The Flame in the Flood PS4 Review
What else is to be expected from a development team named after ‘The Molasses Flood’, a tragic event culminating in 21 deaths and lasting damage, but a rogue-lite survival game about the aftermath of such a catastrophe complete with powerful, sombre tones? A flood has all but wiped out a chunk of a rural county, or so we’re left to assume, and the only way to survive is to keep on moving down the now overflowing river, stopping only for rest and supplies gathering. It’s immediately obvious that the focus of The Flame and the Flood is to show the damage a natural disaster can cause both physically to the land and psychologically to the people affected. The panicked struggle just to stay alive is captured through the mechanics and randomness of the world, as well as the mental state on the NPCs met along the way. Hunting, gathering, crafting, and item and health management are each small parts of what makes for distressing, yet oddly engaging, against-the-clock gameplay.
Besides the extra endless mode, the real game has two settings and whilst there is a ‘normal’ mode (checkpointed and containing more supplies) the only true way to play a rogue-lite game is with perma-death and scrounging along on the bare basics. To gather supplies the player must travel down harsh rivers on a raft, avoiding obstacles and fighting, where possible, against the current to stop off at marked locations. These locations can be anything from camping grounds to marinas or from churches to bars – each with their own ‘usual’ supplies and benefits, such as having a fire to cook with or often containing medicinal items. Once the boat is docked it’s back to the player to run around in search of anything useful (which are found in the form of plants, medicine, and rags etc), craft necessary equipment or food items, and hunt. There are 4 constantly dwindling stats that need to be managed – hunger, thirst, warmth, and fatigue – and if any of them drop too low it’s over.
After gathering the much needed supplies comes the hard part – deciding what to leave behind due to the limited inventory system. It comes in 3 sections – what the player currently has on them and can craft with, space on the raft that it’s good to keep health items and food on as they aren’t needed on the spot, and finally what Aesop, the protagonist’s dog, is carrying (which can be recovered in the next life, even after perma-death). After the crafting, sleeping, and/or consuming of supplies it’s back on the raft and off to the next place. That is essentially the gameplay in a nutshell, and it’s up to the player to continue this cycle as they make their way through all 10 increasingly dangerous regions of the game to the final stop. Besides hunting for fur and meat, which is mostly done by setting up traps and luring in the beasts, it’s all about the Yin of riding and maintaining the raft on the river mixed with the on-land Yang portion of exploration, gathering, crafting, and management of the player’s vitals. The challenge, though, is keeping that status-quo afloat, even in the face of adversity, which is usually caused by some kind of attacking animal or illness from bad food etc.
Whilst the balancing and exploration mechanics are fun it doesn’t take too long before everything has been seen and done and, unfortunately, even with a good amount of supplies and a well-kept character, it’s still easy to lose an entire run in one fell swoop. For example, if a broken leg is dished out by a charging boar or the player was bitten by a snake that was obscured by a tree as they don’t become translucent as the player moves behind them (I’m still not over that one), you may have no chance of recovery due to the randomness of the environment. To cure an ailment might require a bandage but the supplies needed have simply not been found due to the uncertain nature of the gathering mechanic and so the affliction turns into something more severe, for which the only cure is penicillin. This turns the whole game from survival and management into a frenzied rush for penicillin that still may never been found.
Once that happens – the frantic search for a particular item – it’s ‘screw the supplies, to hell with caution’ because death is imminent if no medicine is found. Then, even when one is lucky enough to be blessed with a penicillin tablet the supplies that were neglected in order to find it are unrecoverable and now that’s another huge problem to fill the gap. It’s almost never worth continuing if a worsening ailment cannot be almost immediately cured and that can be incredibly frustrating after way over an hour has been put into a great run. This actually hurts one of the more interesting parts of the game – risk vs reward. When starving and the only option is to eat rotten meat it’s a necessity, but once again all this does is flip a coin that the fate of the run depends on, instead of simply challenging the player. On the other hand, though, after learning what to stay away from it’s not that difficult, with patience and some luck, to get the ball rolling on a good run and because there really isn’t that much to it, once it has been figured out, it’s pure execution; the challenge is diminished.
So the gameplay presents this strange oxymoron of being pretty easy, but still unfairly difficult because of the random element, which is never a nice way to add a challenge, but maybe that’s the message all along – life isn’t fair. Still, although the clashing gameplay aspects could be improved upon, it has a beautiful aura that emanates from its dark yet charming design and wonderful, lively animations. Those and the breathtaking soundtrack are what really shine through. It’s a folk-sy genre that breathes life into the exploration, day and night cycles, and even the stunning storms on the river. In fact, I’d even go so far as placing it up there with the Bastion soundtrack – just incredible. And although the mechanics may get same-y in the long run, due to the lack of much variation, The Flame in the Flood is pure art. It’s full of emotion and is abundantly clear that it was made as a labour of love, making the lack of a true challenge or any real replayability an even bigger shame as it falls short of being great.