Whenever I play survival games, I try to focus on building a suitable shelter and grinding enough through the game mechanics to stay alive as long as possible. The only way I am able to do this is to seek out the perfect location in a sea of randomly generated scenery. “The Flame in the Flood” does not let me do this. In homage to the progenitor of the genre, “Oregon Trail,” this rouge-like survival game requires that you keep moving and just go with the flow of whatever hardship that day might bring. It is a game that punishes you for being alive.
You are thrust into a post-societal America that has been washed away by a great flood, leaving only a few scattered islands of dry land. As the emotionless main character, Scout, you traverse down the river known as The Steady in the hopes of uncovering the secret behind a mysterious radio signal. Most of the story is gathered from unique artifacts and the very few survivors you can interact with in your journey. Your only companion throughout all this is your dog, Aesop, who gives you extra inventory space while pointing out interesting resources to gather.
Like most survival games, you will have to craft a slew of items to keep you alive and healthy in a world that is just aching to off you. Unfortunately, the interface to create these crucial items is clunky and could use some major overhaul. When you have the resources necessary to make something it will appear at the top of a an extensive list, but trying to see what you need to make, say, a better pair of boots or a more efficient trap, will require you to scroll down endlessly to find the requirements. The control issues also bleed over to the character movement. With the camera set in an isometric perspective, you get a “Diablo” type feel to the game, but playing with a mouse and keyboard is an exercise in frustration. When you take into consideration that pretty much everything in the game can kill you, plugging in a controller is pretty much mandatory.
And when I say everything is trying to kill you I am not kidding. “The Flame in the Flood” benefits from some of the most realistic injury systems I have seen. Eating uncooked meat can lead to food poisoning and parasites in your stomach, something that can’t be cured unless you find the right type of moss and craft some penicillin. Get attacked by a wolf? Its pretty much game over as that laceration will slow your movement and slowly kill you unless it is properly treated. You can do your best to fend off some of these threats by crafting makeshift weapons, but often times they will just deter the animals rather than end the threat outright. The tension is ratcheted up so high that I often turned around as soon as I saw a wolf, leaving the area unexplored and putting me on the clock to find a safe place to spend the night before I died of exhaustion.
The sense of vulnerability is to be understood in a game about surviving in the American wilderness, but the amount of luck required to complete a successful playthrough does deter from the experience. Your limited inventory space means you will be at the mercy of the environment at every turn, hoping that you can find the right amount of food, water and shelter before you die. Since the river that you are traversing only allows you to stop at a few islands before being pushed along downstream, learning what types of resources each island holds will involve plenty of trial and error. When you do die, whatever items you left in Aesop’s bag will be transferred over to your next playthrough, encouraging careful planing through repeated failure. Mailboxes litter the landscape with small quests that kind of guide you on what tools to build next, yet with everything completely randomly generated, each playthrough will be different and seriously shift in difficulty depending on what gets spawned.
This sobering representation of what it must really be like to survive through the post-apocalypse is countered by the decidedly jovial art style. The game looks like a comic book come to life, with animals’s features exaggerated to stylized effect and gorgeous lighting adding to the sense of atmosphere. The outstanding visuals are accompanied by an even better soundtrack composed by Chuck Ragan. Every time you enter the river, the genuine country acoustic will guarantee that you feel immersed in this dangerous world of backwoods Americana. Regrettably, the music is not dynamic, meaning you might see Scout succumb to a staph infection while the cheery soundtrack eggs her pain along. Nonetheless, despite some minor quirks, the atmosphere is “The Flame and the Flood’s” best feature.
Developer Molasses Flood made sure that we understood just how difficult it is to survive in the wild. The over reliance on luck to achieve anything is a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to the might of nature. The moment I stopped planing and just went with the flow of “The Flame and the Flood,” the better I understood the game. It wants you to leave any sort of foresight behind you and take each day as it comes. While it is a great symbol for the many hardships we might face in life, it does feel like a chore to play at times. The soundtrack is unforgettable and the crafting mechanics do work very well together, so if you are able to pony up the punishment required to make it to the end of the river, the journey is one that’s worth taking.
- Engrossing atmosphere.
- Complex crafting system.
- Overly reliant on luck.
- Clunky user interface.
- Some sound glitches.