Call me crazy, but I've been playing Flower, Sun, and Rain on my DS while traveling for the last few days. Let me be clear: this is not a good game. Or maybe I should say it's not a successful game. It's an interesting game, to be sure, and well worth playing if you're crazy like me; but I can't dispute the dismissive critical response it received. Among the Metacritic nuggets of negativity: "muddled," "a patience-trying acquired taste," "much too confusing to enjoy," "painfully tedious" and "Proof that not even bona fide geniuses like Suda51 get it right every time."
I take issue, however, with Worth Playing's contention that "There is absolutely no reason to buy, rent or even think twice about this game." I say Flower, Sun, and Rain is certainly worth your time...but only if, like me, you're willing to accept the idea that Goichi Suda (aka Suda 51) is an artist whose oeuvre merits critical attention. In my view, the former undertaker with a scatological bent and a dozen writer/director credits under his belt is an artist under any definition of the term we can apply. He has amassed a body of work with clear evidence of thematic and stylistic continuity. All that's required to appreciate it is taking the time to look.
We rarely consider game designers in this way. I realize the collaborative nature of game development makes it difficult to assign authorship to a single person, but for over a decade Suda's vision has been the primary creative force behind Grasshopper Manufacture. His games bear an unmistakable stylistic signature and a near-compulsive preoccupation with certain themes. What's more, we can trace the trajectory of his work from early drafts and sketches to later, more mature work where seeds planted earlier finally bear fruit.
As I've noted in the past, I consider No More Heroes a game of surpassing quality - a rare example of coherent audacity in a medium defined by conformity. If you happen to share my admiration for that game - or if you simply enjoy tracing an artist's maturation through his work - you will greatly enhance your understanding and appreciation of No More Heroes by tracing its roots. Obvious gameplay differences aside, nearly everything Suda tried to accomplish in that game can be found seven years earlier in Flower, Sun, and Rain.
FSR wasn't Suda's first game (he wrote and/or directed three previous titles), but it's the game that clearly functions as the turning point in his career; the game where Suda found his voice. Like the games that followed, FSR is a sonic and low-res visual barrage of mod art, pop culture, and oblique narrative, with Suda peeking from behind the fourth wall to laugh at his own jokes. When the game makes you do mundane tasks, its hero Sumio Mondo wonders aloud why anyone would put up with such a game.
Suda's fingerprints are all over this game. Lucha Libre makes its first appearance in FSR as "El Crasher." Action movie titles (often skewed) are referenced throughout the game. Quirky stylish cutscenes serve little purpose aside from establishing the hero's detached coolness. Suda's fondness for featuring long narrow roads and passages; lean and lanky men, character intros as set pieces; motels as featured locales; twisted-comic enigmatic villains; punk/modernist subculture elements, and a general predilection for ambiguity - all appear prominently in FSR, as they do in Killer 7, No More Heroes (and its forthcoming sequel), and to a somewhat lesser extent Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked.
But as we've seen with other artists, early experiments often fail, and FSR is full of such missteps. It's as if the artist knows which tools he wants to use, but hasn't yet figured out the form his piece should take. LIke Seurat's preliminary sketches for Sunday on La Grande Jatte (seen above), tone and subjects are present, but he hasn't yet found his composition or signature brushstroke.
In FSR, Suda's style is forming, but he's trapped in a self-limiting mystery adventure genre that doesn't suit him. As an interactive experience - as a game - Flower, Sun, and Rain is drudgery; a repetitive and unrewarding series of puzzle challenges that even Suda himself seems uninterested in developing. But as an experience, FSR is vintage deconstructed Brechtian 'punk's not dead' Suda. It will try your patience, but Suda delivers enough gems along the way to make the journey worth taking.
Watching an artist discovering his voice can be an illuminating and even rewarding process. If such a thing appeals to you - and especially if you're a fan of Suda 51's work - it's quite possible you'll find your trip to the Flower, Sun, and Rain Hotel well worth the bumpy ride.Note: review excerpts are for the DS version of Flower, Sun, and Rain, a faithful remake of the PS2 original.