An absorbing game which represents value for money, marred by bugs and flawed mechanics
The Flame in the Flood is anchored around two types of physical setting: a river, and various landing points scattered along its shoreline. The river acts as one-way navigation through ten stages, each of which has a number of locations that can be docked at. It’s a dangerous stretch of water, and the unwieldy nature of your unbuffed raft often leads you to miss a landing, or inflict damage — that raft can only take about 10 hits before inevitable drowning and the end of the run. (After one-too-many annoying misses, I grew into the habit of furiously mashing the ‘dock’ button whenever I was anywhere near a landing point; mindless button pressing is not particularly interesting or challenging.)
Fortunately, the main action takes place on land, and it’s a much more gratifying experience. At each landing point, you’ll need to gather resources, from which you can then craft items to help you stave off the threats to your life: hunger, thirst, cold, fatigue, injury, etc. Initially, your small inventory creates the main challenge: which resources you choose to prioritise, and which items you decide to create, in order to prepare for every eventuality. You’ll discover that some resources you initially dismissed are a lot more useful than they seemed on first inspection.
Some of these resources are also threats, in the form of hostile wildlife: wild boar, wolves, and bears. They will attack, and they will injure you (possibly fatally), so your two options are attack first or flee. By the way, the sound some of these creatures makes can be pretty intimidating, especially if you thought you were all alone! Suddenly, the serene atmosphere is broken apart by snarling and howling, and you’re reminded just how dangerous this world is.
Running away means you’ll miss out on whatever resources a predator might be guarding, but attacking also uses up valuable resources in the form of traps, arrows, etc. Occasionally, it turns out your best bet might be to just take a hit, then heal from the injury later.
So, gather everything you can from shore, then … back to that damned raft again. It becomes reminiscent of a ‘move the claw’ arcade game: on the surface, easy and understandable, but that masks an underlying unpredictability. Maybe one should learn to embrace this mechanic: for a change, we have a game that tells us ‘you’re not in control’. After yet another multi-hour run is lost to an innocuous looking rock, though, it starts to grate a bit.
But focussing on the ‘white water rafting’ aspect of this game would be to do it a serious disservice. It can be managed and, most importantly, it’s a side-dish to the main course: a straightforward — but surprisingly deep — survival game. And, like the best survival games, The Flame in the Flood provides a compelling challenge, one of ‘just one more attempt’, where starting a new run is almost more fun than making serious progress. It’s the sense of ‘I know what I did wrong, I can fix that next time’ that will keep you coming back for more, time and time again.
At its heart lies a very well-balanced game. I really like playing this game. I like that sleep is required, that fires offer several different benefits, that rain is present and annoying, but shelter is readily available. It feels realistic. And, yet, balance can only achieve so much. In the long-run, The Flame in the Flood suffers from another problem often faced by survival games: how to maintain the challenge. Survival games are, at their heart, all about coping with various threats, and learning how to prepare for them. Once the player gets reasonably experienced, threats are all but eliminated.
There’s no great solution to this, I fear. It may be inherent in the survival genre — after all, you have to either die, or carry on living indefinitely. Once you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, neither eventuality is really that satisfying. In my first winning run, I reached the point of ‘infinite survival’ with about 3 (out of 10) regions remaining. By this point, the only remaining challenge is to navigate the river, avoiding the hazards, but also avoiding the main points of interest since there’s no longer any point in gathering resources.
The Flame in the Flood still has several standout aspects, most of all the stunning soundtrack which really helps to evoke the solitary, tragic world the player is thrust into. The resource gathering and crafting is enjoyable, and the sense of place is greatly enhanced by unusually detailed references to nature: parasites, ants, aloe, dandelions … seriously, this must be the only game in existence that features sumac, a plant I’d previously never even heard of!
It also has some innovative mechanics: your dog companion not only provides extra inventory space, but serves as a ‘notifier’, pointing you — with an urgent bark — towards resources you might otherwise have missed.
And, although there are other flaws, I consider them fairly minor: a handful of bugs, inadequate support for handheld mode (text and icons are tiny), and a pretty annoying inventory — let’s face it, though, the job of an inventory is often to be annoying!
Ultimately, my biggest issue with The Flame in the Flood is its ending. I’ve certainly got value for money out of the game, but I feel I was ‘lucky’ not to crack the formula earlier. Actually, the very fact that I perceive a ‘formula’ and I now feel like I could easily beat the game every time is a problem in itself. I want to keep playing the game, because its core gameplay is actually so enjoyable, but now I’ve peeked behind the curtain, I can’t quite get enthused enough to do so.
A frustrating game, both intentionally — in a good way — and due to a number of bugs and awkward mechanics. However, if you can brush aside these issues, an enjoyable, compelling experience awaits.
I’ve played The Flame in the Flood for about 55 hours in total, and my winning run lasted 3-4 hours.
I’ve played this game on macOS and Nintendo Switch but prefer the latter due to smoother framerate. I paid £11.24 for the Switch version which is currently priced at £14.99.