Review: The Flame in the Flood

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Generally when the world ends in video games, the outgoing society leaves behind a bunch of cool stuff to play with. Whether it be laser guns and power armor or enchanted relics of the apocalypse, there’s something to make your survivor’s guilt that much more bearable. Not so in The Flame in the Flood, a low-tech, backwoodsy take on survival after the end. It’s got more than enough style to make up for it, along with some unique gameplay hooks, but not quite enough to really spice up your wilderness odyssey for long.

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An unspoken cataclysm has effectively ended the world, and rural America is definitely not the place you want to be when that happens. The rivers have risen, the weather’s turned vicious, and what critters remain are desperate for a meal. With little more than a faithful dog and a rickety raft to your name, your mission is to chase the hope of some vestige of society left where you can live out your life in peace and comfort. As you journey downriver you’ll learn a little more here and there about what remains of the world you knew, and also just how brutal the new natural order can be.

The Flame in the Flood has two key components to it, the rafting and the scavenging. Aboard your little scrap dinghy you’ll have to navigate down a grand river of flood waters, avoiding outcroppings, buildings, and flotsam. It’s not the easiest thing to control, especially fighting currents from the odd half-profile camera view, but you do have a sort of dodge and you can upgrade your raft with a motor later. On your way down the river you’ll see docks marked with icons for the kinds of locations there are. These spots are where you’ll scavenge for supplies, do your crafting, and probably die.

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Scavenging puts you in an overhead third-person view of your survivor and their pup, scrambling around a small area in search of crafting materials. We’re not talking power cores or circuit boards here, we’re looking for saplings, flint, and feathers to make arrows one at a time. The items you turn up here are aggressively pragmatic, owing to the desperate situation you find yourself in. Cattails and rags form the basis of much of your gear, and some of the most valuable finds are jars and handfuls of screws. Each location is themed around certain pickups, like alcohol and rags at liquor stores or flint and charcoal at campsites.

What you do with these finds is manage your four needs for food, water, warmth, and sleep. You’ve got some variety for each, scavenging berries or ensnaring bunnies, purifying river water or tracking down old pumps, crafting clothes or traveling only during warm, dry weather, and sleeping wherever you find old cars or buildings. Other items are used to build crafting tools, simple weapons like gas bombs or bows, or upgrade your raft with shelter or a stove. Most of the goods you find are pretty constant throughout the game, with only pelts from animals being more limited early on.

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There’s no shortage of threats to life and limb beyond the elements, either. Anything bigger than a bunny is going to be out for blood, and you’ll need to be ready for their desperate assaults. Combat is not a focus of The Flame in the Flood, as you’ll notice several options for traps but only the bow for direct attacks. This means unless you’re lousy with spear traps, most critters will be running you off once they make themselves known. Being attacked isn’t immediately fatal but you need medical resources to alleviate cuts and bites before they get infected and kill you, so being prepared is once again key.

I’ve just described a sort of cross between The Long Dark and Huckleberry Finn, and indeed the game captures that unique magic of both. The survival elements challenge you to juggle risk and reward and give that thrill of finding just what you need right when you need it. The unique art style combines vibrant colors with large, bold shapes to give the game an earthy, folksy feel. Nothing is quite as effective as the bluegrass soundtrack though, the perfect accompaniment to this rough and melancholy journey. There’s a boatload of personality in the presentation, despite the game being very light on dialog and text in general.

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It would be a perfect treatment of the concept, if not for the issue of scope. The campaign in The Flame in the Flood takes you across ten regions, most of them spanning many miles of river and well over a dozen points of interest. At each of these points you’re pretty much going to be doing the same things, scavenging for the same supplies, crafting the same items, and filling the same needs. Without major differences between the landings, between the items you find and the creatures you face, the game threatens to get repetitive in a hurry. And it’s not a short game, either. The campaign took me nearly six hours to finish once, and the only other game mode is literally endless.

The Long Dark gets by on having a vast and varied world to explore, and plenty of things to do to survive. The Flame in the Flood gets halfway there, with a vast world and some survival options, but never gets enough variety in there to keep it compelling. As much as I adore the atmosphere and environments and strategy of survival, I really had to push myself to finish the thing before shelving it. It’s totally worth it by the way, because the ending is a perfect mix of somber and uplifting, but it’s a hell of a journey to get there. That’s probably by design, and while the design certainly isn’t perfect, it’s good enough to experience at least once.

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