Hello, Kieron with an ‘o’ here, and if you’ve followed my posts and/or reviews for a minute you’ll probably have noticed that I love me a good indie game. Dig even deeper than that and you might come to realise that a studio known as Zoink has quickly become one of my favourite indie developers of late. Zoink have been quietly making unique and innovative experiences for a while now, starting out on platforms like iOS and Wii before really coming into their own with recent, multi-platform masterpieces like the EA Originals-backed Fe (which I gave a score of 9.5 here on WellPlayed) and the forthcoming PSVR exclusive Ghost Giant. The game that really put the studio into the gaming public’s vocabulary though, was 2013’s Stick It To The Man, a quirky puzzle-platformer with an emphasis on surreal art direction and funny, quirky characters. Fast forward five-or-so years and Zoink have crafted something of a spiritual successor to Stick It To The Man with Flipping Death.
Honestly this is a fairly normal-looking scene for this game
Flipping Death starts by introducing its protagonist, Penny Doewood, who’s just been fired from her job for being a little too enthusiastic about Halloween. Did I mention that she works at a funeral home? Yikes. Things don’t get any better for Penny either, as on her way home something jumps out in front of her car, causing her to veer off the road, crash and die. Waking up on ‘the otherside’, Penny runs into Death himself who, desperate to kick off his much-needed first holiday in millennia, mistakes her for his temporary replacement and hands her the cape and scythe before she can say “Yo, I’m totally not a demon!” Being the grim reaper’s temp has its benefits though, as Penny discovers she can possess the minds and bodies of the still-living and use them to solve problems both in the regular world and the afterlife. Determined to get to the bottom of her own death, and potentially even reverse it, Penny sets out with her new powers to mess with the citizens of her home of Flatwood Peaks.
Welcome to Flatwood Peaks, where our streets are as safe as warped roads suspended on wooden pillars can be
Much like Stick It To The Man, Flipping Death is a side-scrolling ‘puzzle platformer’ where the emphasis is less on puzzling or platforming and more on experimenting with the game’s cast of wacky characters and their environment in order to progress the story. The game’s half-dozen chapters all take place in Flatwood Peaks, both in the world of the living and in the ‘flipped’ ghostly version where the dead reside until their unfinished business is finished. Penny’s ability to possess the inhabitants of the town mean that she can both read their thoughts and take complete control of their bodies, allowing her to traipse around the world of the living and take advantage of each character’s unique abilities. Some of the town’s denizens have talents that are useful in multiple situations, like self-proclaimed superhero Pokeman’s power of… poking, or lumberjack Biff’s axe swing, while others are very specific (and mostly ridiculous) like Officer Robsome’s habit of accidentally hacking into computers when he’s asleep.
Sleephacking, not to be confused with sleep-lacking, which is what I am doing
Naturally, when faced with a problem in Flipping Death, the solutions are usually hilariously absurd. One small component of a larger puzzle, for example, had me free a ghost’s comatose human body from the local hospital by transplanting the beefy (but decomposing) racket arm of a long-dead, tennis-playing pirate onto his wimpy son in order to serve a bowling ball through the sturdy hospital windows. Flipping Death is full of fantastic characters, all of whom sport great designs and absolutely hilarious dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in either a Tim Schafer game or a Tim Burton film (are people named Tim just weird units? Probably), and the game is at its best when a mixture of random experimentation and more considered deduction result in these kinds of insane situations.
Thankfully this is the case throughout most of the game’s four-or-five hour run time, but there are moments every so often where solutions either don’t quite make sense contextually, or don’t trigger right away thanks to some ropey physics, which can result in needless running back and forth trying to find a more complex answer when the simplest one didn’t work as expected the first time around. This happens more often when trying to complete the optional challenges in each level, which are much more vague in their descriptions, so it doesn’t affect progress in the story too much. There are some handy quality-of-life considerations that mitigate this for the most part too, like a hint system and the ability to teleport directly to any previously-possessed character on the map. One thing I felt was unnecessary is the way that Flipping Death gates progress in any given level by forcing Penny to collect enough ‘spirits’ in the flipped world before she can possess a character, with more important characters requiring rarer spirits to ‘unlock’. The common spirits regenerate indefinitely in the levels, and the rare ones are basically handed over at the opportune time, so their inclusion feels superfluous at best and a cop-out at worst. Still, it’s a very minor complaint next to the game’s otherwise cracking pace and laugh-out-loud Monty Python-esque sense of humour.
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Flipping Death adopts a very similar artistic style to Stick It To The Man, playing from a strictly side-scrolling perspective in flattened out 3D environments. There’s much more use of depth and perspective this time around though, mostly thanks to the fact that there are mirrored ‘living’ and ‘dead’ sides of the town of Flatwood Peaks. Disappointingly, apart from a couple of short flashback sequences that go back in time, the entire game is set in the one town, and it’s not a terribly huge place, so despite the game’s strong look there’s a distinct lack of variety. The same goes for the music, which is generally fine but pretty repetitive. Again though, the brilliant writing coupled with the enthusiastic and over-the-top voice acting more than make up for any shortfalls in the presentation. Shame about the couple of horrible Aussie accents that made their way into the game, however.
Flipping Death may not be Zoink’s best work, falling just shy of its spiritual predecessor Stick It To The Man, but it’s still a well-written, hilarious and irreverent point-and-click adventure disguised as a platformer that tickled my funny bone as much as my grey matter. Fans of Double Fine’s work in particular will find a lot to love here, and despite feeling a little weary of Flatwood Peaks I’d happily go back and visit its unhinged citizens any time.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher