Imagine the trauma of forgetting to pop into Sainsburys on your way into work. Lunchtime rolls around and you’re sandwichless, Diet Cokeless no one wants to share their Monster Munch. Dark days. But while your stomach is grumbling and you’re eyeing up your colleague’s sausage roll, spare a thought for poor Scout. Alone but for a dog who chooses her as a companion one bleak night, Scout lives in a world devastated by an apocalyptic flood. With the dog by her side, an empty rucksack and a rickety raft, she must traverse the flooded wilds and do just one single thing – survive.
Your journey begins at Pinewood Camp where you’ll need to scavenge the meagre supplies before you move on. You’ll have no idea what you’re looking for, but anything that’s grabbable or searchable will have a subtle ripple around it. Once an item is collected you can examine it in your inventory, and here it will tell you what you can use it for. You’ll also have access to a crafting menu, which will list all items it’s possible for you to craft, what ingredients you’ll need and which items you can craft now with what you’ve got. There is another menu to assess any ailments you might have and what you’ll need to cure them. For example, if you’ve broken a bone, it will be written here and it will tell you to craft a splint. If you already have one, you can apply it directly from this screen. Simple.
The game teaches you just enough to get the gist of your new life, but other than that the point is to work it out for yourself, and the good news is that it’s pretty intuitive. You have gauges at the bottom of the screen that measure your hunger, thirst, body temperature and exhaustion levels. It’s pretty obvious that sitting by a fire will warm you up, sleeping will sort out your exhaustion levels and eating and drinking will ease your rumbling tummy and stop you dropping dead from dehydration. The challenge in The Flame in the Flood is actually finding the food to eat and finding the fire to sit by or finding enough scraps to build one. Rain will soak you and drop your temperature further so if you’re very lucky you might find an old shack or the back of a van to sleep in and wait it out, but this will make you hungrier and thirstier and there’s no guarantee the rain will stop by the time you step back out. If it does stop you can build your fire, but if you don’t have the materials you’ll need to get back on the river until you find an already lit campfire or enough wood and flint to build your own before you die of hypothermia. And you will die of hypothermia. You’ll die of dehydration, starvation, infections, you’ll drown, get mauled by wolves, boars and bears and bitten by snakes.
Although you may suffer a couple of instantaneous deaths, generally your demise will come slowly. Caution is always advised, but when finding just a single dandelion stands between starvation and making it down the next section of the river, you have to take chances. It no longer matters that wolves are prowling. You have to search deeper, further; there might be just two or three mulberries you can collect and that may be all you need to turn things around. Dying can be a slow process, but sometimes saving yourself can be sudden. There are times when everything just goes right. I was on the edge of hyperthermia, starvation and exhaustion. I knew I couldn’t make it any further down the river. I would either find what I needed now or die right here. It was raining and there was a wolf and a bear and I had nothing to kill them with. I saw the bear and ran before he noticed me. I was lucky. The wolf wasn’t. When I circled back around the bear had killed the wolf and gone back into his cave. I skinned the wolf, the rain stopped, I lit the fire, cooked the wolf, warmed up and slept. An hour later I finished the game.
In the same way that things can go cataclysmically wrong, there is always hope, and the game does a marvellous job of reminding you of that both with its music and aesthetics. A long night like the one I experienced could leave you feeling shattered and on edge, but when your raft pushes off back down the river towards a beautiful sunrise with a soundtrack that makes you smile, relax and enjoy being alive, you feel elated and forget for a few moments how hard your journey has been.
The river is certainly a perilous place to be, but it’s also a gorgeous and sometimes relaxing part of the game. When you’re not caught up in the rapids and crashing against rocks it’s actually quite a tranquil experience. The debris that looks like dragons floating through the water, the bobbing car wrecks, sunken buildings and the silence of it all, show us a world that’s both devastated and weirdly beautiful.
