On my first life in The Flame in the Flood, I suffered two broken bones and died of starvation after just a day or so, crawling helplessly as I searched for something to stuff in my face. On my second attempt, I died even faster, again crawling, struggling to do anything meaningful as a wolf gnashed at my back, lacerating me to death.
This was in an early beta version, which has been distributed to the survival adventure game's Kickstarter backers. It certainly feels early: there are placeholder menus, controller button prompts when I'm using a keyboard, cut-off text, and I've had repeated freezes on three different systems. I trust all of this will be addressed before the full release, but despite its roughness, The Flame in the Flood is playable, fun (if a bit cruel at first), and confidently styled.
The Flame in the Flood is set on a fictional American river: rural backwaters seemingly abandoned by people who never cared much for anywhere else, but who were swept away by hostile currents. Each life starts with your faithful dog abandoning a skeleton (the remains of your last, permanently dead adventurer) and nuzzling up to you for a new attempt at finding the end of the river.
When that short but annoyingly unskippable scene is over, you can wander the starting area and pick up some basic crafting materials, and then it's straight to the raft. There are many things to find and use in The Flame in the Flood—saplings, unpurified water, beef jerky, clumps of mold—but the raft is its best thing. Currents pull and twist you down a procedurally-generated river, slamming you into rocks, tossing you past campsites you meant to stop at. The animations would be best described by a caricature of an Italian chef pursing his lips and kissing his fingers. Fantastico. Big impacts fling the survivor from her raft, and she scrambles back aboard, soaked and broken. It's very convincingly harrowing.
It's a bit harrowing to play, too. To survive, you have to keep moving down the river, but the river is your greatest enemy. The raft can be steered easily enough in gentle currents, but frequent rapids want to pull you off course into rocks and debris. Hitting spacebar gives me a powerful burst in the direction of my mouse pointer, which I can use to slip around obstacles, but the camera annoyingly creeps inward and around to the side at times, making it hard to see what's ahead. Sometimes trees get in the way, too.
Once I make it to somewhere I can stop—possibly accompanied by some broken bones—it's easy enough to right click the dock and trigger the docking animation, but if I go too far it's impossible to fight the current and return the way I came. Missing campsites I meant to explore can be very bad. There's always more to find down the river, but when it's raining, and I'm cold and hungry and my bones aren't whole, a missed opportunity can be my death.
It really only takes a few mistakes to end a run in The Flame and the Flood. Early on, I'd stop somewhere expecting to find a fire pit where I could purify some water, but instead I'd find a wolf and no fire pit. So I'd bolt back to the raft, because wolves like to kill me, and die of dehydration on the river instead of by wolf on land. It feels a little too oppressive at first, and it's faster paced than I expected. As soon as I filled my belly to keep my hunger and thirst in check, I needed to be looking for somewhere to sleep, and as soon as I found a bus to snooze in, I had to go looking for a fire pit to purify more water.
Maybe I misjudged The Flame in the Flood because it's so attractive, with such friendly, listless folk rock music. I figured on it being something more like The Long Dark, which is challenging but not onerous, letting me take in each scene for a moment without starving. I want The Flame in the Flood to soak me to the bones in its places and music, which are both great, so I was surprised that I was being rushed into the rapids to sate a rapidly sinking food meter (who starves in a day?), crawling on broken bones just to taste more of the world.
Once I aligned my thinking to the sort of game The Flame in the Flood actually is, though, I got a lot better and it's become more enjoyable, even if I'm still curious to see what a less hurried approach would feel like. I'm confident now that I can get a little further each time I play, which is the idea, Spelunky style. A better interface and bug fixes (one time I drowned on land) will make a big difference, though, as frustration is amplified in games with high stakes. I think I'd better shelve it for now so I don't sour on an inferior version of a game that could be great down the line.
We'll check back in on The Flame in the Flood when it's for sale—we're told it will "go into wider early access in the future," but there's no word on a date right now.