|Genre||Psychological horror, survival horror, experimental|
|Free Download||Click here to download from the .flow Wikidot.|
So last year, I looked at this weird RPG Maker game called Yume Nikki, also known as Dream Diary.
And boy, was that a fucking trip!
I reviewed this game as part of my horror game marathon in October 2016 (even though it’s not a horror-themed game all the way). It’s easily in my top ten list of most disturbing games of all time, due to its grim atmosphere, surreal worlds, and visual storytelling that implies a dark and sinister backstory to the protagonist. Yume Nikki had a cult following since its release, even to the point of being referenced by the ever popular Undertale. And its popularity spawned, you guessed it, FAN GAMES!
And today, we are going to look at one of the more well-known games inspired by Yume Nikki, known as .flow.
Of course, these Japanese RPG Maker games tend to be a little… crash-y on western PCs. Ever saw this error?
Yeah, don’t you just hate that?
So install AppLocale for Windows if you don’t have it, have it run .flow, and select 日本語 (nihongo, meaning Japanese). And there you go. You should be able to play .flow. Same process for many RPG Maker games built for Japanese computers.
A Second Look at the Face of Madness… with an Extra Helping of Gore
While not as recognizable as Yume Nikki, .flow is another free RPG Maker game that involves open-ended exploration and surreal visuals. Alongside Yume 2kki and Me, this is one of the more popular games of the genre. The version I played is 0.192, released sometime in late 2014, but it hadn’t received updates since then. Whether this game will receive future updates is unknown, though it seems lol/lolrust had other projects, based on the website activity. And apparently, he did contribute to Yume 2kki, another fan project. Which is fine by me. I’m quite satisfied with .flow as it is.
In .flow, your main character is Sabitsuki (“rust-covered” or “rust-eaten”), a mysterious girl with unkempt hair and most likely a horrifying past. Much like Madotsuki in Yume Nikki, Sabitsuki lives alone in a small apartment room. And all she has is a TV, a Famicom, a bed and a computer. And for whatever reason, she refuses to leave.
Many fans speculated that Madotsuki was a recluse due to extreme social anxiety and depression, but the tune seems to play differently for Sabitsuki (which I’ll elaborate later in this review).
Sabitsuki can access her dream world by using her computer (instead of sleeping in her bed, for some reason). Pick a cardinal direction in the Nexus. And from there on, the insanity begins.
Hoo, boy. Can you feel the love tonight?
Much like Yume Nikki, the goal of .flow is to collect 24 items known as Effects. These are special items you can gain from interacting with NPCs and objects, and they can grant you special abilities and interesting aesthetics.
The dream world is vast, complicated and convoluted. Some areas loop infinitely while others are more straightforward with multiple pathways. It is your job to be diligent in your exploration in order to find Effects and other interesting events that might make your barf.
Yeah, make you barf. One thing .flow doesn’t make clear is that there is a hidden meter known as the Erosion Counter. This is more or less your “sanity” meter, though it has no real effect on the gameplay. It has some… “interesting” aesthetic changes. When you witness some especially disturbing events (the ones that force Sabitsuki to end her dream session and wake up), the Erosion Counter increases. When the Counter is higher, there may be subtle changes to your environment. For example, Sabitsuki’s room would have sudden bloodstains. When the Counter is especially high, you can unlock a secret event—which is the stuff of nightmares.
You can slowly decrease the meter by eating meals at the Sugar Hole, which is a bar located next to a sewer. You need yen to buy the meals, which you can randomly get from killing NPCs.
If you’re stuck on what to do next, I heavily recommend checking out the .flow Wikidot for guidance.
Too Deep! Too Deep!
Oh god, oh god…
Instead of going under…
Instead of going under…
Holy shit, what is with the imagery in this game!? I thought Yume Nikki had some disturbing stuff in it, but .flow is holding NOTHING back. Even the soundtrack, which mainly consists of short tunes looped infinitely, is horrifying.
There’s a reason why I’m calling this a survival horror game.
See, there are these freaky creatures in the game known as Kaibutsu (“monster”). They look similar to Sabitsuki, with their white hair and feminine clothes, but have these bloody, distorted faces. And you probably don’t want to know the real story behind those faces.
