Platform: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4, Vita
Developer: Laughing Jackal
Genre: Roguelike / Action / Twin-stick Shooter
Price: £8.99 / $11.99 (Pre-order Sale Still Available!)
Release Date: 28th May 2015
Flame Over’s title is more than just one in a long line of fire-related jokes you’ll spot playing through Laughing Jackal’s action pyrogue-like. It’s a searing reference to a screen you’ll be viewing an awfully often as you try to battle the blaze in several distinct locations. I think we’re all familiar by now with the genre’s thirst for the souls of dejected and frustrated gamers, breaking their spirits twice as often as raising them. Flame Over surpasses those sadistic expectations and almost rivals Spelunky in terms of unforgiving mechanics and an unrelenting demand that you adapt or die. Fortunately for me, a rather averagely skilled gamer, there’s a short period of burning rage for the game before you endure a baptism of fire, emerging with full understanding of the gameplay and a love for its malicious streak.
Your aim in Flame Over is three-fold. There’s the obvious out-of-control blaze that needs to be addressed and doing so unlocks the next floor of the building. There’s also a time limit hanging over your head, counting down until almost certain doom at the hands of the omnipresent Grim Reaper that pursues you eternally. This leads on to your next concern; rescuing the hapless civilians grants an extra minute in which to complete the level objectives. It’s much more than a bonus though, as time is extremely tight and you won’t get far without saving a couple of survivors per level. Of course, the third and final duty is not dying. It may sound patronising, but anyone playing this game will know that the hardest thing to accomplish is simply living long enough to achieve any of the above goals. Standing too close to fire for long periods and backdrafts from unsprayed doors can cost you one of your limited hearts, though rescuing cats can replenish them.
Each room you enter will be in a varying state of emergency, with burning furniture spitting volatile projectiles at other objects in order to spread the blaze. Luckily, you have two weapons to tackle the flames; a water hose for the more traditional fires and an extinguisher to smother electrical fires. Both of these have tanks which need replenishing from various points throughout levels but the limits are fairly generous so it’s generally a secondary concern. There are further gadgets to be discovered, with shops popping up randomly Spelunky-style in levels offering costly but hugely beneficial upgrades for that life alone. Coins can also be saved to unlock permanent perks with varying effects, the rate of collection is surprisingly charitable and you’ll see some steady progress with successful runs.
The physics of the flames, water and fire-retardant foam is pretty impressive, reminding me oddly of Luigi’s Mansion or Super Mario Sunshine. Fireballs bounce across rooms, leaving destructive trails that birth new hazards but you feel impressively powerful as you hose down entire rooms rather quickly once you discover the most efficient techniques. It looks pretty great too, with the overwhelming glow and billowing smoke making it one of the prettier roguelikes. It might not impress those that like to study screenshots for minute signs of downgrades but they perform excellently at providing a unique style.
That difficulty level I mentioned earlier will be a sticking point for many, but a veritable paradise to others. I have to admit that I struggled to enjoy the Flame Over in the very beginning; I can’t quite place if I failed to pay attention during the tutorial or if it could do with a slight expansion but with hindsight, I can see quite clearly that I was playing “wrong”. The electrical fires were overwhelming, even with the appropriate tool but once you make your first priority finding the circuit breaker and shutting the power down, they’re very simply doused. There’s an FAQ compendium waiting to be written by the more passionate players and I’d highly recommend reading one after three or four miserable failures. With a high bar to succeed, if you don’t quite hit it the first few times then I can understand why you’d feel frustrated but it’s ridiculously compelling and it doesn’t take long for that magical click.
It’s refreshing to see someone take a distinctly dungeon-crawling genre and apply the mechanics to something quite different. The dark, grimy depths are replaced with well-lit offices and laboratories while the mobs are supplanted by a relentless inferno acting on a powerful hive mind. After a short while, it feels like a typical roguelike, with searching furniture for hidden bonuses becoming reminiscent of looting chest but it’s remarkable how an aesthetic change can play a major part in refreshing a rather traditional experience.
Difficulty aside, there were moments of contention that are slightly less down to personal taste. The controls are functional on mouse and keyboard and I certainly wouldn’t say that they’re at all remotely poor but playing on a controller was revelatory. Regardless of your preferred input choice though, the camera occasionally makes fire-fighting more cumbersome than it could have been. The sheer number of view-obscuring walls in the levels makes spotting fires hidden in corners difficult at times, and with the time limits being on the stingy side, it’s seconds cost you can scarcely afford. You soon become adept to manipulating the camera at all times, but without a controller, that becomes a difficult task.
If you take the time to work out why you’re failing but then the struggle quickly ends and it’s replaced by a wonderfully intense action experience with some of the most addictive and creative mechanics I’ve experienced. Much like an actual fire, the need to keep a calm balance in the face of panic is a necessity but when things go wrong, and they always will in Flame Over, the adrenaline that kicks in is a heady rush. This is one roguelike that I won’t hesitate to recommend, a bright spark in the darkness of a genre that very rarely steps out of its comfort zone.