Review: Florence

By: Angelo Auriemma

God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 are my two favorite games of 2018. Both feature lengthy, dialogue-heavy campaigns accompanied with explosive and motivated uses of violence to explore the darker sides of humanity and what it takes to achieve redemption for your past, horrific deeds.

While both of these titles have rightfully garnered universal acclaim and commercial success, two other games from this year that I’ve adored have come in the form of polar opposite experiences from them. Games that instead focus entirely around EMOTION, supported with gameplay that doesn’t entail combat or gore, but instead on puzzle-solving and evocative imagery that explains its key points better than any line of dialogue ever could.  

In this video, I want to focus specifically on one of those titles – a mobile experience that serves as the premiere product for the newly-founded studio, Mountains – a game called Florence.

Before delving into my in-depth opinions on the title, it’s worth mentioning that the game is available on Android and iOS, making it an experience that just about anyone could embark upon. Additionally, the story only runs about thirty-minutes, so if you’ve got a decent commute or just want something to replace your next episode of “Joey,” then this is definitely something you should consider picking up.

Although I won’t go in specific details on the plot, the game is so short and I am prone to talking so damn much that you’re undoubtedly going to get a lot of the minutiae of the experience spoiled for you if you keep watching. If you want my short thoughts – I think that Florence is a unique and welcome change of pace that, despite its issues, is well-worth your time and money.

With that disclaimer out of the way – Florence can be a bit difficult to describe upon first blush – although it has the immediate appearance of a visual novel, it doesn’t serve the same gameplay purpose whatsoever, given that it features only a few dialogue choices that really bring about no changes in the story whatsoever. In the place of dialogue choices or conventional gameplay are light puzzle-sections that vary depending on the scene you’re in. Rather than a game like Catherine, these puzzles are less about gameplay, and more about simply keeping the story going. Given their context in the experience, I believe that the game can best be described as the elusive and overly-broad term: “interactable narrative.”

For a back-of-the-book summary, you play as Florence, a young woman experiencing her very first love. One of its inspirations has been cited as 500 Days of Summer, which I can definitely see, sort of alongside the beginning of Up, but, you know, without the devastating ending. Although this may be a simple and admittedly not groundbreaking plot, it’s something that is wonderfully unique for the medium, and its simple gameplay reinforces its themes spectacularly.

When Florence as a character is lost in the tedium of a job she doesn’t enjoy, the player is tasked with number matching – an act requiring no thought or energy behind it. As she is drawn into the sweet melodies of a cello, we similarly pluck at music notes that bring her closer to their place of origin. Conversations on dates begin complex and analytical, until becoming easier as our comfort level grows.

As a game, Florence strikes a healthy balance of keeping the player engaged while also not being bogged down by having to perform basic actions that become tedious over time. Its short length means that no puzzle is repeated unless the story brings it about naturally, navigating the player through one unique circumstance after another, ensuring that you’re rarely asked to do the same thing twice.

Additionally, the presentation of the game is tremendous. The artwork is beautiful in its simplicity, wonderfully utilizing colors to reflect the mood and feel of the scene. Likewise, the score is gorgeous, and Kevin Penkin, the composer, did an incredible job at evoking such emotion out of music in a way that you don’t even need the visuals to understand the mood that they’re going for.

Despite my myriad of compliments towards the game, it isn’t perfect. Although a majority of the time, the game is very transparent as to what the player should be doing, there were a few situations where I was unaware as to how I could advance the scene. Additionally, although I like the message that they were going for in the story’s conclusion, it felt a bit rushed – the build-up was so intricate and well-done that such a short final note resulted in a circumstance where seeing the ending credits genuinely caught me off-guard.

As a whole, this is a rare situation where I feel like the development behind the game is worth taking into consideration. As Mountains’ first title, with such a small team of developers, Florence is a huge achievement, and worth a considerable amount of praise if only for its unique premise, diverse cast of characters, and utilizing the platform that it’s available on. It accomplishes what it sets out to do by delivering a thoughtful story that’s paired surprisingly well with gameplay, and I think that looking forward, this is a great building block that the studio can use to make an even deeper, larger game if that’s what they are interested in down the road. I imagine they’d excel at a choice-based game that includes multiple endings for replayability’s sake – something that this game definitely lacked.

However, as I mentioned at the top of this video, Florence refreshingly stands in such contrast to the rest of the industry. Not only is it a short, cheaply priced game, but it is one that encapsulates the realities of love like not a lot of other things do, built from the bottom up with overwhelming thought, care, and a whole lot of heart.