The Flame in the Flood: Oregon Trail pt 2
The Flame in the Flood (TFITF) is brought to us by a new studio, called The Molasses Flood, who describe themselves as “a company of AAA refugees, with veterans of places like Irrational, Harmonix, and Bungie.” With the combined industry strength behind this studio, they shouldn’t have an issue bringing a new and innovative game to the public. While the game does have some issues, for the most part this is a well-realized reinvention of the rogue-lite, Oregon Trail genre.
In TFITF, you wake up in a campground, with a scruffy looking dog dragging a girl scout’s backpack in your direction. Following a very minor tutorial on how to move, scare away crows, build your first items, and learn about the myriad of ways for your character to die (Thirst, Hunger, Body Temperature, and Fatigue,) you are plopped on your raft to see if you sink or swim. You steer your raft as the river’s currents carry you down river, until you find another dock to park at and scavenge for goodies. This is the general pattern of the game, bouncing from dock to dock, scavenging, crafting, slaying, etc, until you reach your final destination. But let’s break the game down and dive a little deeper.
The atmosphere in TFITF is one of the game’s greatest features. You set out for adventure in the backwoods of the United State’s flyover zone, after a huge flood has raised sea levels by a drastic, and destructive, amount. The art style is incredibly vivid, inspired, and really draws your attention to little details that might otherwise go unnoticed. My first inclination was to compare it to anything by Tim Burton, and I still believe that is the most accurate description. Trees swaying in the wind, plants growing naturally in the environment, river currents, rain squalls, sunken cities, flotsam made up of cars and trees, sinister and creepy animals. The only thing I don’t care for much is the visuals of our main heroine. She looks unnatural and blockey, reminiscent of a marionette, and immediately reminded me of the evil mother in the movie, Coraline. The game’s sound is also very engaging. The environmental sound effects and ambience are beautiful and tranquil, and completely belie the risk of death around every corner. Periodically you will stumble across the game’s musical soundtrack, featuring Alt-Country artist Chuck Ragan, which reinforces the feeling of “epic adventure.”
Scavenging and combat are two of the three primary mechanics in The Flame in the Flood. In every location you visit along your travels, you will be sniffing around for items to secret into your backpack. Hunting follows suit, as you can gain rare(r) material components and food from slaying rabbits, and eventually wolves, boars, bears, and other bloodthirsty critters. Unlike most games, it is mostly impossible to directly damage creatures (until you can craft a bow and arrows.) Instead, crafting snares, spear traps, poisoned bait, and other contraptions to help you gather materials, or to save yourself from an untimely death. Just remember, there are way more materials than you will ever be able to carry, so choose wisely. Which leads us to my only negative experiences with TFITF, the inventory and crafting systems.
The inventory is a huge pain in the ass to manage. Like, way more than it should have been, and I’m amazed that this is the final product that veterans of AAA studios came up with. I’ll warn you now, many of these may feel nitpicky, but when about 1/3 of the game is spent dealing with the inventory/crafting system, it is a legit problem. It is horrendously clunky, obtuse, and unwieldy. To begin, your inventory begins with 8 slots on yourself, 6 on your dog, and a bunch on your raft. Each item takes up an inventory slot, and each item might stack on itself, up to an arbitrary limit. My jar of water takes up 1 spot, as does my 5 wolf hides, and my 10 feathers. Seems manageable, right? Especially since you have your dog with you, that's a whole 14 inventory slots! Sadly, no. Much You will constantly need to search a building for items, see what it yields, realize you don’t have inventory space, drop the interaction menu, open your inventory, see what you can throw on the ground to make room, search the building again, then pickup the item. It’s a huge pain. Considering that you can’t learn item recipes until you have every item required to craft it in your inventory, then you need to drop a different item to have inventory space to craft the new item, use it, then pick up your discarded items. Remember your dog? You can load items onto him, but when you pick up duplicate items, they don’t automatically stack into his inventory; you have to move them over manually. Long story short, the inventory management portion of the game is a constant juggling of items and frustration, and I make to exaggeration when I say that in my 10 hour playthrough to complete The Flame in the Flood, I probably spent about 2-3 hours stuck in this process. Thankfully, when crafting, the game does use items from the dog’s inventory, or the raft’s (if you’re near it,) and really, all they would need to do to fix it is to add a local proximity item section to the crafting menu, as well as make a quick way to switch/replace inventory items when searching buildings and other pickups.
Another gripe I have is with the management of deployable items, like traps and poison bait. To use one of these items, you need to open an item submenu, then scroll through and select the item, then find a deployable spot on the ground, then build it. While I understand that it’s intent is to make the player plan proactively, it more often than not leads to “zone hopping,” running from safe zone to danger zone while steadily deploying traps until every enemy is dead. Relatedly, if you are moving when you open the quick item menu, your character gets stuck in movement animations. So that’s fun.
Anyways, now that the unpleasantness has left my system, the storyline in TFITF is open-ended and up to interpretation. I’m under the impression that the world was ravaged by fire, then by the flood. Somehow a dog finds you and brings you a girl scout backpack. But the initial playthrough isn’t really about the story. It’s about the adventure. People like myself might say it’s about the journey, not the destination. Whether or not this was intended, I do not know, but the “ending” of the game makes me wonder if there isn’t more going on with the story. The ending hints at replayability, alluding to the idea of completing the game a few more times in a few different ways to discover what’s really going on. This is all supposition by my ARG-addled mind, but frankly, if they didn’t carry through with what I am expecting, I will be surprised and disappointed.
In conclusion, The Flame in the Flood is an excellent game, with a few detracting hitches. I highly suggest it to any player that has the hardware to play it, because it is a rare breed: It is an artsy game that held onto a strong idea, ran with it, and made something great and uncompromised with it. That alone should be heralded as something impressive, and worthy of support from the gaming community.
The Flame in the Flood: Hales of Bay rating
Jonathan - 8.5 out of 10
Shaun - ?
Danny - ?