Your control of the raft takes a little getting used to mostly because you are at the mercy of the river and its currents. Traversing the waters is somewhat of a compromise between you and the river itself. You’ll need to submit to the river’s whims before you can begin to navigate without hitting everything in sight. In the Campaign Mode there are ten sections of river and the game will save at the beginning of a new section. If you die, you’ll go back to the last checkpoint (if you quit, you’ll go back to the last area you stopped at. At the time of writing, which should be noted was pre-release and pre the day one patch, if you quit the game after dying and while on the checkpoint map screen, the option to continue your game would be missing from the main menu. Our advice is to choose to continue from the checkpoint map, dock at a new area, and then quit).
Along your way downstream you’ll find different areas where you can park your nifty raft. An icon will tell you in advance if it’s a campsite, church, an old medical facility, a marina, wilderness or a few other possibilities. Depending on your current needs, you’ll need to decide if you want to stop and have a look. A church may be an attractive possibility if you desperately need to rest, but what if there are wolves? What if you can’t make it past them? Are you also very cold and hungry? Would you be better off risking going further down the river in the hope of finding food and a lit fire? Life on the river is a juggling act, a risk, and a game of equal parts strategy and luck.
Accompanying you on your bid for survival is a mysterious dog. He pitches up dragging a rucksack and stays by your side throughout the game. There are often good points and bad points about having a perpetual AI buddy, but here there is only good. He will track essential items and bark when he’s found them, distract enemies and alert you to their presence and even lug some of your stuff in his own inventory. When you die in Endless Mode or start a new Campaign, anything he was holding will carry over to your new game. If that wasn’t enough, your beloved boy (or girl if you choose Daisy in the options screen) can never die and never be hurt. Fellow animal lovers, you can unclench now (until it’s time to kill a bunny wabbit). The dog prevents the game from truly delving into darkness. Your waggy friend is always full of energy and his presence on an otherwise very lonely journey, is extremely comforting.
Most areas in The Flame in the Flood are procedurally generated. You’ll never have the same good luck or bad luck twice. It’s certainly not fair to say that it all comes down to chance however. Once you’ve got to grips with the game, things do get easier. You’ll navigate the river with relative ease, you’ll horde items that work well for you, you’ll know what can be eaten and what the consequences are. Obviously there will be ‘mind that bear, what bear, ouch’ moments and sometimes no amount of experience will save you, but it’s not an impossible game. It’s not even a hard game. It’s challenging, yes. It is a struggle to survive, yes, but perseverance and patience will eventually get you down that river and to the end of the Campaign. The Flame in the Flood is not a narrative-driven game, but the Campaign does have a story, goals and an ending that you shouldn’t miss. For me, it was the perfect end and well worth the ten hour struggle.
Once you’re done with the Campaign, you can move onto Endless Mode, which doesn’t need much of an explanation. Just keep going. If you die, however, that’s it, game over, start again. No checkpoints if you ram your raft into a rusty Buick one too many times, although the game will save at each area you visit so you can quit and come back later. With the game’s procedurally generated areas, there’s lots to temp you into Endless Mode after you’ve finished the main game. I never got to kill an Elder Wolf or decked myself out head to toe in bear fur. I never crafted the bow and arrow and only gave my raft one single upgrade out of so many. There’s also a great trophy list with some really tough challenges that will take a long time to fully achieve. If you’re going to pop that platinum, Endless Mode is essential.
The PS4 Complete Edition also gives you an avatar, a theme and a director’s commentary. Switch the commentary on in the options menu to find cassette tapes dotted around the world. Clicking on each one activates part of the commentary and very interesting it is, particularly if you’re looking for further insight into game development.
The Flame in the Flood is quietly beautiful. It’s tough, at times both fair and unfair, bleak and hopeful. The Campaign mode, while light on the narrative, has just enough to evoke a strong emotional context. This is a heart-warming survival sim and a joyful experience. Do not miss it.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10
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