I have been working my way through my backlog to start off 2018, with a special emphasis on indie titles, (before PlayStation starts blitzing out the big titles of the year), and last night I finished the campaign of the early 2017 rougelike survival adventure game The Flame in the Flood by Developer/Publisher The Molasses Flood. Typically I am not a huge fan of survival games; I tend to get tired of the premise once things invariably get repetitive, but I was drawn to The Flame because it had a really cool art style, a cool, indie folk soundtrack, and I really liked the premise, so I gave it a shot, and I have to say, I am pretty damn impressed.
The Flame in the Flood sets you up as a young girl named Scout who, along with her dog companion Aesop, needs to traverse a flooded world on her makeshift raft, and survive. The core of the game's campaign revolves around Scout finding a radio with a fuzzy signal that seems to suggest there may be more to find out in the world than danger, and so you set off down-river to see what is left of the world.
Honestly, while the story largely exists in the background of the gameplay, it is there, as told through occasional conversations with other survivors (rarely), and stories told via quilts (seriously, there are some great survivor stories on the quilts), that is not to say that it did not pack a little bit of a punch. The ending (which I will not spoil), after the hours I spent (and the in game days she spent struggling downstream) felt rewarding, and I felt genuine emotion for Scout at the end...however the game itself is largely centered around exploration and survival and I found myself forgetting about the story for swaths of my playtime
Fundamentally, the player is responsible for keeping Scout alive, and maintaining her energy, thirst, hunger, and warmth each have their own demands. If she's hungry, you need to make sure she's eating something that won't make her sick. Thirsty? Purify that water or collect some rain. Tired? Find a safe place to sleep. Warmth? That wolf that's trying to (and will) kill you? You need to kill it first and make some gloves...winter is coming. What this means is, like most survival games, you will spend a good chunk of your time exploring the wee islands that are all that is left of the world and hopefully finding the plants/resources you need.
Crafting is key to the game, as most things you want/need require more than one part, and then you need to put them together into the functioning item you need. I really appreciated the fact that you were able to craft some items on the fly, but others required you to be at a fire, or even on a workbench in an old hardware store. While this does mean that you are constantly scrounging for supplies, it also made every discovery, and every exploration feel meaningful across my playthrough, and I could see what every piece could be put into, so I did not feel like I was ever wasting space on something I might use.
As the game is procedurally generated, with a full weather and day/night cycle, it meant that every location felt interesting to explore, and that I was never sure if I was going to find that piece of flint I needed, or just another pile of old lumber. This also means that you will have curveballs thrown your way so you can never get too comfortable. Ant stings, infection, a boar you didn't see charging you and snapping a bone in your leg requiring you to make a splint, needing to create penicillin to treat that nasty bug you caught because you could not find that one plant you needed all make the game feel like an adventure, and it kept me uneasy from start to finish (which is exactly what I want from a title like this).
Part of the exploration in this procedurally generated world is done by raft--this I think is what elevated The Flame in the Flood above the other survival adventure games I have played. To get from scrounging location to scrounging location you would enter into a section of rafting that meant that you needed to guide your cumbersome raft through obstacles in the river, and fight the current to land at certain (marked) locations. You had control, but it never felt perfect/precise (because it's just a bunch of lashed together lumber you're "sailing") which meant that it could make things very interesting for you if you aren't careful. Plus, and this is important for me, it meant that you never got to go back to places you had been before, and you could (despite your best efforts) miss/never see every location, so, on the fly, you had to make snap decisions about where you were going to land, based on what you might find, and then hope for the best.
I loved that.
This made the game feel like I was always moving forward (because I literally was) and it meant that I always felt like I was making progress, and that what I need might just be around the next bend, or at the next dock. One thing I end up disliking about most survival adventures is the back-tracking: having to return to places you were before, or having to waste precious time slowly moving through areas you had picked clean hours before, exhausting your character and taxing your supplies. The Flame in the Flood did away with that beautifully, and in a way that fit into their premise so well that I did not even realize why I was enjoying this one so much more until I was almost 6 hours in.
There are a few flaws in The Flame in the Flood that I feel I need to mention though. The menu system is not perfect, and I found that especially Scout's "outfit" menu was a nightmare to navigate at first (I got used to it, but my first campaign run (that I died in from my raft breaking up/infection) I did not realize I had taken off her boots until way too late. On PlayStation 4, the numbers and some of the text were incredibly small (almost unreadable when it came to her stats numbers) which was annoying to say the least, as I would occasionally lose track of what I was looking at (not to mention the menus symbols for a lot of the plants looking, at their small(ish) size incredibly similar).
I also had a couple of bugs that crashed the game completely. They were never game-breaking, and I did not lose a lot of progress (thankfully), but they were there and I would have hated to have gotten one when I was an hour outside of a checkpoint.
As with most rougelike survival games, death is permanent, however the campaign does have occasional auto-checkpoint that you are able to restart from if you have been playing for a while (by which I made, travelled a fair distance down the river), but these are not something to rely on as I had an unfortunate wolf attack force me to restart about an hour and a half back from where I was when Scout had died.
I would not call this a flaw by any means (I'm happy the checkpoints are there), but do know that this exists, and it's not a great lifeline.
At the end of the day The Flame in the Flood is a wonderful survival game, with a few small flaws, that gives you a cool take on the genre and allows you to feel something beyond the regular "just get through the next day" grind that a lot of survival-adventure games lapse into. The soundtrack is an excellent blend of country-folk and indie folk that comes in at perfect times, and really elevates the feeling of the game on numerous occasions; I had a moment when I was desperately searching for the rags I needed to make a splint for Scout after a boar caught me off-guard, it started to rain, and a blues harmonica kicked in and it was just so perfect I was grinning....while frantically searching.
All told, I think I clocked the campaign at 11 hours (and never felt like it was dragging), even finding myself, after taking the appropriate time to reflect on the ending, starting up an Endless Mode (just go and survive) run because it's a game that really is quite engaging.
The Flame in the Flood is an excellent indie game that I definitely recommend folks check out (if any of what I've been saying has interested you, or you are a fan of say, Don't Starve but wanted more purpose), and is available on all of the things.
ALL OF THEM.
I was lucky enough to grab the Complete Edition on sale for 5$ and I have to say I feel like that was a steal--play this indie game fans, it's very worth it.
Anyway, I'm going to get back on the endless river now for a little bit more...