For the second time in recent weeks my gaming has taken me to the forested wilderness of North America. I mentioned then that I have a particular soft-spot for the small towns and uninhabited regions of the U.S. which is apparent from my daily, borderline ritualistic, checking to see of Act 4 of ‘Kentucky Route Zero’ has been released*. This particular foray into that vista was provided by the recently released portion of Americana that is ‘The Flame in the Flood’ (TFITF). I had already sunk a fair tally of hours into it during early access and would like to congratulate the veteran team at ‘The Molasses Flood‘ for wielding that particular double-edged blade with a surprising amount of grace, using the experience to tweak the game balance whilst holding the attention the early-access audience. The final release saw the addition of the ‘Story Mode’ to the existing ‘Endless Mode’ which was a welcome addition and I decided to sail through the plot at least once before typing anything here.
‘The Flame in the Flood’ immediately struck me as a ‘Big Game’; not in terms of content, but in terms of the sense of scale, distance and movement that it imparts to the player. Our protagonist is a young drifter known only as scout, introduced to us sat around a lonely campfire as an equally enigmatic dog, Aesop, rustles from the undergrowth and carefully presents her with a red rucksack. The fizzle of static and half-heard voices on the radio within, combined with the rucksack’s mysterious embroidered patch, are sufficient to spark Scout into action and a search for answers. From here the combined journey of Scout, Aesop and the player, proceeds through the decaying ruins of civilisation; small towns, abandoned churches, silent rusting docks and an endless stream of liquor stores are amongst the locations that our wanderers explore. The game structure is fairly simple; the player must guide Scout and Aesop down a wild & winding river, making port at marked locations long the way. The river’s course and the occurrence of the different location types is procedurally generated meaning that no two plays should be the same. Upon making port, our explorers jump ashore and scavenge, loot, craft and sleep until deciding to cast-off and float further along their meandering path. The story-mode proceeds through ten different regions, each with a distinct theme (town, wilderness etc.) but all containing the same types of locations.
The survival aspects of the game are fairly typical; the player must keep Scout healthy, staving off the classic elements of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and cold but also any injury or ailment that she may have picked up on her travels. There is a multitude of ways to die which, at least during the first few attempts, is likely to come swiftly, but it didn’t take me too long to start putting things away in my raft’s storage for any unfriendly encounters or poorly conceived nutritional ideas to heal up when I managed to scarper, bleeding, back to the jetty. Crafting of items is simply implemented but functional consisting of the usual food, weapons/traps, clothing etc. Some crafts require a fire or a workbench and some essential items (knife, hammer etc.) form ‘toolbelt’ equipment which doesn’t take up inventory room. In addition to a personal and raft inventory, Aesop can also hold a small number of items, these items are carried over into your next game so pick carefully what you give him to hold.
The rafting aspect of the game is deliberately tricky and navigating the river is a challenge. It would have been an easy element for the designers to brush aside as simply a way to move to the next port, but it has been used well, particularly in terms of forcing a player to make difficult decisions. As you approach ports a symbol appears indicating what ‘type’ of port it will be; ports are often on opposite banks of the river, so selecting one rules out the possibility of getting across to the other. The raft can be upgraded & repaired (resources permitting) at small convenient docks which can improve the functionality of your vessel; I recommend investing in a rudder early on as it is both affordable and should significantly reduce the number of times Scout smashes into the rocks and floating cars en route.
Scavenging & Rafting… It’s a simple formula; survive and keep moving. I can imagine that serious fans of survival games might find the mechanics here a little too simplistic, but the beauty of TFITF is really in its presentation. Visually the style distinctive and varied; from the warm glow when sat at the campfire, the driving rain of a storm, the diorama-like way the ports are portrayed from the river, or the glow of the sunrise from a new day. It is wrapped up in a catchy, country, slide-guitar dream of a soundtrack put together by Chuck Ragan (which I have barely stopped listening to since it was released) that is echoed in the gentle guitar strums which ring-out with each crafted item. I can’t help but be uplifted when playing it; there is a hopefulness in everything Scout does that it might just be OK in the end, that these hardships are worth enduring and that the storm will pass to reveal a beautiful blue sky. If you don’t believe me then just go and watch the trailer.
‘The Flame in the Flood’ is currently available for PC on Steam…
*In my defence, Act 3 was released with very little fanfare…