You’d think that after many years of roguelikes (and roguelike-likes, for the pedants among us), from Angband to The Binding of Isaac, I’d be used to their pervading cruelty. The genre’s general disdain for the player’s sense of security is a feature, not a bug, and yet I’m still anxious about starting another run in The Flame in the Flood, a procedurally-generated trip down a river with a young girl and her dog.
It’s possible that my nervousness has to do with the fact that I grew up living close to a river, and that The Flame in the Flood manages to capture both the beauty and danger of flowing water. As Scout, you’ll have to take your raft and your newfound canine friend Aesop down a flooded river, scavenging for food and supplies in an abandoned, inundated Midwestern America sometime in the mid-20th century. The razor’s edge between survival and death the game portrays is at times uncomfortably reminiscent of a couple close calls I had on canoeing expeditions many years ago.
The floodwaters have swept away most of civilization in The Flame in the Flood, leaving only small islands holding abandoned campsites, churches, and forests for you to forage for gear. It’s rendered in a slightly abstract but evocative style, and a twangy steel guitar soundtrack accompanies the sounds of rushing water and often-hostile wildlife.
The current is powerful, and missing a chance to dock at one of the procedurally-generated islands means you’ll have to continue along the river, the chance at scrounging up some precious scraps of gear or food gone for good. At first this isn’t such a serious problem, but the game quickly ramps up the difficulty – suddenly, campsites aren’t completely abandoned, as they’ve become hunting grounds for bloodthirsty wolves or territorial wild boars.
Crafting is a key component for survival. You’ll make cord by braiding cattails, or use coal to create filters for fresh drinking water. You’ll need bandages to treat wounds picked up from the aforementioned wildlife, and hypothermia and disease are threats as well. Recipes you have the components for are helpfully placed at the top of your list. Hunger, thirst, and body temperature all have to be managed, and crafting stuff is the way to do this.
The whimsical-yet-dark art style, the focus on crafting, and the hostile wilderness setting might remind someone of Don’t Starve, but the constant push forward from the river means The Flame in the Flood is more akin to FTL in key ways. Unlike most survival-themed games, you can’t establish a base camp and instead have to find shelter where your fortunes (and the game’s procedural generation algorithm) allow.
Like FTL, problems tend to snowball, too. An injury sustained from collision on river rapids can mean you’ll be too slow to escape from a wolf attack at the next rest area, and if you haven’t found fabric to make bandages already, your run will come to an end in short order. It’s an admirably realistic approach, but it has a tendency of making the game feel unfair. I was consistently frustrated by the lack of inventory space, too, but I suppose that’s a genre convention rather than a ding on this particular game.
There’s an endless mode, where you just see how far you can get before you inevitably die, and a “campaign,” where you travel through 10 areas. While there are two difficulties, even the “easy” mode is punishing – I’d often find myself bloody, freezing, and limping from broken bones after a scant couple miles, only to be attacked by wolves as soon as I dragged myself ashore.
And while I loved the atmosphere, the setting, and the aesthetic of The Flame in the Flood, I never got that “one more run” feeling I’ve gotten from other roguelites like Isaac or Spelunky. It’s possible that the game’s pace is a bit off, or that I haven’t quite figured out the “correct” way to play it.
Or it might be that it’s just a bit too convincing, and that despite its whimsical visual style and bluegrass soundtrack, it’s a stark reminder of how powerful and brutal nature is, and how little it cares for our wellbeing.
The Flame in the Flood was developed and published by The Molasses Flood and released Feb. 24, 2016 on PC, Mac, and Xbox One for an MSRP of $19.99 USD. A review copy was provided by the publisher.