I don’t have a lot of experience with survival games. I tend to avoid this archetype, as I’m not a huge fan of extensive resource management or open ended narratives. I did my best to keep an open mind while playing The Flame in the Flood, and early on I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was enjoying it. The developers took liberties to differentiate it from other survival games, through its unique premise of traversing a river by raft. This was the main drawing point for me, although the longer I played it, the more frustrated I became by elements of the procedurally generated game design.
The Flame in the Flood is a river journey through the backwaters of a post-society America. The lite-story follows a young girl named Scout, who’s stranded alone in the wilderness. Scout encounters a stray dog named Aesop, and together they follow a radio signal towards refuge. I’m not sure if there is a satisfying ending, as I was never able to reach it, due to random difficulty spikes and occasional game breaking scenarios.
The Flame in the Flood immediately reminded me of Don’t Starve, which I played when it was released as part of my PS Plus subscription back in 2014. Don’t Starve is a difficult game. It features exploration, hunting and crafting mechanics that you must engage, all while managing the character’s health, mental state and cower around a fire to keep away the creatures in the night. I’m terrible at multitasking and could never survive for more than a few days. The Flame in the flood is difficult for all of the same reasons and then some.
Approximately half of the game is spent traversing the river on Scout’s raft. The small raft drifts along with the current, giving you an opportunity to take in the beautiful landscape, lined with the remains of a once industrious civilisation. Chuck Ragan’s melancholy folk soundtrack compliments the serene environment. Then you reach the rapids and things become tense. The raft is already difficult to manoeuvre, and you lose almost all control while riding the rapids. I found it almost impossible to avoid the islands and debris, which resulted in me drowning again and again. I recommend upgrading the rudder ASAP to greatly improve the handling.
Spread along the banks of the river, are deserted camps where Scout can dock the raft and scrounge for supplies. While the item drops are procedurally generated, each camp type has a higher chance of netting a particular item. Food is more plentiful in the wilderness camps, while medical supplies are often found in derelict towns. This design choice is not without its flaws, as randomness plays too high a part in supply drops. In one of my later play-throughs, I was bitten by a snake. This led to sepsis and eventually death because I never once encountered penicillin to treat the infection.
While drowning was my most frequent form of death, I also died from hunger and lacerations caused by boars, wolves and bears. Every injury or illness you suffer will quickly lead to death if untreated. Wildlife encounters are catch 22 situations. If you have a trap or a bow, animals are the best source of food. If you don’t, they will likely murder you while you search the crafting menu for something to help with the situation.
This is why my final issue lies within the inventory system. It does not pause when you access Scout’s pack. This means that checking progress of objectives, crafting and equipping items, leaves you vulnerable to the hazards surrounding the river. I have encountered this game mechanic before. Although when it prevents me from equipping an item to ward off an animal, it leads me to question the game design.
The Flame in The Flood has its ups and downs. It is an absolutely beautiful experience. The image of Scout and Aesop rafting towards the sunset will stay with me for a long time. When the randomness operates in your favour, the game makes you feel like you’re the king of the world, only for it to be snatched away in an instant by something that is completely out of your control. If frustration was a living organism, it would breed within The Flame in The Flood.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer and fan of Chuck Ragan’s band Hot Water Music. You can follow him on twitter @DrVane