Initial impressions can be deceiving, and the cartoon stylings of The Flame in the Flood, at first glance at least, would suggest a lighthearted and playful adventure game, Double Fine does the post-apocalypse, or something like that. However, let the visuals sink in for a moment, and it becomes clear that there's something else at work here, something offbeat, a sinister undertone, an edge of macabre.
From the game's opening, where your dog, Aesop, pulls a rucksack from the clutches of a skeletal figure before dragging it to your character as she sits next to a blazing fire, The Molasses Flood pulls no punches, and this roguelike-like's personality is quickly drawn to the surface. This might be a beautifully designed game, with wonderful off-centre aesthetics and tons of personality, but this is a still a tough and uncompromising experience.
The star of the show is, in many ways, the river that carries you on your journey. As you float along, fighting the push and pull of the current, you'll discover a variety of procedurally placed moorings that act as the gateways to small environments, each populated with the materials needed to sustain you through this survival story. Staying alive is a matter of crafting the items needed to keep you so; boiling water to clean it, cooking meals and concocting medicines, building tools and traps, and so on and so forth.
The UI does a good job of signposting your current status, so at all times you can see how hungry, thirsty and tired you are, as well as letting you keep an eye on your temperature. Your energy levels are also on display, as is the status of your raft. It's crisp and clean. The backpack and inventory system less so. There's not a lot of room to carry items, which leads to a lot of inventory management and backpack faffing. You can store things on your person, with your dog, or back on your raft, but sending items here and there and back again leads to lots of time spent scrolling through various menus. There's still time to refine the process of crafting/consuming, and sorting through your items - we played on an Xbox controller and the solution is probably as simple as mapping each of your three inventories to a different key or face button for faster sorting.
It was the only part of the game that didn't feel as elegant as the rest, and given how long we're going to spend staring at these menus while we're playing, it makes sense for them to be a touch more user friendly, especially when you consider who gorgeous it is in most other respects. Even more so when you realise just how many options we're going to have; there's dozens of items to craft, and as you learn the relevant skills you'll be able to take advantage of the resources dotted around you, flinging them together to make increasingly specific consumables and tools.
One thing that won't be made any easier, and rightly so, is the overall level of challenge. This is a roguelike-like after all, and thus the challenge is bordering on severe. There's not only a steep learning curve, with plenty to discover as you go, but permadeath means it's not likely going to be long before you're starting again. The most obvious culprits are dehydration and starvation, but there's plenty more out there wanting to kill you. The wolves got us more than once.
The lupine menace causes constant unease, reinforced as their piercing red eyes are always watch watch watching as you float down stream. Often they're waiting for you once you've moored the raft and you're exploring an area in search of resources. If you wake one and it goes for you, you can momentarily fend it off with a swing of your walking stick, but that won't be enough to dissuade it from a persistent pursuit. If it does get a nip in, it can often spell the end. While sometimes you can make good your escape despite a lacerating bite, often it's just a prelude to the game over screen.
Our first attempts at The Flame in the Flood have all led to inglorious death, with nobody to mourn us apart from our faithful canine companion (who handily saves any items you store with him, ready for the next run). Whether we died on the raft, parched and hungry, or provided dinner for a ravenous wolf, it's the world that we inhabited, not the people in it, that did the deed. There are encounters along the way, but - so far at least - none of these were fatal, and we're not expecting them to become so. This is a game about tentative exploration of a harsh, unyielding, beautiful world.
Despite its brutality and some clunky inventory management, there's magic here too. On top of some wonderful and distinctive art accentuated by a warm colour palette, there's a fantastic soundtrack on offer. Well-picked acoustic music and interesting songs accompany you as you negotiate rapids and calm waters alike, and the mood is comprehensively set with every strum of the guitar. This is a game about surviving the elements, about respecting nature and, where possible, harnessing it for your benefit; the uncomplicated visual style and the gentle soundtrack certainly helps to place you in that world and bathes you in the atmosphere that the developers are aiming for.
The Molasses Flood are making a good game here, one that'll sit nicely on console as much as the PC build we were able to play (it's the same build that's currently out in the hands of Kickstarter backers). A visual and audio treat, it also presents a welcoming challenge that'll no doubt tempt in roguelike fans looking for something a little more polished and welcoming. There's still plenty to do, more river to fill, new elements to add, balancing, polish (and hopefully a leaner, easier to use inventory), but what's there is a solid foundation to continue building upon. This is one river that we're looking forward to jumping back into.