The Water Humble me. The Water Carry me. I know that I am Free.
The menu screen for Flame in the Flood depicts a skeleton next to a backpack. As a dog drags the backpack away from the dead adventurer, your attention is drawn to a sign. Scrawled over the sign is some graffiti saying “DO NOT IDLE”. These three words summarize this rather magical game. You’re an unnamed scout in a post-apocalyptic America where civilization has been consumed by a mighty flood, and you have to ride the all-consuming river on a makeshift raft. To make sure you have enough food, water, rest and warmth to continue your voyage, you’ll need to steer your rickety raft to dock at the countless procedurally generated islands that dot the great river. You’ll never visit the same place again though, because Flame in the Flood is all about what you leave behind.
The focus of Flame in the Flood is turning the harsh wilderness to your advantage using your human ingenuity. There are plenty of hostile critters looking to rend you limb from limb, such as wolves, boars and even bears. If you pull out some cat-tails, you can make them into cord, which will help you craft a snare. With the snare, you can catch rabbits. After you’ve skinned a bunny, you can either cook and eat the meat or taint it with the devil’s trumpet flower, using the bait to distract and poison a hostile wolf, letting you explore an area freely. This is just one of the many ways you can bend the environment to your will, but it’s important to be careful. For example, if you use a sumac plant to make a poison gas bomb, you won’t be able to use it to make a medicinal tea that might cure a deadly snakebite later.
Rather than making you do endless, repetitive resource gathering and crafting, Flame in Flood is about making the tough choices for survival based on the limited resources at your disposal. Since you constantly have to move on, never going back, never knowing what is ahead, you really have the feeling of being on the frontier, struggling against nature, and it’s viscerally satisfying when you manage to last another day.
You don’t just meet dangers when you go ashore though. The river is just as treacherous. When your boat hits the rapids, you’ll speed up dramatically, meaning your reactions will have to be twice as fast to avoid oncoming obstacles like ruined bridges and floating cars. Conserving your stamina is important to veer to the side else you’ll crash, damaging your raft or drowning. While riding the current, you can see little markers that indicate the type of island there is to dock at. You might want to land at a hardware store where you’ll find lumber and bolts, or a marina with a lift that lets you patch up your ramshackle raft. If you need shelter from the rain, or some line and hooks to make into stitching kits (for sewing up clothes or wounds), stopping at a fishing shack is a good plan.
Some locations might have supplies you need more than others, and it’s up to you to prioritize where to visit. What makes the rafting sections so tense is how often you’ll meet a fork in the river, with each turn leading to a different type of location on the horizon. In these moments, you might only have a split second to make a choice of which way to go, with any hesitation or indecision sending you careening onto the rocks.
Survival isn’t just a matter of situational decisions, but of long term planning. The further you go, the colder the nights will be and the more intense the rainstorms, which will leave you soaked through and prone to flu. To protect yourself, you’ll need to craft warmer clothes from the thicker hides of more dangerous creatures, and find shelter in the various ruined buildings you find. You can alleviate some problems by upgrading your raft with a flimsy tent or a water purifier if you really want to go full-on Kevin Costner in Waterworld.
The problem is that upgrading your raft with such mod-cons means you won’t have the supplies to repair your vessel, or equip it with a motor and rudder to help navigate the rapids. Likewise, you might try to lure a boar into a spear trap to make a thick jacket from its hide, but all it takes is running into an unforseen wolf or rattlesnake to lay you low, so every risk has be be balanced with reward. Sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and move on.
These are the decisions you’ll have to live and quite frequently die with. I felt a primal sense of pride at my little raft with its improvised facilities, and my motley apparel of dead animal skins. They were a tapestry of my choices, and the fact I was still alive was proof they were the right ones. That’s what a good upgrade system should feel like.
You can play through the main campaign in traveller mode, where you’ll have checkpoints to return to when you die, and a far more arduous mode where death is permanent and resources are more scarce. The only trump card you’ll have when you’re forced to start over after a permadeath, is that the items you’ve stored on your faithful bespectacled dog, Aesop, will be given to your next incarnation. These different ways to play mean Flame in the Flood can satisfy those hardcore suvival-roguelike fans who demand a punishing experience, and also let more casual adventurers enjoy themselves as well. There’s also an Endless mode which, as you’d imagine, has no end, providing a true test for those who want to see how long they can last against the unforgiving elements.
Molasses Flood are a team of castaway AAA veterans who have worked on such games as Halo 2 and Rock Band, but you can tell with Flame in the Flood, that this is a real passion project. Right from the start, the atmosphere thrums with the same otherwordly aura of backwoods America we’ve only seen before in Kentucky Route Zero. The soundtrack – by folk rock legend Chuck Ragan – weaves into the experience perfectly. Every lyric in every song is a theme explored in the game. When an accoustic guitar or banjo kicks in, the sense of immersion is so powerful you can practically smell the moonshine in the air with the twangy bluegrass melody.
Likewise, the starkly minimalist art style and folksy, understated dialogue of the various weird characters you meet on your quest helps create a landscape of wonder. There’s plenty of lore to be found too; in the multi-coloured quilts fluttering in the wind, each patching together the story about how the world came to its watery apocalypse. I couldn’t help but want to uncover every tidbit of information I could amidst the sullen swamps bathed in the light of fireflies.
Flame in the Flood’s only major fault becomes apparent after you’ve completed the campaign mode. There’s a lack of longevity and replay value when compared to other roguelikes such as Faster Than Light. Whereas FTL encourages repeated playthoughs with unlockable new ships, there’s nothing comparable in Flame in the Flood. Flame in the Flood could really use some way of putting a new twist on each new adventure, whether it’s unique quests or unlockable characters with new abilities. I can only hope that some sort of expanison to the base game is on the way, as the wonderful world Molasses Flood have created deserves a few more reasons to return to it.
I’ve been reviewing games for over two years now, but I’ve never felt right giving any of them a perfect score. Until now. Flame in the Flood is an odyssey into the majesty of the great American rivers. It will make you yearn for the soulful strumming of a banjo, the bracing scent of fresh pine trees and the thrill of being carried away on the rushing rapids. Not only is it a superbly crafted story about survival against the odds, but it’s a paean to the tragic, but beautiful transience of life. Like the great river, time washes everything away in its current, but amazing games like Flame in the Flood remind us that living is one hell of a white water ride.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Mac, Xbox One; Publisher: The Molasses Flood; Developer: The Molasses Flood; Players: 1; Released: September 24th, 2015 (early access) and February 24th 2016 (campaign mode); Genre: Survival Roguelike; MSRP: $19.99
Full Disclosure: A review copy of The Flame in the Flood was provided to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.