The end of the world used to be the stuff of fantasy. There are countless books and films that focus entirely on whatever world may follow this one after its demise to a meteor strike, or a zombie virus, or an alien invasion. But much less fantastical, and therefore much more frightening, is the very real and looming threat of climate change. It’s a road to the apocalypse less-travelled by entertainment media; one far too close to home to be escapism. And yet its the focus of Floodland, a new post-apocalyptic city-builder from Vile Monarch.
Actually, “city” builder isn’t entirely accurate. Floodland is more like a large-scale survival game that sees you scavenging for resources just to stay alive a little longer. Only instead of controlling a lone survivor washed up on a beach in just a loincloth, you’re responsible for a few dozen of them. It is not a feel-good game, at least not in the real sense. It has something in common with 2017’s The Flame in the Flood, from developer The Molasses Flood, in that even when you’re earning your little victories, there’s a sense that failure is inevitable, a dark shadow lurking somewhere up ahead – and you’ve no choice but to keep moving forward anyway.
Floodland begins with you selecting one of four “Clans”. The choice, including former firefighters or a group of engineers, determines the ways in which your fledgling commune will start out. The Fire Brigade are more resilient to disease, for example, while former suburbanites the Good Neighbours are able to filter water more effectively and work longer hours. There’s even a crew of “preppers”, the Oakhill Survivors, who consume less food than the other Clans. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately each is a viable starting point. You can also customise your difficulty by adjusting resource availability and the general mood of your people.
If you choose to play the Prologue (and you should, first time out) you’ll be guided through the first few days as you begin with just a small storage camp and 10 survivors. Every game begins on an island surrounded by toxic water and shrouded in dense fog, and you’ll need to send people out to forage for food, recyclable rubbish, wood, and water. You can ransack the few buildings around you for a quick boost of resources, but pretty soon the onus is on developing your technology based on Old World science.
So you create water stills to filter the floodwater, foraging huts to gather berries and mushrooms. You install fisheries, logging mills, and build tents, then shacks, then houses, to shelter your survivors. Periodically you’ll meet other groups and, if you have enough resources, you can induct them into your commune. You’ll even meet members of the other Clans, who will join you in an uneasy alliance that needs constant nurturing.
Be clear though: this is not an action game. There are no zombies or military units to assault your home – and there doesn’t need to be. The very world of Floodland itself is dangerous enough. As I said before, this is not a game you ever feel like you’re winning – and that’s a double-edged blade. You are under almost constant threat of revolt, pandemic, or starvation. After a while you’ll form a council, which allows you to instate laws to govern your people. This is followed by the formation of a police force or militia, and more and more advanced technology. Boats are required to cross the water, while pathfinder camps let you send out brave souls to find literature and supplies, Old World relics, and other survivors. But even these elements are plagued by danger.
It took me many days to retrieve the supplies left behind by a group of scouts I sent out too far, who perished in the wilderness. My first commune failed entirely when they contracted a pandemic that decimated the tiny population. I watched my people poison themselves with rotten food, saw mutated fish attack my fisheries and ultimately leave me with nothing but berries to harvest because I didn’t have enough workers left to man the Foraging Hut or the kitchens. And this isn’t one of those games where you can click the townhall and produce more settlers; human beings are the most valuable and rare resource you have in Floodland.
But while it may be bleak, it’s also incredibly addictive. Perhaps because it always feels so hopeless, every little victory is a cause for celebration. Passing a law everyone agrees with, or agreeing to a wedding that unites two restless Clans; maybe overcoming a pandemic with everyone intact – these moments inspire little puffs of endorphins almost as reliably as vanquishing a Dark Souls boss.
It’s helped along by the aesthetic, too. A haunting, watercolour art style paints a picture of a hazy, unpredictable world, and the fact that you can’t zoom right in close to the ground forces a sense of detachment. You can’t get down there and comfort the family who lost their father to your careless planning, you can only coldly assign another worker to take his place. Now and then a song will play, apropos of nothing but atmosphere-building, and this too reminded me of The Flame in the Flood, which used Chuck Ragan’s heart-rending soundtrack to full effect throughout.
And yet, Floodland is not without its issues. For a start, bugs abound. Sometimes I was unable to zoom the in or out at all; at other times natural disasters and events would trigger in quick succession at a rate that had to be a glitch. It’s also inconsistent with its politics. Now and then the leader of another Clan would chastise me one sentence and then immediately praise me, whether I’d taken an action in between or not. It’s also worth mentioning that the autosave pauses the game for several seconds each time, and it’s regular enough to begin to annoy.
On top of this, Floodland isn’t very good at telling you what things do. I don’t mind a lack of hand-holding in a survival sim, but I found progress halted multiple times because I had to figure out how to build something the game wanted me to build but hadn’t explained. It was infuriating every time, and also unnecessary. Floodland doesn’t need to tell you what to do next, but it should at least explain how to do it once you figure it out.
These gripes aside, though, Floodland is a great survival sim that constantly forces you to think about your actions and make tough choices. Research and influence tokens are not given freely, and you’ll often need to make difficult decisions on what to build and invent next. Make the wrong choices and people can die or may leave your settlement altogether, reducing your chances of survival or expansion. It may not be cheery or thrilling, but the world of Floodland never lets up, and presents a dark, touching vision of the future that somehow manages to be rewarding and satisfying nonetheless.
Haunting, watercolour-style aesthetic
Doesn’t always explain itself very well