Potato Flowers in Full Bloom Review (Switch)
Release Date: March 10, 2022
File Size: 203MB
Developer: Pon Pon Games
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First Person Dungeon Crawlers are an archaic subgenre, and one might wonder why any developer would choose to return to its mechanics in the modern era. In this reviewer’s opinion, one of the primary strengths of the First Person Dungeon Crawler is its ambiguity: the lack of detail and narrative allows players to fill in their own blanks and add character and gravitas to circumstances. That’s not the only appealing element, however. A first-person dungeon is a puzzle in itself, a set of paradigms and rules that the player must carefully circumvent. If you plan well enough, you can avoid traps, conserve resources, and overcome obstacles in order to push further, either incrementally or adventurously. The dungeon is a representation of progression itself that further enhances the accomplishment achieved from character growth.
Even so, the offering of First Person Dungeon Crawlers on the Switch has been somewhat meager. While there have been plenty of titles like Labyrinth of Refrain, The Lost Child, and Operencia offering their own twists on the concept, only a few exceptions have managed to embody the best traits of the subgenre. It might sound surprising to hear that an independent Japanese developer should put together such a delightful and smart title that utilizes smart quality of life choices in tandem with a strong and simple art style, but that’s just what Pon Pon Games have managed with Potato Flowers in Full Bloom.
Potato Flowers in Full Bloom (henceforth titled Potato Flowers) is a dungeon crawler in its purest sense: you navigate a grid-based series of environments in order to reach narrative checkpoints, with an overarching goal of recovering some cataclysm-resistant seeds to use as a food source from an old alchemic labyrinth. This isn’t the only location you’ll be visiting, though, and while most of the structures you’ll explore are stone-walled, catacomb-style affairs, each has its own gimmicks and encounters to consider. When exploring, you view the environment from a first person perspective, but battle pulls back to observe the entire square from a three quarters perspective. Even though these are the preset camera positions, you still have a bit of wiggle space while in first person perspective, and can freely turn the camera whichever way you’d like during combat.
These two elements of gameplay- exploration and combat- comprise the entirety of Potato Flowers, and it’s a good thing that both sides are straightforward while still featuring plenty of depth of mechanics. Players must manage health, stamina, and spirit throughout their dungeon crawl: health is a relatively flexible resource that refills after each completed battle, but every attack costs stamina due to the weight and complexity of weapons, so you’ll need to strategize and find the right opportunities to rest and replenish this resource, which is even depleted while blocking attacks.
This is a huge part of the ebb and flow of combat, further diversified by an impressive class system that allows for characters to operate in a variety of roles on the battlefield. Placing a strong knight at the forefront and pumping skill points into their shield and aggro abilities means that your middle and back position characters can fire off their own offensive abilities. What is all the more impressive is that this skill system is universal- you can observe the abilities of enemies and see that all of them operate by the same rules.
Spirit is the most limited resource next to lantern-light, which means that no matter how far you explore the world, you’ll eventually run out of energy to execute your strongest attacks and light by which you can view your map. It’s a strange but immersive feature, but your lantern will only burn for so long, and although you can light a number of fixtures throughout the labyrinths to create pockets of visible space, you can only pull up and read your map if standing in one of these areas or trekking around with a lit lantern.
The visual language and draw distance means that you can spot landmarks off in the distance and never truly get completely lost, but this mechanic (in tandem with spirit points) means that you’ll eventually need to return to your base camp in order to replenish your reserves. The game is forgiving enough to allow players the ability to jump back home right from their main menu, a welcome feature that keeps progression brisk. Similarly, the game is chock-full of shortcuts, meaning that you will always carve efficient paths around enemies and towards your next objective.
This is key because enemy encounters take up permanent spaces within dungeons and will respawn any time you leave and return. Shortcuts not only unlock paths around these creatures, but also open up avenues for sneak attacks, a great way to nab an extra turn of damage before the enemy can react. This can be an extremely valuable feature for training up new recruits, who will receive experience points even if they fall in battle. Everything in Potato Flowers pushes you forward, even its relatively-simple-yet-essential dungeon puzzles, which are used to great effect on a number of floors to help and hinder progression. You’ll use weighted systems to raise gates, raising and lowering water levels, and even linking together enemy encounters to grant yourself specific elemental buffs in order to fight new foes. There’s a few familiar ideas here, but a fair amount are usual and different.
Narrative and Aesthetics
First impressions of Potato Flowers’s art style might imply crudeness or a lack of imagination, but its low-poly character designs are incredibly charming and highly diverse. The main humanoid model allows for a great deal of customization, which is why the party members have relatively similar body types. Throughout the course of the game, however, you’ll see a variety of more unique enemy types, a number of which look far more fantastic than the standard humanoid while still remaining adorably whimsical. The wolf model in particular is hilariously off-base, but still extremely cute. Animations are similarly simplistic, but communicate the action of attacks and skills well, the exception sometimes being magic effects.
