The Great Outdoors isn't just the name of a classic movie starring the late John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. Believe it or not, it's an actual place that exists beyond our TV screens and our many other technological distractions. Beyond the prefab homes and fast-food joints cluttering our field of view lies a destination overrun by flora and fauna, a place with nary a cell-phone tower nor a Starbucks in sight. It's here you can camp, hunt, participate in leisurely water-based activities, or day drink without judgement from your peers. Yes, the great outdoors is generally perceived as a friendly place, one synonymous with tranquility, relaxation, and beauty.
In The Flame in the Flood, however, Mother Nature demonstrates her nefarious side. You'll camp, but you'll do it to avoid freezing to death or collapsing from exhaustion. You'll hunt, because it's either kill or be killed. You'll raft down a turbulent river, desperate to arrive at a location containing the supplies you need to remain alive. And when you drink, it'll be to thwart dehydration or cure a potentially lethal snake bite. In this post-societal vision of rustic America, nature isn't your friend; it's your enemy.
The tale begins with a young woman named Scout and her autonomous canine companion Aesop as they depart down a river in search of food, crafting materials, shelter, and a better life. Navigating the river – which is replete with islands, various forms of junk, and perilous rapids – proves difficult at first, but with numerous raft upgrades available later on, it's only a matter of time before you can steer through hazards with grace. While the procedurally-generated patterns of the river become familiar rather quickly – diminishing the fear and apprehension that typically comes with the unknown – this activity remains pure and involving enough that it doesn't devolve into a grind.
But river-riding isn't an anxiety-free event. When any of the four health-related meters at the bottom of the screen approach critical levels, panic sets in. Food and water consumption need to be frequent to maintain strength, and body temperature and sleep have to be considered as well. These constant countdowns to death ensure there's never a point when wasting time is an option. To make matters worse, Scout is fully exposed to storms and frigid weather while rafting, so the urge to find shelter or supplies is commonly felt. It's stress that keeps you motivated and your fingers glued to the controller.
The docks located along shorelines and islands lead to on-foot areas where the mechanics change entirely and become much deeper. These forests, campsites, farms, small towns, and bait shops serve as pit stops for resting and rummaging through the remnants of society. But just because some of these areas provide spots to catch some Zs and warm up doesn't mean they offer respite from the wrath of Mother Nature. In fact, the native wildlife is just as intent on surviving as Scout. Wolves loom and pounce when least expected, boars relentlessly give chase, snakes snap when too close, and bears… let's just say you shouldn't poke the bears. Should any of these creatures land an attack, Scout will be burdened by afflictions that can only be healed with specific medical supplies, which is why it's imperative to remain stocked up on the necessities.
Between Scout's backpack, Aesop's bag, and additional raft storage, it may seem that there's an ample amount of space for supplies. However, the truth is, it takes no time at all to max out all inventory. Shifting items between storage units usually works to free up room when needed, but it doesn't change the fact that frequent maintenance is required. The good news is that storage capacity can be upgraded with the right pieces. The bad news is that more space doesn't necessarily mean less time spent in menus.
Crafting is another integral skill when it comes to rising to the occasion. In a way, it's fitting to think of it as a means of puzzle solving, as it's how Scout "MacGyvers" her way out of a jam. If a wolf stands between Scout and shelter, craft and deploy a snare trap. If tainted water is the only water available in the region, create a filter to sift out the contaminants. If the cold weather is rapidly decreasing Scout's body temperature, find a sewing kit and enough animal skin to produce attire that's more weather resistant. Nearly every challenge can be overcome by crafting a solution, the only issue is procuring the right supplies to do so.
The further Scout travels down the river, the worse the procedural-generation algorithm treats her. Resources grow scarce, weather more hostile, and the chance of survival lessens with each passing in-game day. So be prepared to die... a lot. But given the rogue-lite nature of the game, death isn't exactly the end of the journey. In endless mode, the goal is to repeat this river descent over and over again to supersede your personal distance record. The campaign, however, has an end, and there's the option to use restore points for those seeking a little extra help getting there. The gameplay loop remains nearly identical between these modes; instead, it's just the shell that changes a little.
The most disappointing thing about The Flame in the Flood is that neither of these two modes feels like it's the standout mode. While the campaign does attempt to weave a hint of plot into the proceedings, it's not presented well enough to equate to a satisfying meal. Any exposition or narrative comes from chatting with NPCs, of which there are few, but due to the absence of voice-over and the bland dialog presentation, these interactions fall incredibly flat. If you're intrigued by the appearance of this distressed world and desire a thoroughly fleshed-out tale about its inhabitants and downfall, you're likely going to be disappointed.
Speaking of appearances, The Flame in the Flood flaunts a distinct art style that mixes chunky, jagged polygons with painted textures to create a look that compliments the rugged spirit of the game. And with the recurring presence of acoustic guitars, harmonicas, and the howling voice of Chuck Ragan (who some of you might know as the vocalist of the punk band Hot Water Music), the southern wilderness has a unique visual and aural impact that definitely leaves an impression. Sadly, the presentation is marred by a slew of technical issues – asset pop-in, texture/shadow flickering, clipping, screen tearing – at the time of writing. Hopefully the developer is busy crafting a patch that resolves these overt blemishes.
But that's not the only thing that needs to be sorted out with a patch. During our 20+ hours with the game, we had the unfortunate luck of uncovering a couple of serious bugs. The most notable of these problems came in the form of a river-generation glitch, which kept us from progressing and rendered our save file useless. The developer informed us that this is a rare bug that they thought they'd squashed long ago, but clearly it's still an issue, one that causes you to lose all of your progress should it affect you.
The other problem we ran into has to do with the archaic checkpoint system in the campaign. Not only are the checkpoints automatic and sometimes pretty far apart, but functionality inconsistencies also get in the way. On three separate occasions, from three separate Xbox Live accounts, we selected our most recent restore point only to inexplicably be placed back at the beginning of the game. If we continued from there, we'd be provided with our old restore points upon our next death, and on that occasion the restore would work as it should. Needless to say, it's a very bizarre, very frustrating thing to deal with.
Bugs aside, there is much to like about The Flame in the Flood. Even when inventory maintenance becomes a chore, the gameplay loop somehow remains engaging to the point that it can be tough to put down the controller. But how long will its repetitious nature stay appealing? That's a big concern. It can be heartbreaking to lose so much progress upon death, only to have to repeat certain stretches of river over again or start all the way back at the beginning. Maybe a more frequent, resource-driven, manual save system is something the developer will consider adding down the line. At least then the amount of lost progress would feel like it was your fault.
Fighting back against nature and surviving utterly dire circumstances makes The Flame in the Flood a gripping experience... for a while. It's the unambitious campaign, the repetitious rogue-lite structure, and a number of bugs and technical issues that get in the way and keep the game from reaching its full potential. But even though The Flame in the Flood is somewhat of a disappointment, that doesn't mean there's not enough tinder to sustain the flame for at least a weekend outing. You just have to decide whether or not you want to risk dealing with the pesky bugs hiding in the foundation.