Flowing Lights is a throwback with a twist. This indie “arcade puzzle shooter” tries to walk in a lot of worlds. It’s a classic shoot ‘em up or “shmup” but uses an undulating geometric landscape and physics based gameplay to subvert that straight line of fire standard, meaning your bullets and all your alien enemies bullets literally twist and slide around in a sort of vaporwave style desolate neon world. But Flowing Lights doesn’t rest on its laurels with unique bullet bending gameplay alone, instead adding puzzle elements that make it more than a game where lightning reflexes reign.
In Flowing Lights, you’ll be flying your neon purple, manta ray style ship straight ahead of you into a hilly, soft world that reminds me of a roller rink with carpeted neon walls or a laser tag arena. There’s no real features except for the changing shapes of the landscape, many of which are obstacles you’re forced to figure out how to work around. Your ship’s not particularly fast or fancy, and the only moves you can make besides basic side to side and front to back motion is employ a small boost that’ll sometimes be enough to get you over a small hill in your path.
As far as weapons go, you’ll have a multi-projectile plasma cannon that fires quickly and constantly and a little later, as you progress, a weapon called the comet cannon. The comet cannon is an aimed projectile that you pull back in a sort of archer style windup–the further back you pull, the more punch your projectile packs. Progression is linear, literally, and gameplay is basically uninterrupted unless you want it to be. Each section is marked off by red barrier lines, which turn blue and become passable once you’ve defeated all the enemies in that zone. If you want to start over, you can simply go backwards and cross the line again to retry or select retry from the menu, and if you fail too often, you’re given the option of two bonuses to help–a bumper mode that bumps you harmlessly off projectiles and a bullet time bonus that slows down time so you can zip in and magically place projectiles in front of your enemies before they can react.
Playing Flowing Lights is an immersive experience. There’s not much to level design other than color and landscape shifts and level changes don’t feature any sort of barrier screens–you just sail from one to the next. The music is unobtrusive but also a little bland–I think the right soundtrack would’ve really put you in the zone a little more than the current one does, but coupled with the soft neon aesthetic is pleasant and almost zen. I found myself comparing it to playing Tetris Effect– you flow easily from one challenge to the next, with subtle color and environment changes– but I wish it pushed its aesthetic and vibe a little bit more.
For the most part, the game progresses in challenge without too many changes to the basic gameplay. Sometimes, you’ll have to fight the environment, and other times it works with you, helping bend bullets towards hard to reach enemies. If there’s anything I wished was a little more dynamic, it’s the boost your ship has. It looks like each area with its slopes and canyons will be a sort of sled hill experience, and while I think if taken too far it’d make the ship too hard to control, I almost felt it was a little too restrained in this case.
You can get boosts for your weapons by performing combos with the comet cannon, but combos are also required to pass certain areas, and are definitely necessary to get S or A rankings in a lot of cases. If you’re just looking to drift from zone to zone it’s not much of a problem, but to me other than the heavier feel of the ship, the comet cannon was a sticking point. Flowing Lights is pretty fast paced, and though there’s an option to slow things down a little in the Easy difficulty mode, the comet cannon is something I still struggled with even at reduced speed. Dodging, darting and sailing over obstacles (albeit with a little less oomph than I’d hoped for) was fun, but the cannon was finicky and clumsy, which seemed at odds with everything else Flowing Lights was trying to do. Drawing back costs a lot of time, and aiming even more so, but you need precision to pull off combos. I think if either the drawing back motion was not required or the tiered intensity mechanic was eliminated, it’d make the comet cannon a lot nicer to use in its environment, but as it is, a lot of my failures had to do with me not being quick enough on the cannon to hit something before it hit me, and I lost the chance for high rankings quickly whenever it was a cannon heavy challenge.
Overall, Flowing Lights succeeds in being unique. It’s not quite like anything I’ve played before, with a flow that keeps you immersed–and most of its mechanics add to that. While it doesn’t quite nail the vibe it’s going for as much as I’d like, it definitely has its own chill feel, and while challenging, it ramps up the challenges cleanly and allows for multiple attempts without too much punishment. There are some clunky mechanics and missed opportunities, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the neon thrills.
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