I can’t claim to have an enormous amount of experience with the survival genre – about the best I can muster is “I was in the same room as somebody playing Don’t Starve once.” So let it be an even more positive endorsement that I found this game a pleasant experience.
Not pleasant in terms of mood or atmosphere you understand, oh gosh no, it’s more foreboding than an unexpected letter from the council. The opening menus are literally framed by crows and a sad dog pawing at a skeleton, and from there every aspect of this game aims to give you an ominous, dark, lonely experience. The visuals are dulled and understated, often deliberately to the point of making seeing difficult, and spotlight a Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, giving everything a creepy, unsettling vibe despite the cartoony design – though despite this, the lighting effects dancing on the titular floodwaters can sometimes be surprisingly pretty to look at. Moreover, the soundtrack, in a similar fashion to Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild earlier this year, uses silence to generate mood very effectively; while this game’s soundtrack is excellent and definitely worth a look, a lot of the time you’re left completely alone with the sound of the rushing floodwaters, or a gently crackling fire, or a wolf’s howl followed immediately by the sound of running and crying.
The setting, too, is pretty darn bleak. Drawing from the now surely borderline-barren well of “games set during the apocalypse,” we at least get a double-dip of fairly uncommon apocalypses; the apocalypse that is sudden horrendous mass flooding, which as somebody who heralds from Devon I can relate to completely, combined with the apocalypse that is having to live in the Bible Belt of America. I’m joking, I’m joking… please, put the rifles back. Beyond that, you’re given very little to go on to start with; the protagonist, Scout, and your choice of canine companion Aesop (which probably couldn’t be more heavy-handed if it tried) or Daisy (which I’m also not a fan of but that’s mainly because of Mario Party war flashbacks) find a radio, still functional despite the immense risk of water damage, and need to take it to high ground to get a signal. If you’re not an adventurous sort that’ll all you’ll get – those with a bit more stomach for exploring the wilderness however will find “quilts” littered around that detail individual people’s reaction to the flooding, which fleshes out the world in a unique and interesting way. They’re aided by all the character’s dialogue and even the flavour text on items being written in a pronounced but respectful southern twang, and the aforementioned soundtrack all being country folk-ish tracks by country folk-ish artists gives the game a very authentic, “real” feel.
Hopefully my self-professed lack of knowledge of the genre won’t undermine this point, but in my humble opinion the game is fun. It’s fun, and it does a lot to alleviate a lot of the problematic “tropes” within the survival genre, at least to my inexperienced but unbiased mind. The biggest of these is big enough to make up fifty percent of the title: “the Flood.” This serves several purposes; first of all, it separates what would be a large unwieldy wilderness environment into smaller, self-contained areas, each with their own “theme” like campsite, church or marina, which are more likely to yield particular resources. This is useful because, also unlike other survival games, Flame in the Flood keeps you moving – supplies in any given areas dry up (ironically) very quickly, so there’s no base-building to speak of – the closes thing to that would be your raft itself, which is a pain to upgrade and can be destroyed navigating the treacherous waters. This means finite resources are doubly valuable; there’s no guarantee when you’re going to encounter them again, which can really lend to the feeling of dread and helplessness the game is evidently trying to make you feel, especially when Scout’s four life gauges (food, water, body temperature and tent, or fatigue if you must call it something sensible) are front and centre permanently. The water navigation sections are also a nice break from the foraging, and the two gameplay styles form a cohesive whole very well. The more typical survival elements, too, just feel good: the progression from merely scrounging around for anything you can find like a hungry hungry hedgehog, to crafting snares and bows and actually thriving out in the wilderness just feels really good, I can’t word it any better than that. Especially since the crafting system rewards knowledge and the game will happily kick you when you’re down while you’re just starting out – and even then, the river is procedurally generated so you’re treading familiar ground with each reset, not old ground.
All this not-so-faint praise, however, is not to suggest that the game is without fault; a few problems prevent Flame in the Flood from being an “excellent” game. The camera I found particularly irksome – an unfortunate combination of whirling around wildly at even the gentlest touch of the control stick, and not staying in place, making it only situationally useful on terra firma and almost entirely useless while navigating dangerous rapids, a situation where it could be very useful indeed, which is a shame. Speaking of the rapids, the hitboxes for either the raft or the “floating” objects (I’m not sure which is causing the issue) can be a little temperamental – sometimes you’ll swear you shouldn’t have hit an object that you did, and vice versa, which can sometimes make these rafting sections feel unfair. Equally, at one point on low health I completely phased through a house, so perhaps I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The environments also do start to get a little bit samey after a while, and there’s a lot of assets that are re-used quite frequently – school-buses outnumber wildlife by about a factor of four, which is odd – and while the game isn’t excessively difficult, not once you learn a little bit, there are a couple difficulty spikes which can come off as frustrating. This is to contrast the fact that the game’s item system, for better or worse (in many ways better AND worse) is relatively simple, and it should also be noted that in handheld mode the menu and icons are fiddly and small. None of these are deal-breakers, or diminish the gameplay in any major way, but they’re issues none the less to keep in mind.
Ultimately, Flame in the Flood’s greatest success is as an experience; the excellent soundtrack, the complimentary visuals and snippets of plot all make the first few hours of gameplay a harmonious, pleasant experience – were rentals still a thing, this would be a perfect candidate. But alas, it is no longer 1999, and Blockbuster busted their last block a long time ago – and as the hours rack up the numerous minor issues add up to diminish, though not in any way ruin, the experience. If the aesthetic on show is what is enticing to you about Flame in the Flood, then it’s definitely worth the dive, and those looking to dabble in the genre or see the game’s interesting spin on survival gameplay will get a kick out of it: hardcore fans of survival games, however, may be better off Not Starving somewhere else.