April 25, 2015 Leave a comment
In Flem you play as a green clump of either phlegm, snot, or a booger. It sounds gross, but really, it’s just a round ball with two eyes and no other characterization. It could be Kirby’s less-gifted Irish cousin Patrick O’Flem and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. So I don’t get why they took the bodily fluid angle with the game. None of the mechanics feel faithful to the concept. Mucus is sticky, so the inherit ability to cling to surfaces or walk up walls or anything would have been nice. There are two power ups. One of them lets you inflate and float around, and the other lets you launch forward. You’ll note that neither of these seem like abilities you would associate with stuff you cough up. Only the introductory level (and possibly a finale, I didn’t quite make it that far, though I made it a lot further than most people did before getting bored and quitting) has a setting that fits the idea. It takes place inside your nose, though it ends really quickly. What was the point? It seems slightly thoughtless. Some people will be turned off by the concept of playing as sentient phlegm just because, you know, ewwww. If you’re not going to embrace all-out grossness, why bother with the gross gimmick to begin with? That bugged me.
And actually, why is it called Flem when the game starts off inside a person’s nose? Phlegm is something coughed up from the lungs, not blown out of your nose. “Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum)” says Wikipedia. And it’s also typically brown, not green. Though if it were brown it might be confused with a sentient lump of shit. Which would be as nonsensical in the setting of the game as sentient phlegm is, since Flem’s developers didn’t take advantage of the idea at all. Okay, I’ll stop whining about that now.
Flem is a punisher. People wonder why I keep playing these when I typically don’t like them. Well, I do like some of them, and how else will I find the ones I like if I don’t try new ones that come across my desk? Nothing particularly sets Flem apart from other games in the genre. It feels pretty by-the-books, somewhat bland and uninspired. Stages are simple get from point A to point B fare, with no collectables to add additional challenge. In later stages, you’ll get power-ups that allow you to break through certain blocks, float, or pass through other blocks. Eventually you’ll have to switch between the powers. Stages are short, with the average complete time for them being under twenty seconds. Of course, you’ll die a lot on each level before completing it, and there in lies the problem.
With the exception of Spelunky (which hates you and wants you to suffer, with love), the best punishers are really at their best when you live instead of when you die. A lot of start-up indie devs creating punishers get too focused on the dying and the difficulty and not about why people put up with the trial and error to begin with. So instead of making levels designed around novel ways to survive, they just try to kill you a lot. Guys, that’s not really all that fun. Flem takes the “lowest possible margin of error” route for level design. Narrow pathways to victory, spikes above your head that will kill you if you jump your normal height, spikes that will snare you if you activate your dash move on the wrong part of a spot that requires you to use the dash, that kind of stuff. It does have a bit of unfairness too. There are little plant things that spit out projectiles that quickly rain down on you. Sometimes you can’t see the plants at all, but their ability to spit death upon you are still active. So you’ll get to a section and then die out of nowhere because you got killed by one of those projectiles that you had no possibility of avoiding once you see it and never had a chance to know it was coming. How on Earth is that supposed to be fun?
Of course, punishers live and die by their controls, and Flem’s aren’t precise enough to cut it. Jumping has a tinge of lag to it. In a game like this, just a tinge is the difference between fun and frustrating. Movement is fully digital too, which will inevitably lead to you heel-toeing your way through some stage. Check out this screen.
Look at how narrow those passages are. Flem is full of parts like that.
It really comes down to level design. Flem’s primary way of killing you is arranging spikes or enemies in such a way that just normal movement or the activation of an ability will kill you. Use your dash mechanic to clear a gap? Well, you didn’t use it on the right spot, so you die. This might be on me, but I never got a proper feel for judging jumping distance or how far the dash will carry you. Worst of all, movement and landing physics feel slippery. In the above screenshot, the ice setting is window dressing that doesn’t really affect gameplay. All movement in Flem is slightly slippery. Some platformers can get away with that without putting the enjoyability of the game in jeopardy. Punishers can’t. The player needs to feel they are fully in control of the character, one-to-one, you and it. Any control issues in a punisher become magnified, and that’s why it’s not all that fun.
I will say this: late in the game, the level design stops feeling generic. But, by then, you’ve slogged through so much been there, done gameplay that it’s not enough to redeem Flem. I went from being excited by acing a late stage on my first attempt to finally succumbing to boredom and quitting just a few stages away from the finish line. I actually don’t know who this was made for. Fans of punishers want and expect some kind of novel hook these days. There’s just too many games that do stuff like this. Even the novelty of playing as sentient phlegm is meaningless because the character doesn’t look or behave like it. It’s only what it is because the developers say it is. The only redeeming factor of Flem is that there’s nothing offensively awful about it. The game’s developers (total class acts) display a lot of potential here and I wouldn’t bet against them having a bright future. Solid neo-retro graphics, fleeting glimpses of inspired level design, and they’ve proven they can fix stuff that doesn’t work by patching out some earlier control issues. If you think I complained a lot above, you should have seen how frustrated I was before the latest patch. So there’s talent on display here. This is their first game as a team, and even if you have a lot of talent (and I think they might), first games often suck. Flem isn’t a good game. It’s bland, it’s boring, it’s unoriginal. That breaks my heart because I’m a big fan of phlegm. Why do you think I smoke so much? It ain’t for my health.
$5.39 (normally priced $5.99) noted that phlegm is sometimes green if you have the flu, but it begs the question, why didn’t they include power-ups known to increase phlegm’s potency? Flu, bacteria, cigarettes, etc in the making of this review.
A review copy of Flem was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. A full copy of Flem will be purchased by Cathy with her own money on April 28, 2015 when the game is released on Steam. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ. Update: the copy was purchased on April 29 and was 10% off. The purchase price was adjusted in the review.