The Flame in the Flood offers up a sometimes overly-difficult survival adventure, but the fantastic visuals and tense gameplay provide plenty of reasons to keep going.
The setting of a world after a societal collapse is a well-trodden one within the realm of video games. The dystopian or post-apocalyptic background helps make the player feel deeply involved in the game itself, allowing an easy route to the power dynamics that can make a game compelling. Fallout 4 allows the player to feel like an all-powerful bastion, fighting against waves of mutants and bandits, whilst last year’s horror hit Soma instead used the setting to make the player feel vulnerable and isolated.
It’s this vulnerability that ends up being a primary theme of The Flame in the Flood, the first game from developer The Molasses Flood. In this debut effort, American society has fallen apart, with the world descending into flooded landmasses, and the player must try to survive a treacherous river journey in a hunt for civilization. However, this is easier said than done, with player character Scout needing to use every last drop of her survival and crafting abilities to make it through.
The Flame in the Flood is a game that doesn’t take the word survival lightly, either. It’s vitally important that the player scours every nook and cranny for useful items for their journey ahead, and to make matters worse there’s limited inventory space that makes even early Resident Evil games seem generous. Although the player can use the pack of both Scout and her trusted hound Aesop, as well as space available on the character’s raft, players must think carefully about what they bring with them – particularly given that items left on the raft are unavailable whilst exploring land.
The time spent on the islands that spot the river makes up the bulk of the gameplay, and once more the player can face some extreme struggles when led ashore. Whilst the majority of humanity has disappeared, the same cannot be said about wildlife, and the carnivorous side of it appears to be very hungry. Wolves stalk the islands, and are all too happy to try and make a meal out of Scout; that’s without even mentioning the assortment of other creatures, including snakes and bears.
Given the prevalence of predators, some players may try to spend as little time as possible out hunting for supplies and items. However, in order to maintain the well being of Scout, the user will want to dock as much as possible. Keeping track of hunger, thirst, cold, and fatigue – Scout needs to keep a constant balance.
This is easier said than done, however, thanks to the way in which The Molasses Flood has crafted the world of The Flame in the Flood. Some islands offer up a safe place to sleep, in the form of abandoned buildings or vehicles, whilst others even have campfires lit for Scout to keep warm, but the player can never be sure of what awaits them. Meanwhile, the player will need either freshwater wells or water filters to make sure that Scout does not get sick, and that’s before the issue of food becomes apparent.
It’s not only the wolves of The Flame in the Flood that are hungry, as Scout also requires nourishment to keep going on her journey. Building snares for hunting is vital, with berries and vegetables acting as stopgaps to ensure that Scout does not succumb to starvation. It’s perhaps the most difficult aspect of Scout’s wellbeing to maintain, and can get very tricky if the game’s procedurally-generated islands don’t throw suitable foodstuffs at the player.
As it may appear, The Flame in the Flood is quite a different beast from the swarms of post-Minecraft crafting titles that have hit the market. Whilst most crafting and survival sims revolve around a central location that the player returns to, there is no such base of operations in The Flame in the Flood. Instead, the player has no real safe haven, with their owned property only consisting of their raft.
The raft itself hardly adds any kind of safety net for the player, either. When not exploring the islands that litter the river, the user is constantly moving downstream, trying to avoid the detritus of a ruined society. If the player is not careful, the river and its rapids can prove to be just as dangerous as what lies ashore.
This sense of constant danger is something that works in The Flame in the Flood’s favor. Rather than the relatively relaxing gameplay that can be found with Minecraft or Crashlands, The Flame in the Flood feels a lot more oppressive. Acting as a hybrid of the roguelike and crafting sim, the title proves to be an intimidating challenge for gamers to try and conquer.
Unfortunately, there is perhaps an argument to be made that the game is a little too difficult for players. The random nature of crafting items means that the player can face extremely challenging playthroughs with no real control over their fate, and it can get frustrating to fall to these hurdles whilst frantically trying to avoid the dangerous creatures that live on land. The Molasses Flood, which is formed from a group of former BioShock developers, has been regularly tweaking the balance of the game since its early access launch, but some may feel that the difficulty is still a little too severe.
There is an easier difficulty to choose from, however, which becomes particularly useful in The Flame in the Flood’s story mode. Although the gameplay itself does not differ from the more obvious roguelike choice of the Endless Game mode, the title fits a loose-fitting story over the proceedings, complete with NPC interactions that help the game world come alive. Being able to drop the difficulty to propel the narrative may prove useful to some players, particularly given the ability to avoid the permanent death mechanics that are so prevalent in roguelike and survival games such as Don’t Starve and The Binding of Isaac.
Even with these occasional spikes in difficulty, it’s hard not to be impressed with the quality of the game in question, either. Overall, the title’s mechanics work incredibly well, particularly given the blend of Oregon Trail-esque travelling and static location item-hunting. Meanwhile, a haunting soundtrack from Chuck Ragan fills the void, setting the tone perfectly.
Aesthetically, too, The Flame in the Flood is fantastic. The design of the game has a timeless quality, akin to a blend of Psychonauts and Coraline, with a tinge of Tim Burton thrown into the mix. Characters are gaunt and cartoonish in the most macabre way, looking both fragile and dangerous at the same time, whilst the locations feel haunted by the civilization that has long abandoned them. It’s a world on the brink of starvation, which makes even vicious predators such as the wolves look ravenous.
Overall, then, The Flame in the Flood delivers on the promise of its esteemed development team. The title may not be for everyone, particularly given the sometimes steep learning curve and reliance on random item drops, but the game generally works well, providing a challenging and tense gaming experience. Those after a daunting roguelike with more going on than the simple gaming mechanics need look no further, with interesting themes and visuals making The Flame in the Flood stand out from the crowd.
The Flame in the Flood is out today for Xbox One and PC. Game Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.