When I interviewed for my current job at EGM immediately following E3 2015, Josh—who is now my boss—asked me what my favorite game of the show was. I told him, without much hesitation, about The Flame in the Flood, a rogue-like from indie outfit The Molasses Flood, a team packed with ex-Bioshock Infinite devs. The game’s grotesque-yet-beautiful art style, folk rock-inspired soundtrack, and Louisiana Bayou-esque setting immediately pulled me in. The Don’t Starve style survival gameplay managed to distract me from the flashing lights of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s show floor—which was a feat, especially at Microsoft’s booth where everything was tinted by green lights. Surrounded by big budget shooters and loud racers, The Flame in the Flood stood out as a game with heart.
I became an evangelist for the project over the last year, showing The Molasses Flood’s colorful take on a watery post-apocalypse to anyone who would listen. However, when I got my hands on the game’s final build, I had to come to terms with the fact that the five minute introduction which had entranced me at E3 was about as deep as the game got. The Flame in the Flood is frustrating and, as much as it pains me to say this, a mess.
The Flame in the Flood is broken into two parts: survival and rafting. The survival portion tosses the protagonist, Scout, into a dangerous wilderness with nothing but the pack on her back. In these sections, you’ll explore instanced areas searching for resources so you can craft the tools you’ll need in order to live through the night. Thirst, hunger, and fatigue meters are how you’ll gauge your survival, and you’ll spend most of your effort trying to keep each one at acceptable levels while avoiding the boars and wolves that stalk the land. Anyone familiar with Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve will immediately recognize that game’s influence on The Flame in the Flood. In fact, The Molasses Flood may have taken a few too many moves from Don’t Starve’s playbook for its survival sections, which make up the majority of the game.
Those sections had a ruleset that was never clear. Rain could last anywhere from two in-game hours to more than eight. You can wait out the downpour indoors, but gauging how long you should stay inside is impossible. I could never wrap my head around what justified some of the game’s core mechanics, and figuring out the best way to react to specific situations often felt obtuse, if not impossible.
In between survival areas, you’ll be rafting down a hazardous river. Threading my raft between rocks and floating houses, taking in the colorful landscapes of the post-apocalyptic Bayou, were some of my favorite moments of The Flame in the Flood. There were also upgrades for the raft, but I was never able to assemble all of the right parts to piece together even one of the enhancements. Honestly though, if the game focused more on coasting down a dangerous river while soaking in the sun, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.
But sadly, you’ll have to take port rather often in order to gather the supplies you need. When you’re on dry land, crafting is the key to staying alive—which is a shame, since the system is presented in the most unnavigable and inelegant way imaginable. Recipes are sorted in a single-column list alphabetically in your guidebook, and finding them can be a chore, even when using the minimal categories that the items are sorted under. The recipes are also listed with very little information, so you’ll need to memorize which items give the stats you’re looking to boost. For example, salted meat replenishes your hunger meter slightly less than cooked meat, though the game doesn’t tell you that until you’re looking at each one in your inventory.
Finding the ingredients necessary to make those items in the wild is completely up to chance. Sure, I was more likely to find rags—a necessary ingredient for bandages—at churches, but it seemed equally likely that I would stumble into a wolf-infested isle during a storm. And coming across exactly what I needed randomly at a port didn’t make me feel like I was overcoming a challenge either—I was just lucking out.
This isn’t a call to make the game easier, but I felt completely out of control over the course of The Flame in the Flood’s events. Dying unexpectedly can ruin a perfectly good run in a way that’s more frustrating than challenging. Whenever I’d lose, I’d feel my stomach churn. I didn’t want to start over—not only because I’d lose my progress, but also because I knew how likely it was that I would meet the same fate the next time on the river.
Citizens of the watery wasteland will occasionally offer help at ports, but these people are severely underutilized beyond set dressing. The characters’ designs seemingly lend themselves to interesting stories—one gravedigger I saw was shoveling away at a tombstone labeled “Scout”—‚but those details are never explored. Interacting with them also invites a plethora of awkward display glitches; dialogue boxes perplexingly flicker, and sometimes chat options would duplicate themselves.
And that’s something which I found a lot of in The Flame in the Flood: glitches. Some were run of the mill, while others were unforgivable. While sitting at a campfire, I once saw a wolf and a boar locked in battle—an interaction I found interesting until, after a few minutes of watching, I realized that the creatures were either programmed or glitched in such a way that one would never kill the other. After leaving the scene of the eternal brawl, I could still hear the sounds of the two animals attacking each other, which was louder than anything else occurring next to me.
Following a heavy storm, the sound of rain falling continued to play after the on-screen rain had stopped; I’m still not sure if it was a mistake that the sound was playing or if the in-game rain was meant to persist. This happened after about 50-percent of the storms I encountered. Piled on top of those generally weird situations were the usual suspects of frequent framerate drops, stuttering, and occasional crashes.
Even with the glitches, though, The Flame in the Flood is one of the most visually interesting titles I’ve played on Xbox One, managing to be simultaneously disturbing and gorgeous at the same time. It’s too bad that so much of that beauty is hidden behind the game’s clunky menu as you try to sort through which items to craft. Its original soundtrack also fits the setting and themes well. The folk rock tunes of Chuck Ragan intermittently swells, setting the scene as one of hope, not bleakness and ruin—an original approach to a post-apocalyptic world.
Salvation supposedly lies at the end of the river, but I was never able to see that end. It got to the point where, even when I bumped myself down to the easy difficulty, which had a few sparsely placed checkpoints scattered on the river, every plunge I took back on the river felt like bashing my head against a wall, hoping to break through to the other side. I’ll always attach The Flame in the Flood to the memory of the E3 where I got my first full-time gig in the industry, but after spending a considerable number of frustrating hours grappling with the game, I don’t think I built a single fond memory while actually playing it.
I love difficult games, but The Flame in the Flood didn’t test my resolve—it tested my patience. A stellar look and an awesome soundtrack made me want to love The Molasses Flood’s first release, but with so many technical setbacks, I could hardly even stomach my time with it. I won’t be returning to the flood.
The Molasses Flood
The Molasses Flood
T – Teen
|The Flame in the Flood is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by The Molasses Flood for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|