Video games that ask you to survive with nought but meagre resources are nothing new, but the question is whether it's a device that has ever worked as well as it does is in The Flame in the Flood. Our protagonist is a young woman, Scout, alone and equipped with only a small backpack, her trusty dog her only companion. It really does feel like us against the world in this new procedurally generated adventure from The Molasses Flood.
This player-driven story flows through a near-future that has fallen to pieces. The US is no longer what it was, now it's a dystopia, a flooded hell, one that brings to mind a slightly less radioactive Fallout 4. To survive, we have to remain constantly in motion, on the move, and there are never enough resources in one place to sustain you as the journey follows the twists and turns of the river. The whole time we're stopping off on the way, finding items that might be helpful, often only to realise that we simply don't have the space in our inventory to carry them all.
Survival requires finding the resources to stave off hunger, exhaustion, overheating and thirst - and there's also the risk of disease or injury. All this needs to be attended to straight away, otherwise the adventure will be cut very short. But carrying food, water, a complete pharmacy, somewhere to live, clothing and so on, is unfortunately impossible, and there's some difficult decisions to be made in relation to inventory management. Therefore, the game becomes a grim battle for survival that feels authentic, and it's not made easier by the strong currents of the river that pull the raft left and right, ensuring that we don't have the opportunity to explore everything. It costs too much energy to paddle upstream and often what we find we can't take with us anyway.
Thus it's not really possible to plan ahead and we have to live in the moment, trying to survive the here and now, our immediate goal often just to make it through to tomorrow. Perhaps we have to leave some canned food so that we have the space to carry the resources needed to make a fire? We're always asking what we really need at any given moment. Timber perhaps, or smaller things like fish hooks and flint? And are we equipped to survive really bad weather?
It takes more than an hour before we let go of the urge to collect everything, an urge that normally has us walking at the speed of a snail in The Elder Scrolls series because we always carry stuff that might be useful later. It really hurts to see the good stuff just lying there, knowing that we can't bring it with us. In this way The Flame in the Flood is quite unique, and at its essence it boils down to pure survival.
There have been many great games released in recent years where survival against all the odds is the theme. But in most of them, they're still about creating something; building a camp or even a city, getting better and better equipment and working towards a clearly defined goal. Here all these trimmings are missing and our entire focus is solely on simply surviving the day, the comfort of structure washed away by the relentless flow of water.
A lot of the design in The Flame in the Flood is so good that it could be considered for top grades, in particular the highly distinctive visual style and the superb Americana soundtrack by Chuck Ragan. It's clear that this is a title crafted by skilled people; it's no surprise to hear that The Molasses Flood consists of veterans who have previously worked on Halo 2 and Bioshock. The studio's début title was originally released via Early Access on Steam, and thus it received community feedback along the way to launch. Therefore, it feels sad to say that the game's biggest flaw is one that absolutely should have been caught by now, namely tangled menus.
Sorting your equipment and resources is reminiscent of taking care of your inventory in the older Resident Evil games, and requires a lot of fiddling around when it needn't have. It's a constant juggling act deciding what should you carry, what the dog should take, and what can you stow away aboard your raft? To make things worse, it's not always clear how certain objects can be used, what is needed (and when) and so on. The feeling is the same as when we're typing long messages with the controller to answer people on Xbox Live. It takes time, it includes scrolling through several menus, and feels very slow. It's slightly easier when playing the PC version of the game, but on the other hand the gameplay in general feels optimised for a controller.
Thanks to the procedural generation the game-world feels constantly unexpected, which means repeat plays are fresh every time, even if the overarching story remains the same. It is of course really good in terms of replay value and it's always fun to try and out-do yourself, more so than actually finding out what's at the river's end. In this barren post-apocalyptic world, there are also other survivors, true eccentrics, which makes for interesting encounters where we exchange a few words, but in essence, this is a lonely game, you against the world.
It's a great pity that the lousy menus and cumbersome inventory management takes the shine off our overall impression of a game that would otherwise have been a modern classic. Fortunately, despite its flaws The Flame in the Flood is so good that it's still worth your time and money, every day of the week. It's original, exciting, vulnerable, beautiful and a game that you'll want to come back to again and again.
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