The Flame in the Flood is the debut release from new studio The Molasses Flood, a group of self-described “AAA refugees” who contributed to the major successes of games such as the Bioshock series, Halo and Rock Band. The Flame in the Flood is a large departure from the those games, and it’s clear this was a labour of love for a small team bringing their extensive talent to bear on a project that they could direct with complete artistic control. It’s a thoroughly entertaining game in the spirit of experiences likes This War Of Mine and Don’t Starve (with a touch of Oregon Trail), and for the most part it succeeds as a challenging and focused adventure through an unforgiving wilderness where nothing but your wits and a can-do attitude will keep you alive and breathing.
And so our adventure begins…
The Fire in the Flood is essentially a rogue-like survival game set in a world that seems to have been beset by a flood of biblical proportions. A dog named Aesop drags a backpack from a corpse in the advanced stages of decomposition and gives it to Scout, a little girl who you’ll play as for the entirety of your journey. It’s a lonely journey too, as it appears that the vestiges of society have all but crumbled beneath the uncaring flood waters and only small scraps of humanity remain. Your only direction comes from a radio found in the backpack Aesop gives you directing you to go downriver. With that, you are quickly thrust into the big wide world. Of course given the amount of water you’ll need to traverse you’re going to need a boat too. Unfortunately the craft you are blessed with is less of a boat and more of a shoddy raft made from cobbled-together pieces of debris, but beggars can’t be choosers as they say.
The mechanics will be very familiar to anyone who has played a rogue-like survival game, and indeed it is no revolution in terms of gameplay. You float down the river on your ramshackle raft, occasionally docking at small islands amongst the flood waters to scrounge for supplies. These supplies can be used to craft many items that are vital for your survival. Like most living creatures, Scout needs food, water, warmth and sleep and it’s vital you keep an eye on all these stats to keep her alive. You’ll also need to keep an eye on your raft as given its dubious quality, it is prone to getting smashed on rocks as you hurtle down the river. The areas you scavenge fall into different categories which have different sorts of items required for crafting. For example, churches always contain medical supplies and camps always contain a lit fire and flint. It’s important to keep a mental list of the things you need and always have some backup supplies in case things go south. And go south they certainly will. The difficulty in scavenging comes when you are faced with the many predators who roam about who are just as hungry as you. Wolves will lash at you and cause lacerations which must be healed before infection sets in. Boars will charge at you and break bones which require a splint to repair. None of the wildlife is happy with your presence, and all of them (except the bunnies) will attack you on sight.
Within the first couple of hours of my time with The Flame in the Flood I managed to be mauled by wolves, gored by boars, drown, die of hunger, thirst, hypothermia and septicaemia. Make no mistake, the start of the game is tough. With little clue as to what’s important to craft early or how to take down the fearsome predators, you will likely die a lot. In a neat touch, if you are sent back to the beginning of the game, the backpack that Aesop drags off the corpse at the beginning will contain all the items you put in it prior to your untimely demise. It’s a subtle but poignant touch that illustrates the cycle of life and death in the game, and it will help newcomers as they will not always be starting from scratch. There’s a checkpoint system in the normal campaign, but it’s extremely unforgiving (as it ought to be in a survival game) and you can go long stretches (over half an hour to an hour) without seeing one. If you die at any point during your journey you will be unceremoniously thrust back to the beginning of a checkpoint and lose all progress gained past that point. The game gives you the tools to survive though and demands keen attention to inventory management and what risks are worth taking and resources expending when there’s predators about.
If you like piña coladas and building traps in the rain
Within the first couple of hours of my time with The Flame in the Flood I managed to be mauled by wolves, gored by boars, drown, die of hunger, thirst, hypothermia and septicaemia
At a camp fire you can use souls you’ve aquired to level up
Home is where the raft is
The graphics have a simple, cartoony aesthetic that’s competent and fits the game’s vibe nicely. Your surroundings and the river do tend to start looking a little samey, but as you progress downriver the environment does tend to change a bit in general theme, from rugged wilderness to industrial ruins to barren wastelands. There’s a distinct southern US flavour to The Flame in the Flood that’s reflected in the way the handful of characters speak to one another. You’ll only meet a handful of other humans on your journey, and they all seem to have gone a little crazy in the midst of their post-societal blues. They speak with that odd Southern mix of polite slang peppered with verbose phrases like: ‘folks that ain’t prone to infractiousness’. While there’s no voice-acting, the writing of these characters is excellent and it’s always an event when you finally meet someone after spending so much time alone. This solitary feel is also echoed in the original compositions by Chuck Ragan, which are reminiscent of Eddie Vedder’s beautiful accompaniment to the film Into the Wild. Often a country tune with full vocals will strike up right when you most need that feeling of introspective melancholy mixed with happiness to still be alive. Unfortunately the songs do tend to repeat and sometimes play at inopportune moments such as when you’re listening out for roaming beasts as you scavenge.
The Boar Identity
At the outset of the game, The Flame in the Flood nails that ebb and flow of having those periods where you feel on top of everything and other periods where you pray to Jeebus that you’ll make it through the night. Once you get past a certain point however the pacing of the challenge tends to slack off, and if you’re efficient with what you build you’ll find you have more than enough to stay alive. You don’t necessarily need to stop at every port to scavenge, and if you’re mindful of what you need you can just sail on by. It makes the end of the game a bit duller than the gruelling challenge of the beginning, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. While the story is intentionally vague, there is a driving purpose behind your need to get downriver and it keeps you curious as to what’s around the river bend. The ending is also quite satisfying (although once again quite vague) and had an unexpected emotional pang that left me with a good feeling and sense of accomplishment. The campaign takes you through ten regions and takes about 10-15 hours to complete depending on how often you stop to scavenge the roses. If you find the game too easy there’s a Survivalist mode which turns off checkpoints and makes resources scarcer, and if you feel like playing the game forever you can start an Endless Journey. It’s likely though that once you’ve finished the campaign you seen mostly everything but it’s good to have the option there.
Your move, bear
The Fire in the Flood is a strong debut entry from The Molasses Flood. While it’s let down by a certain lack of visual variety and some pacing issues in the difficulty department that make the end of the game a little too cruisey, The Flame in the Flood is a compelling little survival adventure that I would recommend to any fan of these sorts of game. It’s not reinventing the wheel in terms of rogue-like survivor games, but it’s got a great sense of setting and atmosphere that keep the experience rolling down the river at an enjoyable clip.
Reviewed on Xbox One