A great deal of Potato Flowers takes place in a single dungeon, and the unfortunate truth is that the game’s meager soundtrack loops a great deal. The dungeon exploration track that is used for the majority of the main labyrinth is most certainly mystifying and adventurous, but it is a relatively short track that has a very obvious loop point. The other tracks are also very appropriate for the fantastic setting, and delving into one of the other dungeons will alleviate the nature of that main track somewhat. The battle themes are all very fun, with the boss battle theme in particular having a great sense of gravitas. The shame of the main dungeon is that it could have had a soundtrack cycling system similar to the home base area, which shuffles through a list of songs that have a colorful amount of variety to them. If this slight change had occurred, or perhaps the main dungeon theme were a bit longer, it would prevent the game from feeling as repetitive as it does.
Most of the game’s narrative is delivered via recovered documents that offer a decent amount of lore for the setting, with a group of alchemists attempting to create a seed that can withstand the strange pollution plaguing most of the known world. Because this research facility is located on a remote island, you’d think the game might be a rather solitary experience, but you’ll meet more than a handful of characters along the way, many of which possessing narrative and gameplay roles of their own. There’s a great deal of reasons to remain in this far-off place, and some people are there simply trying to survive or make a living. Most of the substantial story beats are delivered via large text boxes that have accompanying visuals, which you can freely rotate much the same way as battle stages.
While there’s no particularly thrilling drama to be had, it’s clear that a good deal of thought was put into the world and characters that inhabit it. The game also has an enjoyable and substantive bestiary, with flavor text for every monster you’ll encounter, similar to a Tattle Log from Paper Mario. The quality of the writing is not overly flowery or obscure, but manages to feel conversational more often than not. This can sometimes be to the narrative’s detriment, as its casual tone might make some of its more mysterious and compelling moments seem flippant.
Impressions and Conclusion
It is the aesthetic charms and extremely clever gameplay mechanics of Potato Flowers that combine to create its distinctive brand of addictive gameplay. Even its repetitive dungeon theme manages to lull the player into a trance as they explore the labyrinth. The way that encounters are structured allows for a great deal of experimentation, as the player can train up and attempt new team compositions with relative ease just by dragging a dead level one character through a relatively high-leveled encounter. The game is also extremely forgiving with its fail states, simply kicking you back to your home base when your party collapses. The enemy encounters resetting upon returning allows for ease of access in some scenarios and surprisingly tough challenges in the late game. For example, getting to pick and choose your encounters can be seen as a boon, especially when attempting to power up a newly recruited character, but clever design also forces the player into specific combat scenarios if they wish to obtain valuable gear.
Speaking of which, there’s an infrequently-utilized crafting system that expands the equipment options that may or may not be tied to a strange level-scaling system the game possesses. At times, defeated enemies will gain a meter that, once maxed out, will raise their level and may or may not increase the chances of them dropping a material for crafting, though the entire mechanic isn’t very well explained. This is somewhat surprising, considering the game is very transparent regarding its combat mechanics. Either way, players can gain resources to craft highly situational and extremely beneficial equipment, which can be used to surmount some of the more specific late-game challenges. You can also save up money to level up pieces of equipment, some of which will never be endgame-wielding material, but allows for a smoother transition between new pieces of crafted armor and items scavenged from the dungeons in addition to providing some powerful counters to the aforementioned powerful enemies.
There’s not much else to say about Potato Flowers, as the game does not offer as extensive a playtime as some other dungeon crawlers on the Switch, although that’s really because the featured systems allow for an extremely streamlined, yet wholly full-featured experience. It would take a great deal more time to complete the game if the shortcuts were less-cleverly designed, or if the enemy encounters weren’t as telegraphed, it would likely be a much more obscure and potentially frustrating experience. As it stands, Potato Flowers feels like a puzzle box in every part of its design: enemy encounters may provide challenges for your current team, but their weaknesses are apparent enough that creating a new party member to exploit them feels seamless.
Traps and obstacles are laid out in a way that allows you to easily tackle one at a time. The efficiency on display is so thoughtful that it might make even a seasoned dungeon crawler wonder how these elements haven’t been employed elsewhere previously. In any case, it is a staggering accomplishment of independent development that condenses the absolute best parts of the genre into an easily digestible 20-25 hour playtime. To say that we should keep our eye on developer Pon Pon Games would be an understatement, as a product like this shows an attention to detail and fun not often seen elsewhere.