The Kaibutsu are essentially the same as the Toriningen from Yume Nikki.
You know, THESE fucking things.
When angered, they chase after you. And they have this creepy, squeaky laughter. And they’re everywhere, even in places where you don’t expect them! And they don’t take kindly to your violent acts either. Smack one upside the head with an iron pipe, and it will chase after you with this gleeful cackle.
See that bloody pipe? That one Kaibutsu in the corner is particularly nasty. I’m still remembering the horrific event that transpired.
The most notable trait of .flow, compared to Yume Nikki, is its usage of body horror. Anything like trails of blood, dismembered limbs or piles of viscera lying on the floor, you’ll definitely see in this game. Not to mention imagery involving medical equipment, sick children and muddy-looking rust smeared on the walls of certain places.
Using “rust” as a metaphor for blood is quite ingenious. When you really think about it, rust is just oxidized iron. And what does blood consist of? Iron and oxygen. The fact that Sabitsuki is “rusting away” should indicate that something is eating away at her body. She may have some sort of disease.
I once read a comment that Sabitsuki and the children of the hospital are all suffering from a disease (or something similar) called necrotizing fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating disease. I don’t think you need a whole lot of imagination to guess what that entails. For the sake of your stomach (and sanity), do NOT look that up unless you’re ready to learn about something truly horrifying (and very real). The pictures are especially sickening.
And the name of the game, .flow, may refer to the psychological term. When someone is in a “flow,” it means the person is in a mental state of focus while performing a task. The kind of task that makes you lose track of time, like gaming for consecutive hours and getting absorbed into an entertaining novel. This comes to suggest that Sabitsuki’s “dream world” isn’t actually a dream world, but some sort of immersive reality taking place in her mind. The fact that she accesses this reality through her computer (rather than her bed) helps support this theory.
Of course, a “flow” is not an inherently positive state. If Sabitsuki’s world truly represents her mental state, it shows that she has an unhealthy obsession with body mutilation. And the fact that certain NPCs frequently appear during her sessions were clearly people that she deemed important.
The idea is that Sabitsuki secluded herself from the rest of the world. And she may or may not have sought after medical assistance. However it turns out, the “rust” disease seems to hurt her relationships with the people she frequently dreamed about. It is also taking a toll on her sanity, where she begins seeing people with missing faces and unsightly teeth in weird places. Eventually, she takes on another alias known as Rust (錆, pronounced “sabi”), a pale and sickly version of herself.
Yume Nikki definitely had its grim and creepy moments, but there is quite a bit to stomach in .flow. That includes some of the hidden events that occur by random chance, which is some of the most gut-churning moments I’ve seen from 2D pixel art.
Imagine people being kept alive after having some of their body parts removed and amputated. Replace your limbs with giant, squirming vines. Replace your eye with a flower. Become this strange human-plant hybrid, while blood still leaks at where your missing body parts used to be. It’s like a creepier version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with more dying children in it.
Some people may scoff at the idea of “pixelated horror” and think it wouldn’t compare to something like Resident Evil. Well, let me tell you. You don’t know how disturbing .flow can get, unless you play it for yourself. This game is definitely not for the impatient gamer who wants instant gratification, but rather a gamer who enjoys slow, atmospheric exploration. And to get the full experience from this game, I played it in the dark in the dead of night all alone. Looking at screenshots simply isn’t enough. You need to experience it yourself.
Granted, .flow does have moments that take a break from the overall oppressive atmosphere. Just don’t expect it to last long. There is no Pink Sea to take comfort in.
Do you know of Uboa from Yume Nikki?
He is one of the most clever and memorable jumpscares in the game. He appears in a place where you least expect him: in a room of an ordinary girl. Not only that, but his appearance happens at random when you shut the lights off. The atmosphere shifted from charming to horrifying in mere seconds.
There are similar moments in .flow as well.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a particular Kaibutsu that you probably don’t want to mess with. This one hangs around in the Sugar Hole every now and then. Normally, the Sugar Hole is a pretty chill place where you can purchase meals. Nice atmosphere too, in a game like this.
If you attempt to strike the Kaibutsu with the iron pipe, it will dodge and beat you into a bloody mess. Then it throws your mangled corpse into a dark closet and shuts the door.
