by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
When a game arrives fresh out of the hands of a group of people partially responsible for creating the inspiring and provocative Bioshock series, you might be forgiven for having one or two expectations. But despite the pressure such a thing might bring to bear on a developers head, The Flame in the Flood manages to stand apart in a world of its own.
This is in no small part helped by the genre of the game. The Flame in the Flood is a form of rogue-lite survival game set in a post-societal America. But the big difference between this and other survival games is that you are always on the move. Whereas other games tend to have you building your skills and resources to create and develop a foothold in the landscape, The Flame in the Flood has you almost continuously on the move. This is represented by the game’s procedurally generated world, which consists of a massive overflowing river cutting its way through the landscape and creating little islands and dangerous rapids. It is this unique setting and the effective way in which it is presented that have the biggest role in immersing you in this game. The charmingly creepy/beautiful graphical style of the game has an aesthetic that flits between almost cardboard cutout animation and a dark graphic novel. This combined with the game’s impressive sound design, makes for an evocative and atmospheric experience. The ambient sounds of the environment moving around you and the perfectly pitched strains of the Americana soundtrack are superb. When it comes to making the world, and by proxy the game, feel alive, the developers have certainly succeeded.
Getting on track
When it comes to actually playing the game, there are one or two things staunch survivalists might have to get used to. The nature of this game being that you are constantly on the move down the flowing river means there’s not a lot of time to linger. Rather than taking your time scavenging, crafting and organising your inventory, the push is far more in the direction of surging on through as fast as the game will allow you. So when it comes to scavenging the small islands for useful loot, to fill your oh so small inventory in order to stave off hunger, thirst, condition and exhaustion, the faster the better. Trying to scour everywhere and spend time organising and crafting whatever you can wastes precious energy and time. Therefore the essentials approach is really the wisest way to go. This also helps to make The Flame in the Flood more of a tense and exciting experience, by encouraging you to make quick decisions and not collect literally everything you find, no matter how tempting.
The theme of the endlessly flowing river pervades everything, even the gameplay. This in turn reinforces the overall feeling the game is adept at inspiring in you. This really is survival in its purest form. The kind of survival where you are actually limited, and are regularly on the back foot. Always pushing upstream, you could say. There are moments when you are literally at death’s door, in perilous situations, whether it is on your raft amid jagged rocks and a rushing current, or faced by dangerous creatures in the underbrush. These prove consistently exhilarating, especially when you have barely enough energy to last and are pretty certain it’s all about to end. But there are moments of calm amid all the tension and danger, when everything slows down and you can really take in the game and world in all its foreboding beauty. There are unfortunately a few clunky elements to the game, like inventory management and crafting. It’s a shame that these couldn't have been ironed out and streamlined a little more as they do pull you out of the experience somewhat. Everything else is so tightly designed and linked to the overall theme that it is a little jarring when you have to stop everything and work through multiple menus to find what you need. But all in all, once you are back into the heart of the action, it’s engaging enough to override that frustration you might feel.
Something a little different
It may take you a few attempts to get a handle on the game’s ecosystem and pace, to unlearn what you have learnt from the countless other survival games out there. But once you have, you will find a game that opens up the survival genre for those looking for a more short paced fix. A game in which there is constant ebb and flow of chaos and tranquility, and a focus on the here and now rather than on planning and preparation for what might lie ahead. This is an engaging and invigorating survival game, which forces you to sacrifice the way you have gotten used to playing these games. What is impressive about it is how it does that in a way that remains satisfying, exciting and refreshing throughout.
Beautiful visuals and audio, engaging gameplay