“DO NOT IDLE”.
Those three little words are the first communication The Flame in the Flood has with you, and in that short, succinct statement, it sums up its entire ethos. Simply standing still for too long will kill you, but it’s just one of many, many ways to meet the Reaper in The Molasses Flood’s survival sim.
You play a young girl guide simply known as Scout, given a spark of hope when plucky beagle puppy Aesop brings her a backpack he finds on another unlucky traveler, the location of whose desiccated corpse suggests that he may well have written that first piece of advice. An apocalyptic flood has wiped out the American Midwest (at least), and the world is essentially one big, choppy, evil-minded river carrying everything caught in its flow relentlessly onward to oblivion.
As Scout, your sole objective is to survive the river and reach the evacuation zone – if it even exists. Unfortunately, everything except the bunnies wants you dead. You begin beside a dwindling fire, before slinging on the backpack and taking up your little walking stick (literally a piece of wood with a weak miner’s headlamp strapped to the tip) and setting out to challenge the river wild.
The first thing you’ll notice is that certain items have ripples around them, which indicates you can either search or loot them. This being a survival sim, you must scavenge everything you possibly can from everywhere you visit in order to prolong your life. Scout has four primary stats: Hunger, Thirst, Body Temp, and Tiredness. If any of these are allowed to stay in the red for too long, she will stagger to the ground, relinquishing her feeble grip on both the walking stick and her young life. Aesop will whine and pine and paw at the mud, but ultimately that’s your lot. And it’s remarkably easy to die in The Flame in the Flood.
You must move from location to location via a rickety old raft that you can eventually upgrade. Initially, it’s a few logs and the bonnet of a car tied with rope, but it’s fit for purpose at least. When you push off from the first location, there’s an element of both awe and hope – awe at Nature’s terrifying destructive power, but hope that you can and will overcome it. Within half an hour that awe will have turned to genuine fear and whatever hope you had will be replaced by grim determination.
At night, the temperature drops, and if you get caught out in a storm the weather will induce hypothermia in minutes. You must navigate the river, avoiding too much damage to your raft (if it sinks, you drown without a second chance), watching for orange icons that signify what kind of location is coming up, the way a Girl Scout’s orientation map would. There’s a variety of locations including churches, hardware stores, fishing supply shacks, first aid centres, and campsites, and each will contain a finite collection of supplies. The wilderness, signified by a trio of standing pines, is usually a good source of saplings with which to craft traps, cat-tail weeds to turn into braided cords or dry out for tinder, and bunny rabbits, which you can trap, skin and eat. General stores usually have jars to hold drinking water, salt to make jerky, or alcohol for bandages and torches. Unfortunately, it’s not long before The Flame in the Flood starts making you work for your spoils.
Most locations hide dangers that will finish you pretty quickly if you’re unprepared. Squawking crows will give away your position to predatory wolf-packs, territorial wild boars will chase you off their patch with a broken leg for your trouble, while poison ivy, red ants, and venomous vipers will catch you when you’re not paying attention. Every ailment must be treated with a particular curative or you’ll eventually succumb. Ant-stings need aloe, lacerations from wolf claws require bandages, broken bones need splints, sepsis from that infected cut will need penicillin, etc. There’s a depth to the survival mechanics that isn’t immediately apparent: a consequence to every action and a cure for every consequence. Expanding your pack, upgrading your raft and being prepared for every eventuality is the only way to survive – and even then, the procedurally-generated locations and randomised loot might simply deny you what you need for no particular reason and you’ll die anyway.
One thing you’ll learn very early on, and which my simple gamer’s brain couldn’t fathom to the point where I kept trying to stubbornly turn my raft around as if I could re-code the game by sheer willpower alone, is that you can’t go back. Once you leave an area and return yourself to the mercy of the current, that’s it. If you find yourself rushing past a campsite when you’re freezing to death, or having to make the painstaking choice between docking to repair a raft that’s hanging on by its last thread of soggy rope or a medical centre that might just possibly contain penicillin to treat your septicemia, making the decision of which way to steer is a split-second matter of life and death. Playing survival mode, you’ll also have to deal with reduced supplies, harsher conditions and perma-death, so good luck with that.
Atmosphere is everything in a game with only one character, though there are NPCs here and there who will provided services or random gifts, but each encounter is fleeting and far between, and The Molasses Flood has created a genuinely beautiful and haunting world. Dark, stormy nights stalked by skulking wolves and lashed by freezing rain give way to golden sunsets as sweet as warm honey, wind blows fallen leaves across abandoned roads, wrecked cars lay bleeding oil in the mud. The buildings are hollow, weather-beaten and rotten, and it’s hard not to emote on some level with the silent protagonist as she pushes on and on through the drowned wilderness.
The ambiance is helped in no small part by the incredible soundtrack. Being brutally honest, I’m not one to pay much attention to a game’s music. To me, a good soundtrack helps the atmosphere but a bad one can usually be ignored – but The Flame in the Flood boasts some powerful music. Written and performed by alternative-country star Chuck Ragan, the soundtrack kicks in at seemingly random times that always manage to produce an emotional affect, whether you’re dragging a limping, poisoned Scout through the woods to the tune of the heart-wrenching What We Leave Behind, or cruising across sparkling rapids to the slightly more upbeat River and Dale. The almost paper-craft art-style is gorgeous, too, presenting the world in glorious shades of ochre, gold, and brown or shrouding it in deep blue darkness.
It’s a shame that Scout’s appearance doesn’t change to reflect her upgraded clothes, and it’s also a shame that you have to survive so long just to reach a point where you can finally start upgrading your raft (I could barely make it five miles along the river during my first few attempts), but they’re minor complaints. It seems churlish to criticise a survival sim for being too hard, but sometimes The Flame and the Flood will throw wolves and boars at you in the first few locations when you’re simply not equipped for it, and it does seem to delight in giving you exactly the location you need only to then fill it with vipers and pelt you with a thunderstorm, but preparation and knowing when to run away will help. The checkpoint system in the standard difficulty is useful, but it can often catapult you back three or four miles when you die, which can sometimes feel harsh. There is a sense of humour at work though, mostly in the randomly-generated names of locations that pay homage to other franchises and various books and movies. It doesn’t help when you’re starving and dying from a snakebite, but it’s nice to smile now and then.
Even alongside the wonderful Don’t Starve, The Flame in the Flood stands out as a fantastically atmospheric and emotional survival sim. The excellent soundtrack and single-minded onus on always moving forward combine to instill a sense of rugged perseverance, and you can’t help but feel for the brave young Scout and her courageous dog.
Deceptively deep forage and craft system.
Sharp difficulty spikes.
Checkpoints can be a good distance apart.