A million ways to die in the (mid)west
An excellent survival game is a tricky proposition. It requires a good balance of tough but fair mechanics. But survival isn’t really fair, now is it? All that scavenging and careful planning will do little good when your torch goes out from a sudden storm, then bit by a snake, slashed by wolves and ultimately ravaged by a bear. Not to worry though, you were probably freezing to death anyway.
The Flame in the Flood puts you into the role of Scout, a quick witted girl on a river rafting tale of dysentery and determination. You have the choice to play a campaign mode, either with perma-death or a checkpoint system, that includes a set of ten regions to explore. The other is Endless mode, where you simply survive as long as you can in this harsh world. The story unfolds with nothing but a quick cinematic, introducing you to Scout and her new canine companion, Aesop. There is almost no explanation to drive what you’re doing; all you know is the world is flooded and you need to endure it, however you can.
Because of the structure of the gameplay, a complex narrative isn’t truly necessary. The developers at The Molasses Flood likely intended your experience to tell a story; be it triumph or utter defeat. Trust me, narrative explanations fall by the way side when you’re feverishly searching for supplies. There’s no time to think, “Hey, why’s this dog got a backpack?” But instead, simply be grateful for the extra space that you so desperately need.
Desperation is the best feeling to describe The Flame and the Flood because, much like Mother Nature, the gameplay is cruel and unforgiving. From the moment you set sail and dock on your first (hopefully) resource ridden island, you realize the rapids aren’t the only bumpy ride you’ll be in for. Within the first twenty minutes of playing I encountered a wolf, and being so early on, I was in absolutely no position to defend myself. Making a mad dash for the docks, I became winded thanks to a depleted stamina meter. This resulted in a swift attack from the wolf and me earning my first of many afflictions. Now, suffering from a laceration and with no current medical supplies, I pressed forward down the river in hopes to find a clinic, one of the randomly generated locations you’ll come across. In the midst of this trip, a storm broke out and during a blinding lightning flash, I made a wrong turn onto some choppy waters. This led to me damaging my raft and being pushed towards a campsite that was far away from the clinic I gravely needed.
Like another soul shattering series, seeing that bonfire restored what little hope I had left. At this time, I remembered I’d found moldy lumps, which I proceeded to use at the campfire to create penicillin. This cured the staph infection that my wound evolved into, which would have escalated to sepsis, then eventually death. Taking a much needed rest by the fire to replenish my fatigue, I awoke only to find myself near starvation instead, due to the previous wound causing hunger and thirst to drain faster. To make a long story short, (too late) on my search for food, I was attacked by a boar, had bones broken then eventually died my first of many deaths. But like any survival game worth its weight in jerky salt, death is part of the appeal, and you use it to plan ahead.
As I mentioned though, planning only goes so far. Since the game randomly generates everything from locations, to the river flow and the loot you find, you can’t ever go in expecting the same results. This means you always have to make the best out of any situation, playing a constant lottery of life and death. One scenario may leave you with wolves to kill for meat but result in you dying of thirst if you had no jars of spare water. Next time you’ll remember the water, but now you may be left munching on mulberries in the absence of your previous meat source. It’s moments like this that make you realize that while the game feels slow paced, it requires snap decision making at every turn.
That includes the menus as well, which both work for and against the game, unfortunately. The sign in the opening warns “don’t idle”, and that means anytime, anywhere. Inventory management doesn’t pause gameplay, and while this isn’t a problem in its own right, and certainly matches the sense of urgency expected of a game like this, it does have its issues. Mainly because it’s a bit too bulky and cluttered for quick navigation in dire situations, and can result in deaths that could have been prevented otherwise.
There’s a slight hotkey function that allows you to use medical supplies, torches and a few weapons on the fly, but it’s only useful if they’ve already been crafted. A quick crafting button, granted you have the supplies on hand, would of alleviated some of this frustration. The best way I found to deal with it though, is to only do serious item management when you are at least 50% in most stats, especially thirst and hunger. This will give you time to really consider what you need on you, which is crucial, given the amount of things to scrounge for and limited inventory slots you have before upgrades.
The world may be grim and the outlook bleak, but the eye catching art style and inspiring soundtrack do wonders to liven things up. The graphics are presented with a jagged, colorful, pop-up book like appearance, with everything from creatures to the environment designed with strange, exaggerated proportions and features. Scout’s appearance coincidentally makes me think of Jane Lane had she gone camping during the apocalypse. Considering she hates girl scouts, and camping, that’s amusing to me.
The soundtrack is a mix of uplifting country/folk acoustic melodies with occasional lyrical pieces, composed by Chuck Ragan. Rolling down some rapids while “Landsick” plays, or crawling to a campfire, seconds from hypothermia to the titular theme song, are but a few moments made memorable because of the music. The sounds of rushing water and wolves howling provide atmosphere but also remind you that you’re in near constant danger.
The biggest fault with the game is the technical flaws. Frame rate dips, odd AI behavior and assorted bugs that can very easily ruin gameplay. Apart from getting stuck on or between objects, and an occasional missing command prompt, I encountered the same game breaking glitch, twice. On my first playthrough, a little over halfway through, I reached a point where the river failed to generate an exit, causing my raft to crash and for me to drown. Since I was on the perma-death survival mode, I lost hours of progress.
Thankfully, on normal, the slightly more generous checkpoint system prevented another full restart, but still tacked on an extra hour or two of replaying sections. And because I’m a silver lining kind of person, I’ll say this is where the procedurally generated gameplay really worked in its favor, because at least it felt a little different, and I even made a better run out of it too. With that said, these are still serious issues that need to be addressed, especially in a game where death can really mean game over.
Or maybe it’s just because I’d spent hours in a world that constantly beat me down, but told me to push forward in spite of everything. When it’s all said and done, that is the experience. The Molasses Flood set out to accomplish, and that’s what The Flame in the Flood excels at. The mechanics and AI are flexible enough to allow different types of playthroughs and it’s unpredictable nature keeps it interesting. The technical side can be as rough as the river rocks, but when running smoothly, the flow of its gameplay is worth the ride.