Review: 'The Flame in the Flood' (Switch)

From 'The Flame in the Flood.' From 'The Flame in the Flood.' THE MOLASSES FLOOD

The Flame in the Flood is not your standard video game, which makes you feel capable and powerful, as if you could take on the world. This game makes you feel powerless and desperate, constantly on the verge of death. The world is indifferent to your struggles, and if you manage to survive it's often by the skin of your teeth. This is the kind of feeling I rarely feel in video games, and it makes The Flame in the Flood: Complete Edition a game that's worth your time, even if the experience is imperfect.

This game takes place in a ruined and flooded world. Civilization has mostly been wiped out, with ruined structures dotting the landscape, towns and cities turned into lakes and rivers, and other humans few and far between. You play as a young woman who stumbles across a dog named Aesop (or Daisy, if you prefer), who brings a radio that carries some signal and a glimmer of hope. This sets you off on your journey down the river, in hopes that you might find something resembling civilization.

There are two main components to the gameplay. The first is rafting down the river, in hopes of reaching your next story objective (or, in an endless game, to get as far as you can). As you go, you'll pass by a number of docks where you can stop your raft, in order to try and get supplies, or maybe find a campfire. Each location is marked with its type, in order to indicate what you're likely to find; it's a good thing, too, because you absolutely will not be able to make it to every stop. You'll have to choose your path down the river carefully, in order to make the stops you want to make; if you get greedy, or indecisive, you'll end up unable to stop anywhere and go on with nothing. You'll also need to watch out for rocks and obstacles, because if your raft takes too much damage, it's game over. What's really annoying is when you take a really wrong turn and end up trapped in a dead end, giving you no choice but to die; I wish this wasn't a possibility.

Whenever you dock your raft, you'll start exploring the region on foot. You'll need to search every nook and cranny for supplies, or lay down traps in order to catch animals for food and pelts. You can sometimes find structures to safely sleep in, or you can find (or build) a campfire, which will have the same effect while warming you up as well. Campfires also keep wild animals away, which are the biggest danger while you're exploring. Boars, bears and rattlesnakes will mess you up pretty badly, though you'll also have to look out for ant territory. Even worse, wolves tend to come out at night en masse, making any sort of night trips a dangerous proposition.

This game is a wilderness survival roguelike, with a heavy emphasis on survival, because it's not easy. As you make your way down the river, you have to contend with four different gauges that are constantly depleting: Hunger, Thirst, Temperature, and Rest. Hunger and thirst are fixed by food and water, respectively, but if you haven't cooked the food or filtered the water you might end up sick. Your temperature goes down if you don't have warm enough clothes for the weather, or if you end up caught in the rain; if there's no bright sunlight to warm you up, your only hope is a campfire, or resting for a tiny bit of temperature increase. Rest is naturally increased by sleeping, but the longer you rest, the more your hunger and thirst increase.

A major component of survival is crafting. As you gather supplies and wilderness items, you'll have to open up your crafting menu and turn them into other, more useful items. Cat tails become ropes, animals become warmer clothes, and lumber can turn into raft upgrades or repairs. You'll unlock more crafting recipes as you collect the proper ingredients for them, and you'll always be able to tell what more you need in order to craft a certain thing. Most items can be crafted anywhere, while others will require you to trach down a workbench, which isn't always available.

I ended up really liking the crafting system in this game. It's really easy to use, which is good because it's absolutely integral to the game. On top of that, it's really satisfying to craft your way all the way up to something major, like really warm clothes or an upgrade to your raft. Nothing in this game is a bigger relief than finally getting all the pieces together to add something like a water catch to your raft.

On top of your main objective, the game offers a number of smaller quests for you to complete. These can be quests to make you craft a certain thing, or collect a certain number of things, or even kill a certain enemy. If you complete a quest, you'll often find a reward waiting for you in a nearby mailbox, which doesn't make much sense but it's not worth worrying about. You can collect quests from these mailboxes, or sometimes a quest will suddenly appear when you encounter a legendary enemy or something to that effect. These are a nice way to give you some smaller goals or direction while trying to complete the main objective, and I was a fan of these.

With all that said, I do have some complaints with this game. One thing that bothered me a lot was how the game doesn't do a great job of explaining some mechanics to you. I took a few early deaths because I didn't know that you had to both deploy and build a trap, for example, leaving me to get gored by a boar. Later on in the game, once you've explored a good number of areas, the game starts to feel a little bit repetitive. If you've somehow gotten yourself to a good place, with lots of food and a jar of clean water, you can raft for an extremely long time without having to stop, especially in the later stages where enemies are everywhere and it's raining and docking frankly becomes a waste of resources.

The game's annoyances are more than made up for by the experience, though. As I mentioned before, this game can really make you feel desperate, and moments of outright comfort are rare. Later in my one successful playthrough, I found myself desperately sailing down the river with my thirst meter down to single digits, waiting for my water catch to fill with water so I wouldn't die. Immediately after that, it started raining and wouldn't stop, and I nearly froze to death as there was no place to build a campfire, and shelter was not easy to find. Those moments of desperation, of feeling weak and powerless, were oddly exhilarating. These aren't things I often feel when playing a game, but The Flame in the Flood is good at delivering them.

As you can imagine, this game is difficult. Everything is out to kill you, and your ability to fight back is pretty pathetically limited. You're never the aggressor and you're constantly on the run. Even on the easier difficulty, the game can prove to be a challenge; the harder difficulty reduces the amount of supplies and removes all checkpoints, meaning that when you die, you are completely dead. It's not a total loss, though; if you give any items to your dog Aesop to store, they can be carried over to your next playthrough. If you find yourself about to die, you can take off all your best items and give them to your dog, making your next attempt a little bit easier.

The game has a great atmosphere, as well. The art style isn't my favorite, but it's distinct and stylized. Certain things in the environment blend into each other, but if you're paying attention you'll be able to identify them; I like this a lot, as it forces you to be aware of your surroundings, lest you walk over ants. The music is nice, too; when you're rafting down the river, you'll have a radio playing rafting music, which oddly helps contribute to the idea of a ruined world. The wilderness areas do eventually start to all look the same, which is a disappointment; you're not going to have that many surprises in the last few regions of the game. The final region, however, is really cool and atmospheric, and a great way to cap off the game.

Seeing as the game is a roguelike, replay value is built in. Each world is procedurally generated, so you'll never play the same version of the game twice. It can take a good number of tries before you manage to see the end, especially if you're playing on the harder difficulty. After I beat the game, though, I personally didn't have a strong desire to jump right in and play again; I think I'm going to need a bit of a break from it. I tend to do that with roguelikes, though; after enough time away from it, I can see myself going back and trying to beat the game on the harder difficulty, which I was too weak to do the first time around.

The Flame in the Flood: Complete Edition is a game that really stresses survival, and it will frequently elude you as your search for supplies and water grow more desperate. If you want to play a power fantasy, this is not the game for you. If you want to feel like a small survivor in a large world, indifferent and hostile to your existence, this game is a solid addition to your Switch library.

Final score: 8.2 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.

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