Developed and published by The Molasses Flood. Released on Feb. 24, 2016. Available on PC (reviewed) and Xbox One. Review code provided by publisher.
My experience with survival simulator games is severely lacking. While Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and The Last of Us certainly had survival elements, they were mainly secondary features which didn’t drive the gameplay. Enter The Flame in the Flood, an isometric survival and exploration sim that requires skill, persistence, and a little bit of luck in order to brave the flooded frontier of an abandoned America.
The Flame in the Flood puts you in control of a young woman stranded in the wilderness with nothing but a backpack, staff, raft, and her dog. The game world consists of a series of islands located along a river in an unspecified location in a postdiluvian America. You begin at a decrepit summer camp with one objective: Find higher ground so the radio can receive a better signal.
With this one instruction, it is up to you to find food, supplies, and shelter in order to survive. The moment you leave the first island, it is up to you to navigate your raft safely and manage your resources wisely. Outside of introducing you to new items and abilities, the game never holds your hand. This means that the islands you chose to explore will greatly shape the outcome of your adventure, for better or worse.
Surviving The Flame in the Flood is largely a game of dying and learning from your mistakes.The brutal difficulty is similar to Dark Souls, where death is expected. It is only through your inevitable demise that you can learn about the world and how to face it. Every playthrough will have different locations and randomized supplies, but the skills you develop over time will be the ultimate deciding factor in just how long and how far you can travel. Luckily, there is a beginner’s mode for the campaign which allows you to boot up from checkpoints throughout the story. This allows you to maintain progress without having to start the story all the way from the beginning.
One of the drawbacks to the randomized world of The Flame in the Flood is that you can often get caught up in cycles of unwinnable situations. Through many of my sessions, I would spawn in areas that didn’t have one certain item, such as spare wood, meaning that I couldn’t cook food, make new medicine, nor gather charcoal for water filters. It becomes harder to search new islands as you get hungrier, more tired, or sicker because your character slows down. While I understand that this makes the game more difficult, a lot of the time, it didn’t seem fair, as my death wasn’t my fault so much as the engine’s.
The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike, meaning that death matters in an important way. Neglecting health or any of the girl’s other needs in the harder game mode will result in perma-death, requiring you to begin your journey anew from the first island. The survival mode is similar, but it focuses more on testing your ability to withstand the dangers of the wild and doesn’t feature any of the story elements from the campaign. This mode can last anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours, depending on skill level. If there is an end, I do not know, as I eventually died from either starvation, wolf attacks, or a multitude of other ailments. Success is measured by how far you can travel and how many days you survive. Unless you’re a master of this game, and incredibly lucky, you’ll have a hard time surviving for long, meaning it’s an ideal mode for anyone who doesn’t have time to devote to long campaign sessions.
When on land you can either use WASD or point-and-click to control the movements of the main character. Your dog will act independently to help find food and supplies while also alerting you to threats like wolves or wild boars. After searching an island for supplies, preparing items and food, and resting, you can leave the island on the raft.
Raft transport is a major component of the game, serving as both a survival mini-game and your chance to choose which island to visit next. Upon mounting the raft, it will travel through rocks, debris, and even rapids, meaning that it’s crucial you steer cautiously down the river. If you successfully navigate the river to landable islands, you can choose from farms, fisheries, forests, churches, and other landmarks to visit. These choices will determine the course of the game, as each stop will have its pluses and minuses. Farms and Churches have the most tools, like knives and string, while forests have more natural supplies, such as aloe and mulberries. The selection of these islands will be instrumental to the outcome of each playthrough.
Crafting is another skill that is crucial to master. While exploring the islands, you will find plants, water, and man-made materials that will keep you alive. Plants can be used to craft items, feed you, or poison other animals. Wells will keep you hydrated. Certain materials, such as fishing hooks or rags, can be used to start fires, mend wounds, or even attack animals. Balancing your inventory is paramount, as you should be able to mend a wound, cure an illness, hydrate and feed yourself, and keep yourself warm at all times. This means that you should always be focused on resource discovery and management, because you can’t travel far if you’re too busy starving.
Despite these issues, The Flame in the Flood is a delight to look it. It has the whimsical look of Psychonauts paired with the decrepit setting of The Last of Us. The characters and settings of the game are edgy and colorful, with vibrant shades of orange, yellow, and red making up the majority of the scenery. The artstyle borders on impressionist, giving the game a certain visual charm despite its grim subject material and harsh gameplay. Even though surviving the wilderness was difficult, its world was beautiful enough to keep sucking me back in. Exploring this beautiful world is it’s own reward – and it’ll have to be since you’ll probably die the next day from food poisoning.
Accompanying this art style is a musical score which utilizes the instruments and traditions of pre-1970s country music. It often reminded me of the hub-world soundtrack from Psychonauts, even implementing guitar string plucks as you interact with menus and items. The music also picks up during the tempestuous rafting scenes, which really builds the action when compared to the dialed-back soundtrack of the regular game.
Sadly The Flame in the Flood isn’t without technical problems. The most glaring issue I had with the game was that the sound would often cut out. During playthroughs I would have to shut the game down and then reboot it so that the sound would work again. Some controls aren’t especially responsive, meaning an encounter with a wolf may be the end for you if you’re not already in the right location. Lastly, while the visuals are pretty to look at, some of the scenery can obstruct the gameplay, especially during the rafting sections. While these may seem like minor inconveniences, having them pop up over and over again quickly became tiresome and made me feel like I was still playing a Beta. I’ll be interested to see if any of these issues are fixed in later patches of the game.
The Flame in the Flood is a great introduction to the survival genre that never asks too much of you, but still demands your attention. Its world is bright, full of life, and dangerous, but never feels too serious. This is thanks to the vibrant art style, solid soundtrack, and gameplay that constantly tells you, “You were just unlucky, try again!”
Bottom Line: While there are some technical difficulties that need to be worked out, The Flame in the Flood is still moderately enjoyable.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for an easy, forgiving game, you might want to stay away, but if you like challenging experiences, The Flame in the Flood might be for you, although there are games that do survival better.[rating=3.0]