This moment stuck with me because of how unexpected and gruesome it is. Imagine if some stranger killed you, then threw your body into a somewhat conspicuous place. The witnesses of said murder don’t give a crap, your killer has run free and your life is wasted. The silence is what really sells this moment for me.
Oreko, the small girl in the diving helmet with an aptitude in bizarre machinery, is the most frequent recurring character in the game. Based on the interactions between her and Sabitsuki, it’s heavily implied that they’re good friends. Interactions between them increase this hidden Friendship meter, which causes an event to happen and give you access to a new menu skin.
But later on, it’s also implied that Oreko passed away from unknown causes. You can find her ghost in the same area as where you find the Machine Effect, if you’re good friends with her. And if you’re playing the game as the character Rust, you can find Oreko’s ghost walking in the Deadhole. Her ghost walks towards what appears to be her own corpse impaled on a hook, before disappearing.
You will meet a specific NPC known as Smile several times during your playthrough. He’s a strange fellow with a similar hairstyle to Sabitsuki’s, has cross-shaped tattoos on his eyes and has a little sister at home. Aside from his unusual appearance, he seems like an ordinary high school student.
But if you strike him with a pipe at his own house in front of his little sister (you monster), he laughs and gives you this creepy grin. If you notice his hand, he is wielding a bloody hammer. And if you listen closely to the sound clip that played during this event, you could hear his voice.
“Potassium onion? Uheha?”
It’s hard to discern what he’s actually saying. Considering this is a game made in Japan (in Japanese, of course), it’s not totally out of the question that the speech is actually in Japanese. Or it could be gibberish to troll us all.
Oh, and he’s got a creepy theme song.
Still, there is something rather menacing about Smile. It’s pretty clear that he is protective of his sister, but he is willing to commit violent acts outside of her watch. And if that means bludgeoning Sabitsuki’s head with a hammer, so be it.
And at the school area, he is in a classroom with other students. If you pull out the iron pipe, the students will back away but Smile will pull out his hammer and give his trademark grimace. This is on point on what happens when you pissed someone off to the point where he actually wants to murder you. And he has no guilty conscience of such a deed either.
It should be noted that the BGM for the school is a slowed down remix of Smile’s theme, turned into a calm but ominous song. Sort of like the moment when you’re in the eye of a hurricane.
Oh, did I mention the school has random drawings of eyes on the walls and random stalks with bloody eyes on the ground?
There’s fan speculation that Smile may have been a close friend to Sabitsuki once, hence why he did share one friendly interaction in the game (when he gives you the Tattoo Effect). Some might say that him attacking Sabitsuki during the Corrupted School event was a way to save her from the pursuing Kaibutsu from earlier.
Or he could be a psychopath. Man, this is a cruel game.
There is another moment that is one of the more recent additions to .flow, and it is very well hidden.
To begin with, you need to gather 1,500 yen. You can gain yen randomly by killing NPCs (the area with the Dying Girls event may be the best place to grind for this much yen).
Don’t you feel like you’re part of the crowd now?
Then you need to visit the Sugar Hole at least five times. Take the middle seat each time you visit there (each visit must be a separate dream session) and Sabitsuki will order cake for the cost of 300 yen.
After ordering cake five times, go to Sweet Sugar (the love hotel in Psychedelic Town, that Moonside-looking place) and there is a maid that you can interact with. The maid has a hole where her face should be. Continue interacting with her until the hole in her face expands, taking you to the Vomitgirl area.
Why is it called the Vomitgirl area? Don’t ask.
Eventually, you will find a large puddle of sugar that leads to a giant female statue. Enter the statue, cross a dark hallway, and you will find this…
This image stood out to me because of how it contrasted the rest of the game. For one thing, there is no Effect or any collectible to find here. It’s easy to miss. Furthermore, this song plays.
So beautiful, yet so sad. Who is that girl in the dress? Why can’t you reach her? Why so much effort to find this Easter egg?
This mysterious girl is in yet another well hidden Easter egg. To access that, you need to eat cake at the Sugar Hole ten times instead. Then during the eleventh visit, speak to the two maids, move to the back of the area, take an elevator to the apartments, and you should now be able to pass through a previously blocked stairway (the one with the traffic cone).
