The Flame in the Flood Review

There’s something thematic about a river – flowing in one direction, constantly pushing forward - moving onward with a constancy that is nearly unfathomable.  It is linear, evoking the notion that it has a stopping point while simultaneously seeming endless.  The raging waters, much like life, suck up anything caught in the current, taking it along for the ride.  The Flame in the Flood aims to take players down that river, pitting them into a fight against nature:  asking them to cope with both the consequences of their actions and the events beyond their control.  Developed by The Molasses Flood – a team consisting of talent that formerly worked on franchises such as BioShock and Halo – The Flame in the Flood succeeds on several fronts.  It is a beautiful, often harrowing experience that is, unfortunately, somewhat let down by a handful of key flaws.

Something decidedly apocalyptic has happened in the world of The Flame in the Flood.  As one might predict from the game’s title, the landscape has been flooded and is almost entirely submerged underwater.  Players take on the role of a young woman named Scout.  Accompanied by a faithful canine companion, Aesop, she is subject to the harsh realities of survival in the ravaged wilderness.  Compelled by a mysterious radio signal, Scout finds herself rafting down a monolithic river, stopping only to stock up on the gear necessary for her survival.

The above scenario is all players really have to go on, as the narrative takes a backseat shortly thereafter.  The campaign does occasionally dole out an additional wrinkle to Scout and Aesop’s journey – proverbial carrots at the ends of sticks to lead the player further down the river.   The bulk of any storytelling that The Flame in the Flood has to offer, however, is done through the game’s atmosphere.  It’s a familiar scenario:  a cautionary glimpse at how quickly the Earth moves on without the intrusions of humanity, manifesting itself as a world that has been thoroughly reclaimed by nature.  This game is a quiet, contemplative experience, moving at an achingly slow pace - appropriately allowing the player to reflect on their progress and consider how they can possibly make it through the next leg of perilous waters.  Thankfully, the experience never stoops into a feeling of hopelessness.  There is always some sort of objective, some sort of reason to push forward, only compounded by the trajectory of the river itself.  The glimmer of hope and destinations that persist throughout the game keeps the player longing for that metaphorical Flame – some sort of beacon or refuge out in the flooded world. 

Artistically, the game nails the same feelings.  While not without its dark and unsettling designs, the overall aesthetic is flush with color, blooming with rich greens and vibrant reds.  The wilderness is appropriately dense with foliage, and the barren towns alongside the riverbanks are stacked with the steel carcasses of automobiles and other tell-tale signs of a lost civilization.  The superb sound-design also deserves special mention.  From the rushing rapids of the river itself to cracks of thunder and rain whipping on the wind during a thunderstorm, the auditory experience of The Flame in the Flood is thoroughly engrossing.  Moments of quiet are also sometimes punctuated by a pleasant folk-soundtrack, rife with twangy guitars and vocal performances that easily lend themselves to the game’s spirit of adventure. 

What a shame it is, then, that such artistic talent is squandered by the moment-to-moment gameplay.  At its core, The Flame in the Flood is a survival game, with the rogue-like elements that are so typically expected of the genre in modern gaming sprinkled on top.  As players raft down the river, they will be responsible for Scout’s various needs, primarily:  hunger, thirst, warmth, and stamina.  To facilitate this, players are given some control over the raft as it moves down the river.  While the vessel cannot be turned around at any point, it can be steered towards randomly-generated docking-points where the player can disembark to gather supplies.  Very few of Scout’s needs, however, are directly sated by the raw material that the player gathers.  Instead, The Flame in the Flood incorporates a robust crafting system.  By gathering wooden planks, cattails, nuts and bolts, etc., players can have Scout craft fires, tools and animal traps (among various other items.) 

It’s not that the concept which fuels these systems isn’t compelling – it has, after all, seen widespread success in games of similar genre ever since the zeitgeist that was Minecraft.  No, what really hampers the experience here is the user-interface.  The various player-systems are needlessly separated between several menu tabs, splitting up the player information that is necessary for progress and survival.  The “recipes” that players can use to craft new items takes shape as a vertical, alphabetic list that requires incessant scrolling to find what you need.  It also certainly doesn’t help that many of the game’s items require crafting another item in order to obtain what the player really wanted in the first place, creating a system of tiers that would lead players to believe that they don’t have what they need for the item they want when, in reality, they do.  Additionally, players will have to manage a punishingly limited inventory space, split up between Scout’s and Aesop’s backpacks.  These systems, in addition to Scout’s equipped clothing, ailment-status and list of objectives must be constantly maintained in order to succeed in The Flame in the Flood, all the while dodging ravenous wolves and savage bears (because the inventory does not pause the game.)

If these complaints seem like minor nitpicks, then I would encourage the reader to consider the value of their time because the game entirely revolves around resource management.  Unlike other games in the survival genre, however, The Flame in the Flood fails to minimize the player’s time in menus.  The promise of shooting packs of wolves down with a bow and arrow or trapping rabbits with a box-trap may seem compelling but ultimately ends up seeming unfulfilling when the player has to navigate a veritable spreadsheet every single time they want to take one of those actions.  More often than not, the game is an exercise in frustration, which unfortunately characterizes The Flame in the Flood most accurately:  a promising, interesting survival game that is ultimately left to drown in the waters of mediocrity by its own core mechanics.