The Flame In The Flood
PC, Xbox One
Four wolves? That’s just not cricket. And we were only going to grab a couple of saplings to make a snare for the rabbits at the next stop to stave off starvation for a bit longer. It’s not as if our grumbling stomach is our fault either. We’ve been subsisting off fruit and flora – sadly, it turns out high consumption of mulberries produces laxative effects – because the rain keeps preventing us from lighting a campfire and cooking up a batch of ash cakes from the 17 stalks of corn we’re hoarding. Oh, well. Now we’ve got a couple of lacerations to distract us from intestinal discomfort.
Mother Nature’s own RNG is stacked against you in this Roguelike survival game from Massachusettsbased indie The Molasses Flood. As grimly unforgiving as the world is, it’s a handsome kind of dystopia: a rich chunk of rustic Americana, all rushing torrents and ramshackle settlements painted with characterful detail in saturated colour. As the resourceful Scout, you’re dragged downstream on a rickety raft, pulling ashore onto small patches of land to search for the supplies that will, with luck, extend your journey.
Scout’s a stoic young woman, but she’s cursed with an extraordinarily fast metabolism, one that will have her gasping for a meal minutes after she’s eaten a seared rabbit or boar steak. You’ve also got to keep her hydrated, while ensuring her body temperature doesn’t drop too low and that she rests often enough to prevent her perishing from sheer exhaustion. She’s not so much a character as a series of meters to anxiously watch as they deplete, and top up whenever you’re able.
While similar items can be stacked, your pack only has room for 12 slots, a paltry number that means you spend much of the early game shuffling things around in your inventory, temporarily stuffing the least crucial items in the pack of your dog, Aesop, and traipsing back to the pier to dump more on the raft to free up more space. A new pouch would seem to be a priority, then, but for that you’ll need two rabbit hides and a stitching kit made from a fish hook and a fishing line. The most efficient way of catching a rabbit is a snare, crafted from two braided cords and two saplings – and for braided cords you’ll need to pick cattails. That’s a heck of a shopping list already, and that’s assuming you don’t pick up an injury on the way. You’ll have plenty of rags, but without alcohol you can’t make a bandage, and that’s a rarity. Then again, it’s getting dark, and you’ll need that alcohol to make a torch to ward off wild beasts. Could we lure them into a spear trap? Ah, but that requires three more saplings and braided cords, and we’ve not seen either of those for the past half-mile.
The Flame In The Flood wants you to ponder this kind of dilemma: whether to suffer the debilitating effects of an unstitched wound, or to wrap up against the increasing chill by using the same needle and thread to make yourself a rabbit-pelt hat. To follow a glug of unfiltered water with a penicillin chaser to treat the subsequent stomach bug, or to spend valuable time and resources finding room for a campfire to make a refreshing drink of dandelion tea. In theory, survival is about knowing when to keep searching and when to move on, and steadily gaining an understanding of where your priorities should lie.
In actuality, it’s almost impossible to make an informed choice, because you’ve no idea what’s around the corner. Why bother reserving valuable storage space for potential improvements to your raft when you might be three miles away from another marina? Even on the lower of the game’s two difficulty settings, you’re rarely afforded the opportunity to formulate a plan, because you’re always having to react to your current circumstances. You’ll pull up to a pier with a rough strategy, an idea of what you’re hoping to scavenge and craft, and invariably leave without having achieved it – more often than not, having picked up an additional ailment during your visit. Carelessness will diminish your chances of living to see another day, but there are precious few ways to actively improve the odds. Most of the time you’re left hoping for a lucky break, and those don’t come around too often.
Surviving isn’t supposed to be easy, of course. But there’s a line between challenging players and screwing them over, and The Flame In The Flood regularly crosses it. Your fortunes are consistently bound to the roll of an invisible die, though on the third occasion your torch has been extinguished by a sudden downpour while surrounded by animals meaning to do you harm, you begin to suspect something more sinister than unfortunate coincidence. An arbitrary restriction on building a fire near a fishing shack – on what appeared to be a perfectly acceptable patch of open ground – cost us an hour of progress when we were seconds away from treating a venomous bite. This came courtesy of a snake Aesop had failed to warn us about, preferring instead to bark wildly at a piece of flint we’d just dropped. Another hour was wasted on the subsequent run as Scout was left inexplicably paralysed by a charging boar, while a later glitch saw a checkpoint fail to trigger, sending us seven miles back upstream.
Lacking the stark chills of The Long Dark and Don’t Starve’s mordant wit, The Flame In The Flood best captures the central woman-versus-nature conflict when Scout is riding downriver, wrenching her raft away from floating debris and rocky banks as the current tries to steer her into peril. The whoosh of the churning rapids buffeting her unwieldy craft provides a sensory thrill that’s mostly absent elsewhere. The human instinct to carry on no matter what should feel like a primal struggle; dying while fiddling inside your inventory is a pretty pitiful way to go.
Carelessness will diminish your chances of living to see another day, but there are precious few ways to improve the odds
STREAMING DISCONTENT The Flame In The Flood began as an endless survival game with permadeath, though feedback convinced The Molasses Flood to develop a campaign mode with two difficulty settings. Survivalist gives you fewer resources and drains your stats quicker, while Traveler is marginally more generous with supplies and features checkpoints – albeit ones spread some distance apart. There is, too, a story of sorts. You’ll sporadically encounter other survivors along the way, from a pair of feral kids to a curious old woman at a gas station. Given the lack of human contact elsewhere, such encounters are exciting at first, though their gnomic pronouncements in the exchanges that follow hardly feel like sufficient reward for having discovered them.