The Flame in the Flood (PC) review – Treading Water

The Flame in the Flood puts players in control of a young girl named scout, and her faithful K9 companion: Aesop as they float downriver on a ramshackle barge.  They are tasked with navigating a fearsome deluge that has swept through the post-societal United States to find what (if any) communities remain. Along the way, the need for food, water and shelter will force these fearless friends from the relative safety of their watercraft to shore. Life on land, however, isn’t much kinder than the raging rapids. They’ll encounter various deadly environments, fearsome creatures and strange friends amidst this title’s beautifully hand-painted art style, accompanied by a completely original folk soundtrack. The Flame in the Flood promises all of this in addition to procedurally-generated “rogue-like” gameplay that demonstrates The Molasses Flood development team’s ambition, as well as their short-sighted indecisiveness.

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What sets this this title apart from other rogue-like survival games is the “traveler” difficulty. This mode includes checkpoints and save states that combine survival crafting with adventure gameplay, culminating in what its creators have dubbed a “rogue-lite” adventure. These checkpoints mean players retain items upon death, and save states are created each time scout rests. There is also an ‘endless’ mode that offers a more traditional rogue-like experience if players are in the mood for a greater challenge. This mode removes item retention (except for those stored in Aesop’s backpack), making for a much steeper difficulty curve. Personally, though I do enjoy standard rogue-likes, I decided to spend most of my time with the traveler difficulty of Flame in the Flood because that’s how the developers intended the campaign to be played.
Making the formula easier by removing permadeath is a tricky feat that the Molasses Flood (for better or worse) succeeds at. To cut down on the repetition that comes with similar titles, The Flame in the Flood puts checkpoints at the beginning of each of the 10 campaign areas. This allows players time to get comfortable with collecting resources and discovering crafting recipes, without being afraid of losing all the progress they make. Any player that’s ever picked up Minecraft, Don’t starve, or Spelunky can attest to how infuriating it is when you get on a good run, only to lose all your items, promptly get knocked back down to the bottom of the totem pole, and have to start all over again. To those players wondering if The Flame in the Flood solves that annoyance: It does.  But removing a cornerstone of the rogue-like experience comes at a price.

What it ends up removing is the incentive for exploration. In other (more pure, perhaps) rogue-likes, exploration is necessitated by the need for survival. Trying to tackle enemies is a pain, but it’s a task that must be done. You might need the food, or the crafting materials they provide. They are powerful and terrifying because in any rogue-like, one wrong move means instant death. The Flame in the Flood is no different in this regard, at least for the first handful of hours. At first, this interaction is plentiful but towards the middle of the game, one of two things will happen. Players will have either have overflowing stores of resources, meaning they no longer have to engage with enemies, or they will have avoided enemies altogether to keep the game relatively easy, eventually hitting a roadblock of terrifying foes. This prohibits passive players from proceeding because up to that point avoiding wild game has allowed them to survive, but also left them woefully ill-equipped. It’s a difficult position to be in either way. On the one hand, players can play the game like a traditional rogue-like and find it too easy half way through, or approach it as an adventure game and find it absolutely insurmountable after a point. I found myself in the former situation, hoping a great narrative would make the campaign worthwhile, and with every intention of digging into the more challenging endless mode afterward to get my rogue-like fix. Unfortunately, I didn’t get either of the things I hoped for.
I didn’t get to enjoy the narrative because there really isn’t one. After introducing such a rich world, shrouded in mystery and likeable protagonist(s), the story drops off completely and I have no idea why.With superb art direction and wonderful world-building this story should write itself. Instead, what is delivered is shallow and glossed over. The world, Scout and Aesop all stay completely unknown to the player, to the point that I’m not certain why The Molasses Flood decided to include a story at all.

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And it’s such a shame. I can’t express how disappointing the lack of a satisfying ending is. It’s not a bad narrative; It’s just that the entire time they’ll give you nothing more than some proverbial floating scrap of story to hold onto, among the sea of character this game is drowning in. Instead of a coherent narrative, the bits of story we do get simply fade away before the credits roll. Sadly, I often found myself lamenting the gameplay for the same reasons. There just isn’t a lot of it and what there is can be absorbed in a couple of sittings. It’s true that on a more difficult setting, progress would be much slower but it doesn’t elevate The Flame in the Flood’s ceiling. You won’t find any of the advanced tech or vast library of crafting items contained in similar titles endgame content.
After racking my brain, I still can’t figure out why Molasses settled on such a shallow crafting system AND a  shallow campaign in the final release version. The half-baked nature of the crafting system and story still have me playing an unsolvable chicken and egg game. Did the team run out of steam after releasing the endless mode in early access, so they tacked on a narrative instead of putting all their chips in the rogue-like pool? Or did the narrative not come to fruition, and to save what might have originally been a survival adventure game from the dustbin, they lumped in rogue-like elements and dubbed them “rogue-lite”? Even now, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve spent more time thinking about how a survival adventure game with such promise left me feeling so empty.

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The worst part is that The Flame in the Flood is not a bad game. It just falls so short of reaching its great potential. Even without a meaty narrative, the characters carry some measure of melancholy charm, and when combined with the setting of sunken post-societal American ruins, and framed by an inspiring folk musical score from an established artist, the scene it paints is absolute genius. It’s like something that Poe and Twain might come up with over drinks, if they then somehow forgot to get a narrator.
Wonderful voice acting has become a staple of many indie game narratives, and it’s a missed soft ball by The Molasses Flood studio. A narrator is really all they needed to tie the story together and complete the adventure portion of this game without blowing up their budget or creating a pile of additional work for their team.

Comparable indie titles like Gone Home, Bastion, and Transistor wove the tapestry of their story together with great actors who could have done all the heavy lifting required to flesh out the story, and taken this title’s immersion to the next level. Given from the size of the studio, I don’t expect it’s likely this will be added as DLC or additional content, but I’m wishing and hoping the team at The Molasses flood can land Sam Elliot for the sequel.

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Though The Flame in the Flood falls short of its full potential, it’s still an enjoyable play. Somehow, the air and immersion the game creates makes up for most of the unfinished feeling I had after playing it. The main characters alone are hauntingly adorable, wading through swamps for cat tails while waiting for a snare trap to go off. The enemies are the kind of common fearsome beasts that feel like an accomplishment to fell. Using spare parts to fix up the raft and make Scout and Aesop a ramshackle vessel just to for the sake of comfort and convenience are all good ideas that make for some engaging gameplay. If The Molasses Flood can refine this ‘rogue-lite’ genre somewhat, or ditch it altogether to offer a better paced, more well-balanced challenge to players, perhaps also adding some great voice acting talent with some interesting writing, The Flame in the Flood would have everything it needs to really make some waves.

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