes that when placed in the socket of a person would give that person immortality and some other awesome powers like time control. Sandance Shot and another character named Tokio Morishima (also from The Silver Case) have these eyes. Turns out that the hotel manager wanted to blow up the island so people can't make hyenas anymore and that the "natives" of the island like Sumio will no longer exist because immortality and multiple lives are a bad thing. Sandance on the other hand has been putting the bomb on the plane every day in order to make sure the island doesn't blow up. If we take the island as a metaphor for gaming in general this means that Sandance was actually on our side the entire time, attempting to give us, the player, the lives we expect from gaming while Edo, an NPC, saw immortality and multiple lives (something all players have in games) as an evil, which would make sense if you described the power a player has outside of the contexts of a game.
At the end of the game, which you can see above, Sandance Shot loses his silver eye and the island does blow up. How is this OK for the player though? Doesn't that mean our immortality has been removed and our ability to move on to another game reneged? Not according to Sandance's final speech, which explains that this Sumio we are playing with is the one that was fated to move forward and pass the story on. Once again tying the game back into the idea that we as gamers don't have a choice in where a character is going or who we end the game with. It was of curse fated from the beginning that this Sumio would be the one to complete the game, that this "life" of the player would be the one that did it just as it is in any game. Once we reach that "life" we can move on to the next game as Flower, Sun and Rain finally lets us do once we reach the "fated" moment.
In the end the island does eventually blow up as Sumio flies off. That game, it's lives and the player's immortality in this context wiped away. We as players are once again a blank slate, able to literally jump back into any Sumio Mondo we so desire during any day thanks to the now open day request menu. Sumio (the player) can move on to somewhere else, though it's clear that Suda51 wants that somewhere else to be his next game given the cliffhanger ending.
There is one more major subject that needs to be broached before concluding and that is Toriko Kusabi, a highschool aged girl, who the player takes control of in between each day. If Sumio is the player then who is she and why does the player get to take control of her? First off it has to be understood that gameplay with Toriko consists of walking somewhere and talking to someone. Her part of the game are more of an interactive cutscene of sorts. Her parts also are one step behind Sumio. Wherever he goes in a day she goes after him while chasing her pink alligator. She then interacts with whatever character Sumio just helped out with his searching skills (the player's tasking).
It is also revealed later that Toriko believes that Sumio is the island's and the people of LosPass's savior. Because of this she is the one who strikes a deal with Sandance Shot to bring Sumio back to life after Sandance shoots him, which is a form of Suicide for Mondo. In fact, throughout the entire game Sumio has been knocking himself off by not stopping the plane from exploding, and Toriko follows his death and leads into his rebirth. Because of this, and her belief that he is the savior of the natives of LosPass (who represent gamers in general since Sumio is one of them) it seems that Toriko is a representation of the players want to live through a game and complete it. The bargain she strikes with Sandance to bring Sumio back to life is that if Sumio can find Sandance (thus stopping the bomb) then she wins, if not he wins. In other words, if the player can beat the game than their desire to complete all the tasks wins and if he can't then the life of the player within the game world and all the memories their play has built stop there. It is important to understand that Toriko doesn't care if the island is destroyed or not, but if Sumio can move on and thus complete the memories and leave the island himself. Only in that way can the natives of LosPass (the many lives of gamers) move on to more lives.
So what is the point? That's a lot of deep thoughts without much reason for them and I barely scratched the surface here as a serious thesis could be composed on this game alone. If you're looking at it from a "game" point of view then you're absolutely right, there is no point to Flower, Sun and Rain other than to put you through your paces. However, art doesn't need to have a point it needs to have a meaning and make you think. If you approach Flower, Sun and Rain from a philosophical and artistic perspective than you have a piece of art that raises questions about player identity, control and fate in a medium that rarely ever looks inwardly at itself and asks what what it is doing means.
It is also interesting to note that after playing Flower, Sun and Rain it has become clear that all of Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51's games have a unifying theme that connects them. This is especially apparent in the company's game's protagonist, who, as noted above, almost always function as a metaphor for gamers (a nice nod to this is the fact that the DS version of Flower, Sun and Rain let's you play in a Travis Touchdown outfit). There stories might be completely different (with some repeat characters), but the artistic ideas and metaphors behind Suda51's games are constantly speaking to the deeper meanings behind gaming. However, I need to stop here as another wall of text below this one will actually obliterate the post. Possibly a great disccusion for after No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle lands.
THE VERDICT - Flower, Sun, and Rain
Reviewed by Matthew Razak