It’s like the Oregon Trail if fording the river was the thing you had to do for most of the game.
I went into The Flame in The Flood, a recent Switch eShop release that originally came out in 2016, with a little bit of trepidation. Mostly due to the onslaught of great roguelike games on Switch, I’ve gotten back into that style of game a lot more after a few years of disinterest. However, I also didn’t jive with the preeminent indie-made survival game Don’t Starve all that much. The Flame in The Flood, which supposedly clawed at both game types, was a bit of a gamble on my part. I didn’t know where I’d fall on it. A few hours into this arresting world, my character got dysentery. Then it hit me: this is Nindie Oregon Trail and it is incredible.
While The Flame in The Flood can be played like a roguelike through a specific setting, the best way to play it, in my estimation, is by using checkpoints to mark your path down the river. This happens at regular intervals, nicely timed between your journeys to abandoned settlements and outposts at the river’s edge. Your goal, as erstwhile heroine Scout, is to make your way through 10 regions along the chaotic, procedurally generated river and survive. That’s not an easy task as pretty much everything is out to kill you and you’re a feeble human prone to getting hungry, thirsty, tired, attacked by wolves, bit by snakes, and rained on.
Survival is dependent on managing meters, acquiring supplies, and crafting helpful and life-saving items. The meters are easy to follow, presented in simple and easy-to-understand terms spread across hunger, thirst, and more. Supply management is a little more frustrating to manage, but that’s also part of the urgency. Initially, you can only hold so many supplies, but you can store a lot more on your raft and some on your helpful dog companion. These supplies are all useful, but only some might be necessary at any given time. The learning curve is a little steep as you learn what items are needed to fit your playstyle, as well as what items are necessary to have on hand in case things go south fast.
And after a gentle beginning, things will go south fast. The farther down the river you go, the more likely wolves and bears will show up to threaten your safety. The more likely inclement weather will weaken you. The less frequent safe havens will appear. The going gets tough in The Flame in The Flood, but each death is generally a lesson in how to try to prevent that failure next time. Maybe you focused too much on upgrading your raft and didn’t have enough clean water. Maybe you lacked the supplies to heal a broken bone or laceration after a surprise run-in with a wolf. Maybe your raft just took much damage and you drowned. No persistence really exists from run-to-run, but so much of the success in this is gleamed from correcting past failures. While part of the appeal is discovering how to survive, I do feel like some elements are underdeveloped and ill-explained. It took several hours of play before I really understood the benefits of upgrading my raft, for one. Also, thanks to the procedural nature, sometimes you’ll just get screwed and not be able to find a shelter when you desperately need one, or run into a snake in an area where the camera obscures your view a bit. The more you play, the more you learn to avoid these pitfalls, but it is definitely frustrating when you get into a rut with them.
The gameplay all loops together in a compelling way, and I’ve already had many nights go longer than I expected because I wanted another crack at taming the wilds of the river. All of this is emboldened by the fantastic presentation, with a distinctive art style and brilliant acoustic-heavy soundtrack by Chuck Ragan (of Hot Water Music fame) that features a wealth of vocals (the soundtrack is an evocative standalone album by itself). Surprisingly, empathy is a major component of The Flame in The Flood, thanks in large part to the effective use of the sidekick animal, a hopeless situation, and tone-setting art and music.
I truthfully didn’t expect The Flame in The Flood to make the impression on me that it did. It’s easily the best survival game I’ve ever played, all the way from its satisfying gameplay to its masterful audio design. In the veritable long river of eShop games on Switch right now, this is one worth making sure you’ve got enough food and water to last a couple weeks.