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The Flame in the Flood Review – Just Around the Riverbend

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Set in a rural post-societal America, The Flame in the Flood is one part Noah’s Ark, one part Oregon Trail, and two parts grit and determination. Complimented by a soundtrack that is exactly what you would listen to while floating down the Everglades, The Mississippi Delta, or Louisiana Bayou, developers The Molasses Flood create a perfectly balanced mood between hope and suffering in their roguelike survival game. You play as a girl named Scout who – along with her canine companion, Aesop – must navigate the often turbulent river to discover the source of a radio signal. Docking at various points along the way – campsites, farms, marinas – to find water, food, shelter, clothing, and medical supplies will provide all the necessities for survival.

Having played the endless mode first in early access, I appreciated not dying as often of dehydration or starvation, but found myself coming face-to-face more often with boars, wolves, and snakes. And I drowned a lot. But being able to survive for longer periods of time on a piece of beef jerky and a jar of water not only allowed me to get further down the river and explore dilapidated roadways, but also allowed me to get more acquainted with the crafting system, which shines but can be cumbersome at times.

The Flame in the Flood takes an immense amount of strategy and resource management, sometimes to the point of micromanagement. Inventory slots are as precious a commodity as corn – you won’t always be able to carry what you need when you need it. This gets especially tricky when you start crafting some of the medium and larger ticket items crucial for survival, like snare traps and raft patches. You can find yourself floating a ways down the river in search of a campsite site for a pre-lit fire – all that rabbit meat isn’t going to cook itself – and dying from intestinal parasites is faster than starvation. The most useful upgrade you can get is to increase the storage space on your raft. This will almost eliminate the need to micromanage your inventory and allow you to store “immediate need” items such as food and water, and save things for later like medical supplies.

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The save system is somewhat frustrating; you are able to save your progress at any point by docking, but if you die while on the way to a major checkpoint down the river, you don’t get to pick up right where you left off. After making it 10 miles, I hit a rock in some rapids and drowned. This happened five, maybe six times in a row. I was given the option to either start over around three miles from the beginning or at five and a half miles. Starting the player so far back after they have made a decent amount of progress can potentially kill the game experience. It makes sense to do this in endless mode or the extreme survival mode of the campaign, but it’s really hard to make any progress on the story, for what little there is; this happens whether you die on land or on the river.

On the other hand, it does make sense to do this because the game is returning you to a “safe” point where your health levels are decent (assuming – mine were pretty good at the five and a half mile checkpoint) instead of returning your levels to one-hundred percent at the same point where you died. It would go against the survival mechanics. A compromise could be to have more checkpoints along the river, but I’m not sure the best way to resolve this issue other than making it easier to navigate your raft or by learning to die less.

The Flame in the Flood allows you to play only one game at at time, unfortunately. Want to switch from campaign to endless or from endless to campaign? You’ll have to give up your only instance of the game every time.

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Narrative-wise, there is not much added. Every so often, you’ll run into people along the way, always at random thanks to the procedurally-generated content – feral children and a witch, for example. Everyone will have something to offer you. The children offered me arrows and the witch offered to heal any ailment I might have. Their offers are a one-time only deal, so if you accidentally hit the wrong button, you won’t be able to take advantage of their help. Some people will tell you brief stories. I ran into an older woman with a gun closer to the first checkpoint – asked her if she knew about the flood and she said she didn’t for a while. Quilts do make a few appearances throughout the campaign, too, as in endless mode.

While there are a few additions to the campaign, not much differentiates it from endless mode. Dying over and over again will get frustrating, but there is a lot of joy in crafting items; it’s highly satisfying to take down a wolf with a trap and eat it for breakfast. The soundtrack is impossible to get sick of. If you want to kick back on a pontoon and float lazily down a real river, it’s available for purchase here. The Flame in the Flood will test your tenacity to the max.

Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Xbox One | Developer/Publisher: The Molasses Flood | ESRB: T | Controls: Mouse/keyboard, Controller

This review copy of The Flame in the Flood was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.

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Joanna is drawn to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic worlds, and games with a generous amount of gore. When she's not gaming, she's convincing her friends it's a good idea to go into abandoned buildings.

Review

Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity

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Etherborn

Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes. 

In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them. 

Etherborn

One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning. 

Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve. 

What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute. 

Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience. 

The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.  

The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world. 

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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