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‘Flame In the Flood’: A Beautiful And Harrowing Game of Survival

Flame in the Flood is Don’t Starve meets Toobin,’ and for the most part, it works. It’s beautiful, stylish, fun, difficult, frustrating, and overall well worth checking out for fans of both survival sims and stylish indies.

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Flame in the Flood is Don’t Starve meets Toobin,’ and for the most part, it works. It’s beautiful, stylish, fun, difficult, frustrating, and overall well worth checking out for fans of both survival sims and stylish indies.

Flame in the Flood is a survival sim through and through, but with a watery twist – rather than scavenging an endless land-mass, you careen down a river in a rickety raft, scrounging from island to island for whatever you can find in order to survive another day. The pause menu does a fine job of aptly summing up your trek down this harrowing post-societal waterway. “Travel the river…. Collect food, stay hydrated, warm, and healthy. Survive the wilds as long as possible!” Indeed, there is little more to it than that, but the devil is, as they say, in the details.

Your journey begins on one of its countless procedurally-generated little islands. Your trusted and scruffy puppy-dog friend, Aesop, finds you, you forage for some scant supplies, perhaps try your hand at some light crafting by the fire, and before you know it, you’re sailing down the ole post-apocalyptic river on your ramshackle raft of freedom (and potential doom).

The game dives into its rhythm immediately, alternating between boating on the river and scavenging whichever islands you manage to dock at. In light of this duality, Flame in the Flood feels a bit like two different game designs. Fortunately, they work well in tandem to provide an addictive pace.

The river is a kind of intensive mini-game – old school fans of the aforementioned Atari classic, Toobin,’ will feel at home racing these rapids. For the rest of the world,  in Toobin’ you raced down a river on an inner tube trying to navigate hazards and pick up rewards. In Flame in the Flood the tumultuous river is its own character, temperamentally alternating between relative calm and deadly choppiness, and you dock where and when you can. As you voyage ever onward, there are tempting nooks and crannies that offer their own quick loot and upgrades, but the penalty for crashing and damaging your raft is steep. The mechanics of the boating are simplistic but satisfying, not precise, but not meant to be. As you paddle further and further down the river, you can upgrade your boat to make traveling a bit more accurate and comfortable, but as you do, the river’s various pitfalls grow that much more dangerous with you.

The push and pull management of upgrades meeting greater danger holds true for the rest of your inventory, which is mostly kept stocked up via the countless islands you find. These theoretical reprieves from the churning waters are each represented by a little dock, small ports which you struggle not to crash into represented by tiny symbols that you begin to discern. Understanding the handy symbology gives some sense of what kinds of resources you may be able to scavenge at any given church or forest, but it’s impossible to land at all of them, or to know exactly what you’ll find. Some promise a simple wilderness that might have some berries or fresh water, others a spot with better shelter, some have bait or a place to fix up the old boat. But with each useful resource, there are just as many equally deadly threats that may appear.

Like most survival games, Flame in the Flood becomes a delicate balancing act of shifting priorities steered through tricky choices. While wildlife and weather can be dangerous, the greatest threat is maintaining your own basic needs. Can you go without sleep for one more river run? Will you have enough clean water to get through the night? Should you rummage through that rusty car trunk that might house much-needed alcohol at the risk of inciting an angry boar? These kinds of questions become life or death decisions, and when you choose correctly, it feels genuinely rewarding.

While the balancing act is fun and learning the nuance of its strategies rewards you in multiple playthroughs, there are moments of frustration that feel unfair. It’s possible that many of these design decisions came about in order to inject a still-greater sense of realism to the survival experience, but there are too many moments where they read as misjudgment on the part of the developers, and the result is the game simply being a bit less fun.

As in all survival sims, the procedurally-generated nature of its resources and threats is part of the challenge and the enjoyment, but at times it can feel like dumb luck as to whether or not you might happen upon just what you need in order to survive a snake bite or an oncoming storm. As you progress and learn the game’s systems and signals, you get better at remaining prepared and anticipating threats, but there are moments when you can’t help but feel cheated by bad luck, as the potential catastrophes simply outweigh your ability to stay ahead of them.

And like an unexpected broken bone under a suddenly wet coat, this is aggravated further by the most disappointing element of the game, an under-designed and downright frustrating inventory and menu system. The inventory itself, while again arguably realistic, is impossibly small until you luck into finding a necessary expansion. This is somewhat-alleviated as you can move items between yourself, your dog, and your raft (if you’re close enough to it), but in another all-too-real decision, you must do so in real time, a fact that inevitably leads to death and dismemberment, particularly if what you need on hand is a trap or weapon. Quick menus and keys have been implemented, and help, but they’re really a bandage on a busted system.

On top of the inventory, there are several sub-menus that, given time, you can adjust to, but they simply don’t match the rest of the gameplay. From ill-defined crafting to items that really should just stack themselves, there is a laundry list of needlessly difficult roadblocks to your survival. In a way, the mismanagement of the inventory and menus is that much more frustrating in light how good the rest of the game is.

Thankfully, like a timely splint, the developers have mitigated some of these irritations by including save points, a shock and a blessing for any hardened fanatic of other survival sims. The checkpoint system also includes a loose-but-intriguing storyline and the appearance of a handful of colorful NPCs, all of whom are a delight to discover and learn about. And those who don’t want their hand held in story mode can also opt for the equally entertaining ‘endless mode.‘ (Pro-tip: it won’t be endless. You’ll die.)

In sharp contrast to the menu system, the rest of the game oozes an assured sense of style in its presentation. The post-apocalyptic river and islands exude charm in every soggy dent and detail. On top of the distinct visual appeal, there’s a stirring soundtrack by country musician Chuck Ragan that kicks in throughout the journey, alternating between rollicking and soothing in perfect time with your explorations. All of which leaves you hard-pressed not to feel immersed in this finely-crafted world. The totality is the result of the talented pedigree of the developers, Molasses Flood, a self-proclaimed group of Triple-A refugees boasting veterans from games such as Bioshock and Rock Band. They clearly poured their hearts and souls into the unexpected endeavor, and it shows.

Like the world that your mysterious protagonist has somehow found herself drifting through, Flame in the Flood is imperfect. But despite its flaws, it sings with heart and style, and in the end is just plain fun. If you can forgive a few puzzling design decisions, there’s a wonderful and inventive game waiting to be discovered downriver.

Marty Allen is an artist, writer, and creative producer who lives in Brooklyn. Marty loves to write about video games, pop culture, and all sorts of things. He's written a pile of books and made a bunch of art and songs, but mostly he just plays Animal Crossing, walks his dog, and makes delicious sandwiches.

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