Ah, the French: they do have a way with video games. Think Fahrenheit and Beyond Good & Evil; think Arx Fatalis and Another World. Think Michael Jackson: The Experience and… actually, let’s scratch that last one from the record.
Point is, I’d hazard only the French could have come up with a game like Fly’N, a side-scrolling platform puzzler with overtones of Rayman (another French title). And I mean that in the very best of ways. You see, Fly’N is the sort of game that has a button dedicated solely to chirping – and a visual style plucked straight from the stylised wet dream of a graphic designer.
Fly’N sees you take control of four criminally adorable creatures fashioned, I bet, from equal parts goldfish, sparrow and cat purr. They’re called “Buds”, and they’ve been created to stop a spacefaring, garbage-collecting hair dryer (yep) by the name of Dyer, who is making off with the mystical sap – dubbed “Helys” – produced by the four World Trees of Helycia.
To make matters worse, he’s covering the trees in toxic garbage and heckling the locals. That’s hair dryers for you, I guess.
Each of the gradually unlocked Buds has a special skill, and you’ll need to bring them all to bear in the end to conquer the puzzles, gauntlet runs and boss battles that block your way through 40 or so outrageously pretty levels.
And no mistake: this game is gorgeous. The world feels painted on, and the characters are so endearing that it’s hard not to feel protective over them. Coupled with the music, which haunts its way through many a minor chord, it’s all rather touching.
Amid the scarpering and double-jumping about, the game revolves around a couple of central quirks. The first involves collecting Helys and injecting the gravity-defying sap into inanimate objects, usually to unblock a passageway or activate a lift. The other involves switching between two types of vision – “Innate” and “Subtle”; what you can see, collect and use as a platform often depends on which type you’re in.
It might sound a bit confusing, and believe me it’s a bastard to explain with any justice, but the game does a good job of holding your hand (although there are a few minor things that require a bit of guesswork). Before long it’s all second nature, and you lapse into a happy trance. Until it gets hard.
In particular the gauntlet runs, in which you race a rising tide of junk, soon turn into harrowing sprints and quick-clicking acts of agility through a field bristling with lethality. They’re good, frustrating fun in their own right, but the frenetic play feels somewhat at odds with Fly’N’s principal appeal, and indeed the game offers to ease up if you die once too many.
Ditto on the boss battles, which are split into two sections. In the first, you have to fight one of Dyer’s death-dealing machines; once disabled, you enter and deactivate it by reclaiming the Helys from its inner mechanisms via the tried and trusted method of swearing until you bloody well get it right.
Again, the boss-slapping bits are fun, but feel crowbarred in, somehow obligatory, and they dispel some of the bubbling charm the game works so hard to build. None of this is helped by the odd patch of inexplicable slowdown, or the irritation of repeating a segment for the umpteenth time because the checkpoints are too far apart.
While I still have the heart to complain, I’ll point out that parts of the game do feel ever so slightly rushed. The otherwise spot-on graphics are occasionally roughed up by artefact, and I was forced to restart a level a few times because my Bud had got stuck behind a checkpoint.
But these are not game-breaking issues. Fly’N is fun and substantial – completionists will have a trying time ticking every last collectable off the list, and the title is positively obese with secrets, bonus levels and unlockable content.
Rising above all of that, this is a beautiful game that manages to be both heartening and melancholy at once. Fly’N contrasts a sense of unbridled cheer with an element of sadness to achieve a surface gloss of innocence and an undercurrent of fragility and loss. Seriously.
The game may not be as cohesive as it could be, but those who have a soft spot for the whimsical (along with blazing reflexes to match) are sure to find something to fall in love with.
Get it on Steam for a paltry $9.99.