[Update: The review (but not the score) has been updated to include the new Complete Edition, exclusively out on PlayStation 4. The score reflects the game as reviewed originally on Xbox One, on April 4, 2016.]
The Molasses Flood’s The Flame in the Flood for PC and Xbox One came and went with too little fanfare. A rogue-lite survival game, the title focuses on surviving a post-apocalyptic world utilizing careful inventory management, a prudent crafting system, and a raft to voyage through the floodlands. The result is an ambitious indie title which is most fun when the protagonist is fighting against all odds, but is easily susceptible to tedium.
The Flame in the Flood is at times hard to describe, even to the most seasoned gamers. The closest mainline comparison to recognizable games may be Klei Entertainment’s 2013 hit, Don’t Starve.
Starting with the positives, The Flame in the Flood is a more digestible experience than many other resource-management titles. For instance, while players are more or less dropped in the world, they are given clear instructions and tutorials in the outset to curb the difficulty. By no means are the tutorials all encompassing — they focus mostly on the mechanics of the game, status affects, and the like — however I never felt lost, an accomplishment in a genre noticeably vague and dense.
More nuanced (yet equally important) lessons are easily learned in each iterative gameplay cycle. In my first run, I lasted nearly 6 days before dying from snake bites. The quick takeaway lesson was to avoid snakes at all cost, or always keep a steady supply of dandelion tea. My next run down the river lasted 28 days; while I kept myself safe from snakes, I learned that the further down I went, the colder the environment became. If I wanted to make it to the nebulous end-of-the-river destination, I would have to prioritize crafting warmer clothes in the beginning, when rabbits and wolves are easily found and harvest-able. In short, each death (while disheartening in its own right) never feels like a punishment, so much as it feels like a life lesson.
Last, but most importantly, The Flame and the Flood has an expertly designed difficulty ramp that keeps things both challenging and interesting. The first few hours is more or less lackadaisical as you discover the ins and outs of the game’s crafting system and mechanics. The most challenging obstacle is merely keeping yourself well rested, well fed, and well-equipped to deal with rabbits and the occasional fire ants. The game quickly shifts to a tense, no holds barred fight against the environment, where those same tested mechanics are key to survival. As the game slowly adds new challenges, enemy-types, and dangers, you slowly begin to master micromanaging all things at once. Regardless, the game feels continuously tense — one moment, you are holding enough medkits and food to survive in a camp for days on end, the next moment you can be teetering between life and death, followed by enemies, or freezing to death.
However, this difficulty ramp also manages to be one of my largest gripes with the game — it simply disappears as soon as you have seen everything in the game. Nearly 9 to 10 hours in (on my third playthrough), I had seen all of the environments, found all the enemies, and had an easy fix for any danger I may face. As mentioned previously, I had known to farm for food early and often, collect animal pelts, and have a quick response to any animal that may cross my path. And while mastering the game had its own sense of satisfaction, the lack of adversity felt like a lack of purpose. Instead of collecting further resources and stopping to make incremental improvements, I opted to ride down the river and just get to the end-game as soon as possible.
This problem has its own in-game solutions — there are difficulty level options which reduce the resources found, making the game more difficult for a longer time. Additionally, the Endless option will take out the end-point at the end of the river, leaving the player to high-score chase by means of days or distance rafted down the river. But in the end, the lack of content after encountering bears severely impacted my enjoyment of the game.
Another noticeable blight on the game are some substantial technical hiccups on Xbox One, which led to frequent screen tearing, pop-ins, sound/music difficulties, and at times, crashes. While everything but the screen tearing happens infrequently, the game certainly looks like it could receive a few more weeks of bug-fixing or a post-launch patch to remedy the end-user issues.
The last point worth mentioning is that a majority of the game is played in the menu screen. While exploration and the environment are important, the gameplay loop requires constant micromanagement of your equipment to assure survival. Players will be constantly shifting, upgrading, and crafting inside the game’s menus. And while this may sound tedious in description, it never had that feeling in practice. Menu breaks were always a much needed break in tension and a time to strategize on where to go and what to do next.
The latest iteration of The Flame in the Flood is the new “Complete Edition,” featuring developer commentary, a dynamic theme and in-game enhancements — fixes that solve the screen-tearing and other technical issues found in the originally reviewed Xbox One version of the game. And The Flame in the Flood: Complete Edition holds true on all of these promises, resulting in a hands-down better performance. Playing on my PlayStation 4 Pro, I couldn’t find a screen tear or frame-drop to save my life, under normal or intensive asset load.
More prominent, for those interested in the development side of games, the developer commentary (featuring friend of DualShockers Forrest Dowling and other Molasses Flood team members) offers a fascinating look at many of the elements in the game. They discuss topics from designing in-game assets, world building, tutorialization and lessons they learned from working in AAA studios. Packed in with a stunning dynamic theme, The Flame in the Flood: Complete Edition is the definitive version of the game, and well worth the premium to get it on the PlayStation ecosystem.
As I rafted lazily down the river, passing churches and camp grounds, I found a moment or two to reflect on my time with The Flame in the Flood. I wonder “How much time have I spent with in-game menus?,” “I wonder how far I can make it before my resources run dry?,” and “How in the world can anyone kill a bear?” The game had lost its challenge an hour or so ago, but I remembered my first 10 or so hours fondly as constantly challenging and enjoyably tense. And while I don’t see myself playing the game for too much longer, the The Flame in the Flood is a solid recommendation for anyone looking to diversify their catalog with a short, challenging, and artistically crafted indie title.