Is it a shooter? Is it a puzzle game? As a wise person probably once said: why not both? Flowing Lights sticks you in a cute little manta-ray spaceship and tasks you with taking out enemies using some pretty unique gravity mechanics and level geometry. With 200 levels to take on, it’s a long journey to the magnetic pole, but the hypnotic waves of bullets and lasers should keep you occupied for the duration – until they take out your ship, of course.
Story – One Hell of a Run-Up
Your spaceship has crashed on an alien planet where the gravity is too strong to take off, and you need to make your way to the magnetic north pole to be able to escape and head home. Along the way you’ll be pestered by the local laser-blasting wildlife, so make sure to get them before they get you.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that a game like Flowing Lights is fairly light on story. It trades a lot more on its gameplay and on its admittedly impressive aesthetics, and that’s fine. At the end of the day, who really remembers the story of a classic shmup like Ikaruga or your average puzzler anyway? So let’s have at it.
Gameplay – Gravity Depravity
Flowing Lights is an intriguing mix of vertical shooter and puzzle game, divided into discrete challenges in which you need to destroy all the enemies before moving on. So far, so shooty, but the game’s main gimmick is its inclusion of the planet’s gravity which warps the landscape, creating hills and pits, and curves the trajectory of your bullets accordingly. As such, most of the puzzles are set up in such a way that a head-on approach just won’t do the trick: instead, you’ll have to utilise the landscape to bend your shots towards the enemies, all while dodging incoming fire and trying to stay alive.
It’s a novel concept, and the main controls are relatively simple to highlight the puzzle-y nature of the levels and keep things from becoming too bloated. You have your normal gun which shoots in a straight line ahead of you, a heavier cannon that you can aim and release by pulling back on the analogue stick like a catapult, and a boost function to, hopefully, dodge out of the way of incoming bullets.
Enemies, meanwhile, will be doing their best to explode your trusty little spaceship. Green bullets will only damage you, while orange ones will damage you and knock you back, potentially derailing your carefully-laid plans. Some enemies will only shoot sporadically, but others will fire off long lines of bullets, sweeping across the level in waves and forcing you to hone those dodge instincts and find a way around them. Extra lives are awarded for attaining an A or S rank in a level, so sometimes deliberately taking a bullet in the pursuit of a good score is a viable strategy too.
With an impressive 200 levels to work through, players will have their work cut out for them getting through the challenging puzzles. But there’s variety enough present in each challenge: even small and subtle tweaks to the layout of a particular level can drastically change its solution. An extra gravity well here, an extra cluster of enemies there: particularly late in the game, you may find yourself spending considerable time sitting just in front of the starting line, figuring out your best route through the level.
That, in fact, is part of the issue with Flowing Lights. When you’re in media res in a given level, the game seems to want to prioritise speed and somewhat frantic shoot-em-up action: your ship already moves pretty swiftly, and better rankings are earned in part by beating them quickly. However, this sometimes feels a little bit at odds with the game’s puzzling side. In order to work out how to beat a level, you’re often going to want to sit and just look at it for a while, which is much more difficult to do when there are bullets coming at you from all directions and nowhere to sit and gather your thoughts.
However, if you can find a spot out of the line of fire and you’re not bothered about getting a good score, there’s no actual time limit on a level. This means you can theoretically spend as long as you want considering the lay of the land. On top of that, a small suite of accessibility and difficulty options can help lessen the frustration too. As well as three distinct difficulty levels, there are also ‘training’ options which stop bullets from harming you (though they’ll still knock you back) and provide a kind of ‘bullet time’ mechanic whenever they get near you to give you more time to react.
You may well still die a lot, but each level is pretty short and there’s almost no waiting or loading before you can get back in the game. Levels are also skippable, and you can go back to any previous challenges and try for a better score easily from the main menu.
Setting aside the warring genre expectations, there are still a few other nagging hitches with Flowing Lights. For example, some of the shooting feels like it was designed with a keyboard and mouse in mind rather than the Switch’s Joy-Cons. In particular, the aimed heavy shot is tricky to line up properly with an analogue stick while also dodging enemy fire, and it seems like a mechanic that would benefit far more from the precision of a mouse. A control sensitivity slider in the options menu goes some way to help alleviate this, and the Switch’s D-pad can be used for more granular movements, but it still never quite sat comfortably for me, particularly in the heat of battle.
The UI, too, is not particularly readable: part of this is down to everything being scaled down with the Switch in handheld mode, but the game likes to alternate between cryptic symbols and wordy descriptions to explain mechanics and objectives which, again, doesn’t feel in keeping with a fast-paced shoot-em-up game, even one with puzzle elements.
Above all, the most jarring thing was some not-insignificant performance issues. Freezes and stuttering, especially after completing a level, were commonplace. I even experienced a full-on crash early on after finishing the very first level, before things even started to get particularly chaotic. It’s a shame, because it’s not necessarily an intrinsic problem with the game, but definitely with this version of the game. If you can, it’s probably worth trying it out on PC rather than the Switch version. Between the controls and the performance, it’s likely to be the better bet, although I’m sure a patch for the Switch version is being worked on too.
Graphics and Audio – Trippy, Man
The visual style of Flowing Lights is undoubtedly one of its big selling points. Even the game’s name makes reference to the cool and mesmerising play of coloured bullets and lasers across the screen. The whole thing almost has a kind of Tron vibe to it, though with more of a sunset colour palette with its rich reds and oranges and deep dark blues (later levels have slightly different colour schemes of their own). Lingering on the opening screen or sitting on the other side of the starting line for a particular level watching the, well, flowing lights feels almost meditative, like watching one of those old Windows screensavers. You know, the ones with the endless pipes and stuff.
The music is a good match to the ambience of the game, too. The atmospheric, electronic fare has hints of the likes of later Metroid games and Mass Effect, calling to mind a particular sort of 80s sci-fi mood. It fits well and flows around the action nicely, never venturing too far into the foreground but offering a little bit of auditory depth to proceedings nevertheless.
Flowing Lights was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a review code provided by Evolve PR.