Carrying on a tradition of conceptual downloadable titles for the PlayStation Network, Eufloria—developed by Omni Systems, a self-confessed “micro-developer” comprised of two designer/programmers and a composer—arrives chock full of abstraction and thematics, but unfortunately nothing of lasting substance.
First released on the PC in 2009, Eufloria is a plant-inspired real-time strategy (RTS) game with an emphasis on the cosmic, a hushed void peppered with lonely spheres to be explored. From these “planets” sprout trees that the player uses to grow different types of organically animated seedlings, amassing them into armies that fly from shape to shape, overtaking similar AI-controlled trees all vying for control of a shared map. These bio-barracks also spawn different types of power-ups and are responsible for troop leveling, separated into three basic categories of strength, speed, and “energy,” an attribute needed to reclaim enemy-owned territory. Since seedlings are the vehicle for exploration as well as the currency needed to plant and fertilize trees (and each planet can only support a certain number of trees), paying attention to how they are distributed and used is crucial to Eufloria’s gameplay; a few early mistakes in certain missions left me with no option other than restarting. Up to three AI players can be present in a single level, making for some challenging scrambling later on in the mostly forgettable but well-paced single-player campaign.
Eufloria bears some new features in its console incarnation, the most noticeable being a “dynamic” difficulty setting, resulting in a faster flow of play and more aggressive enemy AI, though ultimately the game is still a contrapuntal exercise of alternating manic decision-making and passive thumb-twiddling. Perhaps the most useful feature of the game is the option to unlock all different gameplay modes, including a harder difficulty setting, and skip to any campaign mission immediately from the start. Yet while this level of control is appreciated, I couldn’t help but think this was a precautionary measure, something to counteract the repetitive nature of the gameplay (during missions, the game’s speed can also be increased on the fly, useful but disconcerting since it was desperately needed at times). I understand that Omni Systems wanted to create a game that had both dynamism and relaxation working in tandem, yet these two concepts have difficulty fusing together in Eufloria. The choices about what types are trees are needed at any given time—dictating whether the style of play is defensive or offensive—and how to upgrade your troops is simplistic by design, but frustratingly limited in execution. When several AI factions complicate things, it’s as if the majority of Eufloria’s activity is taking place beyond the game that has to be played, a small slice of virtual horticulture inside a larger, incomplete RTS pie.
The game’s visuals also suffer from a slight disconnect. Swarms of seeds, while impressive in number as your empire expands, resemble disparaging clouds of flies that seem too abrasive within the game’s stellar environments. The ability to zoom in extremely close and inspect processes on a micro level is also stimulating (the movement of the different nettled creatures and the trees they burst from are truly spectacular), but for purposes of practicality, the view usually must be pulled out, far out, rendering the pastel colored geometric galaxies almost too simplistic. For a game hinging on ecological Zen, clusters of flitting gnats in a sea of petri dishes evoke the clinical more often than they should.
The sound design, on the other hand, is nearly perfect. Everything about the game’s timbre is spot-on, from the warm bleating of its sound effects (combat as cellular laser fight) to its sparse, dripping ambient musical score, equal parts spooky and tranquil. Without it, the game’s atmosphere might have gotten swallowed up completely by its own minimalism.
Eufloria’s heart is in the right place. An RTS boldly focused on being artful and transparent deserves praise, even if its apparatus of play lacks the depth and polish of more substantial strategy games. Omni Systems seem self-aware of their own game’s flaws as well, and aim to dilute them through accessibility, which they achieve with marginal success. The game that we should really look forward to, however, is not Eufloria, but rather the one that I know this micro-developer is capable of making, and will in due time.