When I first laid eyes on The Molasses Flood’s maiden offering, The Flame in the Flood, a few things came to mind. First: Gosh this looks purdy. Second: That little dog is cute. Third: Wow, this plays nicely into my pet theory about Oregon Trail being the progenitor of roguelikes. Heck, this game even has real-time rafting!
The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike survival-craft game where you guide an intrepid young gal along a “…River journey through the backwaters of a forgotten post-societal America. Forage, craft, evade predators.” Yes, that’s a quote right from the game’s description, made all the more poignant because this is pretty much exactly what you get. The game has been in Early Access since September 2015, and I’ve embarked on a number of river journeys since that time. So I can confirm, that yes, indeed, you will be foraging, crafting, and evading predators in equal measure.
I will get into the juicy mechanical bits in a moment, but first there is a disclaimer to get out of the way. Molasses Flood has so far maintained its promise that the “story mode” campaign would remain behind locked doors until the day of release. Given this is a Release Day eXcursion, I have yet to experience the story mode. So those reflections will have to wait for a future addendum once I’ve either completed the story or given up in frustration. That said, the basic gameplay of The Flame in the Flood is interesting and well-executed. If you are into roguelike survival-crafty things in the vein of Don’t Starve, you should read on.
Let us begin with that most primal of human activities: foraging. The basic gist of the game is that you are headed downstream to somewheresville across a flooded landscape – an archipelago of ruined humanity. You have to satiate the usual necessities – health, water, food (energy), sleep, and warmth. Doing so requires you to navigate your raft around small islands (don’t crash into them or you’ll take damage and get all wet and cold) in order to find bigger islands where you can dock. Upon disembarking, you’ll explore the carefully-crafted environments (a combination of procedural and manual generation), looking for raw materials and resources that you can consume or use in crafting to maintain your wellbeing, enabling you to continue downriver.
Foraging generally involves waving your mouse over everything and left-clicking to pick stuff up. And if you miss something, there is this adorable little dog named Aesop who will start barking manically at the overlooked whatever-it-is until you grab it. That doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but the game makes it tense nonetheless. For one thing, your status meters drop fairly quickly and are never paused (even in menus), so it creates some frantic moments where you blitz through an area to find that one more piece of cattail so you can make another snare trap and catch a rabbit to cook before you die of starvation.
Of course, you also have a painfully small inventory, which means running your collection of twigs and berries back to the raft with relative frequency (which likewise has a fairly limited inventory). The result is that you are often juggling what to keep and what to leave, what to pack on the raft and what to toss overboard. And there is no going back, since your adventure is always leading onward.
All those cattails, campfire ashes, and rabbit pelts you collect are the raw ingredients for a modest menu of craftable items. From food and medicine to clothing, tools, and gear, you will need to be savvy and judicious with what you craft and when. To survive, you’ll need to learn to take advantage of things as you need them and to jettison everything that’s not worth its storage space.
One final aspect of the crafting/stuff management side of the game that I found rather clever is that Aesop (the little dog) has his own adorable little doggie pack where you can stash a few goodies. What makes this clever is that when you die (which in my case happens with great frequency), all of the items stashed in Aesop’s pack will persist when you start your next journey. I’ve ended up sacrificing myself when in a precarious situation, just to craft one last thing to stash in the pack to give me a leg up for the next run. It’s a nice system for connecting your runs together and lets you have some sense of accomplishment even in defeat.
Hungry wolves, pissed-off boars, and ravenous bears – this unholy trinity of wildness is sure to ruin your best-laid plans. Essentially, each island has a chance to spawn one or more predators. The predators will chase after you and cause serious injuries if you aren’t careful. For those who like to live dangerously, rather than running away like a sensible coward, you can set various traps to kill these predators, which of course nets you a large amount of food and pelts.
I find that foraging with predators nearby boils down to a battle of chicken with said predator. Most predators hang around a particular zone, so it’s tempting to try to dash in and grab some precious items out of their territory. But doing so inevitably starts “the dance” as you run circles around terrain features, trying to maintain some separation from the wild beasty. One wrong click can send you spiraling towards your death with a string of injuries. Even more insidiously, every moment spent in “the dance” is a further drain on your condition, so you need to think very carefully about how to address predators.
Life on the River
Overall, the game mechanics come together in a very tight package. I’ve personally found the game to be quite hard, bordering on frustration at times. Trying to learn the crafting menu options while watching your life meters tick away is unsettling. I can appreciate why the game doesn’t allow pausing, as it does keep you gripped in the moment, but until you know what you are doing it can be monumentally aggravating. The issue of game difficulty has bounced around the forums during the Early Access period, and the pacing and balance has been tweaked. Once I get a chance to play through the story mode, I’ll report back on the overall difficulty of the endeavor.
Tactically and strategically speaking, I enjoy the game constantly forcing me to make tough decisions based on risk-reward. Even when navigating the raft down the river between your island hops, the game dangles little pickups in front of you. You need to decide quickly whether you are willing to risk going closer to shore to get the bonus goodies or to play it safe. In this regard, the game is one of skill, both in the planning and use of resources as well as in the hand-eye dexterity (twitch) sense. If you lose focus when tearing through the rapids or falter in your “dance” with wild predators, you’ll pay the price. I pay the price often, it seems, and have been hard pressed to last more than a dozen days. Ah well…
One final note, the production quality of the game is top-notch, which is good given the pedigree of the developers at the Molasses Flood (former Irrational, Harmonix, and Bungie devs). The game is visually quite pleasing and executes the whole big polygon aesthetic better than any other game I’ve seen recently. The musical score is also pleasant, with enough country twang to satisfactorily conjure up the feeling of heading down the Big Muddy in its most extreme flood stage. It is at those moment where the game is at its best: when your belly is full enough, you’ve just dogged that voracious boar, the sun is setting, and you hop on your raft to head downstream once more.
TL;DR: The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike survival-craft game where you lead a young lady and her dog down a flooded river while trying to survive against hunger, dehydration, cold, fatigue, injury, wolves, giant boars, jagged rocks, and, of course, rapids. The mechanics are relatively simple and straightforward, yet the game nevertheless creates a tense and challenging decision space, which you will need to navigate carefully if you are to survive. Aesthetically, it’s glorious, and the game has enough charms and novel tweaks to keep you coming back, but be prepared for plenty of frustration as you learn the ropes. It is a roguelike, afterall.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy roguelike games with a hearty dose of survival-crafting (think Don’t Starve).
- You enjoy games with focused gameplay that force you to make tough choices and tradeoffs.
- You enjoy games with a high degree of difficulty that requires both tactical decision making and a bit of manual dexterity (twitch) in the execution.
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- The constant time pressure to act will cause you frustration.
- Having to juggle inventories and manage stocks of ingredients gives you nightmares.
- You have a profound disdain for twangy music.
Oliver has played approximately 13+ hours of The Flame in the Flood on a MSI GX-640 Laptop with a Core i5-430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5)