With the sound of sheep “baaing” out of the speakers of the DualShock 4, close your eyes and you might imagine that you’re taking a leisurely walk around the Welsh mountainsides. Sadly, you’re not. You’re playing Flockers, the first new I.P. from Worm’s veteran developer Team17 in over 10 years, which is, in fact, far less relaxing than a pleasant countryside stroll. Indeed, if you do close your peepers for more than a few seconds, the likelihood is that your flock of fluffy lambs will be lying in a pool of blood when you open them.
From this introduction, it may sound like Team17 has come up with a brand new idea for its latest franchise, shaking off the shackles of its Worms franchise which has spawned more artillery-firing strategy games (20+ to be precise) than I’ve had McDonalds. Well, it hasn’t. In fact, it’s very much like Lemmings, the popular puzzle-platformer that Team17 ported to PSP in 2006; with a few ideas from the Worms series thrown in for good measure.
Gameplay involves guiding a flock of sheep towards an exit point. With the sheep continuously on the move, and numerous obstacles that slice, dice and impale them in the way, the goal is to manage this with as many survivors as possible, as fast as possible. Like Lemmings, players can alter the environment and trigger a variety of abilities to help the sheep along the way. The more sheep you get to the exit, the more points you gain and the higher you rank on the online leaderboards.
Though the concept is practically identical to Lemmings, Flockers has a much more sinister tone than the cutesy, colourful world of suicidal rodents. Set in a murky, steampunk environment full of meat cleavers, spinning saw blades and contraptions that will make mincemeat of the sheep should they make one false move, Flockers is actually a little bit on the violent side; though seeing an overgrown ball of wool flung into the air and landing on a set of spikes, or getting chopped into lamb cutlets by a whirring blade, is admittedly quite amusing.
Of course, the aim is to get them all to the end in one piece which is done by using numerous abilities which can be unlocked by collecting coloured crates dotted around each level. There’s a range of different block formations (which is a bit unimaginative) that can be used to create steps so that sheep can climb on top of each other to reach another level, or you might use a single block to stop the path of a moving sheep so that he can trigger a switch. You can also make them jump, run up walls, and explode. Getting through each level requires careful use of some or all of the abilities, planning ahead by scouring the environment and making quick decisions on the best way to save them and get them past the deadly traps. With only a handful of abilities on offer, it lacks variety, but excellent level design ensures that there’s always a new challenge to face.
With 60 levels on offer that grow in difficulty with more elaborate traps and complicated paths to navigate, gameplay gets more intense as you progress. This increasingly difficult challenge occasionally turns into frustration with inevitable death and a trial-and-error approach needed to get through levels with any degree of success. Nevertheless, I found that “one-more-go” attitude kicking in and gained a pleasant feeling of satisfaction at mastering some tricky courses.
As levels get more complicated, you’ll see the likes of gravity inverters that allow your sheep to walk upside down, warp portals that send them to another place on the map, and multiple routes that can be taken to search for collectibles. Indeed, Flockers is full of ideas that I’ve seen before in the Worms’ series, but fans of Team17’s work should get a buzz out of its pick-up-and-play appeal and enjoy slipping into the strategic mind-set that’s needed to save all the sheep.
With long loading times in between levels, the instantly-familiar concept, and a stunted range of abilities, Flockers doesn’t quite hit the spot in terms of entertainment value, but once again Team17 has managed to reuse and rejig old material into a semi-addictive formula. The fact that I found myself silently screaming “nooooooooo!” when one or more sheep died in such a gruesome manner, and found myself replaying levels over and over in order to get my fluffy lambs safely to the exit, speaks volumes. Despite its shortcomings, Flockers offers a challenge that is ultimately hard to put down.