Who is she? Sabitsuki’s mother? Sister? Close friend?
Apparently, this girl began making appearances starting with version 0.18. So it’s possible that lol might expand this character’s role in future updates (if they will be any). It’s been over two years since the last update, so only time will tell.
There are quite a few hidden moments in .flow, some of which may not have a reference in the .flow Wikidot. If there is more you want to find, there are videos that show how you can view them.
The first video is exclusive to version 0.16, which is an April Fool’s edition of the game. Version 0.17 released a day after this one.
You know, video games glitching out used to scare me as a kid. I used to have a NES, so imagine the reaction of a small child who had to see an 8-bit game producing strange graphics and making high-pitched electric sounds. It should be noted that the Famicom glitch event in .flow is very similar to the one that happened in Yume Nikki.
You know, the strange back alley area in version 0.19 baffles me. I have no clue what this area is supposed to represent, but that moment when you pass through the alley and it grows darker… Ugh. At the end is what appears to be a murder scene. And a monster with a similar appearance to those red demon enemies may stalk you as well. So damn unnerving.
And then there’s the Erosion event, which only plays if your Erosion Counter is over 250. I mentioned this as the stuff of nightmares. Literally, it’s a nightmare where a grimacing Kaibutsu (that looks like Sabitsuki) attacks Sabitsuki in bed. Still not a pleasant sight. It’s like Silent Hill reared its ugly head in your dreams for a surprise scare.
After you collected 24 Effects, there are three endings you can access. The true ending is definitely the most baffling of all, making us question what is actually real in .flow.
And that’s about it. .flow is a slow, atmospheric game that is short on the jumpscares and utilizes body horror for the main scares. And while it does take quite a few cues from Yume Nikki (and the Mother series), it feels like the more complete game. I really enjoyed its bleak atmosphere, finding its well hidden Easter eggs, and the more defined cohesiveness of its story and symbolism.
However, I’ll say that this game put me in a dark place for a while. Playing .flow alone in your room, after dark, is one of the most engrossingly depressing experiences I ever had. After moving deeper into Sabitsuki’s conscience, it just felt… hopeless. Life goes on in a grim world, where many children get sick and die. Death is a constant companion, as people turn a blind eye to murder and disease. And all you have to look forward to are your friends going away and yourself choking on your own blood. You stand to lose everything you hold dear. There is no salvation to be found. Your only escape from your situation… is death. It’s only a matter of when it will come…
That sums up how I felt about .flow. Its morbidness had a profound effect on me for a while, making me question the world’s petty indifference to real problems. What would happen if you’re truly alone, trapped in a situation you can’t get out of and you only have your own dark thoughts as a means of escape? No one can help you… and you can’t help yourself…
……BUT HEY! It’s only a state of mind, right? Something you can work through, as long as you have goals to attain and life’s pleasures to enjoy. And both are abundant. Sometimes, you just need to kick yourself in the ass and tell yourself to do something productive. Or at least partake in an activity you enjoy. Life is short. Don’t give in to the demons. In fact, give ’em the bird and tell them, “Fuck y’all, I’m doing my own thing. You can just sit there and… entertain me with your cute little jests for a while.”
Well, this certainly went on a weird tangent. I think it’s safe to say this game broke something inside me. And for some oddball reason, I love it.
These types of games are certainly an acquired taste and not for those seeking complex gameplay mechanics. And there is no clear story here, forcing you to put the pieces together by yourself. But the simplicity and the desire to explore are enough for me to weather .flow’s most disturbing moments.
I love it. And if you’re a fan of the original Yume Nikki, I wholly recommend this game.
- Similar exploration gameplay to Yume Nikki. Completely straightforward.
- The body horror visuals are some of the most intense I've seen in a video game.
- The atmosphere can range from creepy to outright horrifying. There are a few places that still fit with the game, but are relatively calm.
- The soundtrack is done well, sometimes having a similar feel to Silent Hill.
- The story, while more coherent than Yume Nikki's, is still quite vague. But it uses the visuals to allow the player to interpret the story.
- It can be confusing where to go since some maps may change their exits to lead into different maps, making backtracking more disorienting.
- Some Easter eggs are hidden too well, behind convoluted methods.
- No straightforward narrative.