It feels utterly disingenuous and somewhat lazy to attach ‘The Dark Souls of…‘ to a game experience that makes no bones about killing its players. But, for the sake of taking Flame Over‘s temperature, this is Dark Souls in firefighter form. Or, more appropriately, a merciless twin-stick adventure that camouflages ruthlessness with a quaint, utterly British veneer. And one of the Playstation Vita’s absolute must-buys.
Distilled, Laughing Jackal’s effort is about fighting fires and rescuing people. And cats. Yes, the Internet is being well served and we can all haz flame-grilled cheezburgers. Strained memes aside, if you ever played The Firemen on SNES, you’d have a fair idea what Flame Over is. Fire waits for no man, and as such, players are against the clock as they douse rooms and haul people to safety. With each rescue comes a time extension, which is necessary to see to further fiery rooms and people in need of assistance.
The tools of the trade are, as one would expect, a hose and a fire extinguisher. These are expertly implemented. Hoses have a good range, letting a player tend fires from a good distance. The extinguisher, unlike the surgical precision of the hose, features more as an area effect weapon. Showering the immediate area in a flame-retardant chemical, it is used primarily as a bulwark against further ignition or — tactically — as a shield or pathway through infernos. Both need to be refilled, either at the main firefighter apparatus near the exit, or via various locations within the building. Between the two pieces of fire-fighting equipment, things get very nuanced. Coupled with a performance-based upgrade system, what might immediately seem a limited tool set becomes a flexible array of capabilities.
Every encounter is a pitch-perfect hook of risk and reward, as you’d expect in any good roguelike, roguelike-like, roguelite? or whatever Dark Souls is. Heat and time are the subtle killers here, rather than the flames themselves. Fighting fires in close proximity can wear down your health in segments if not carefully managed. Those extinguisher-blasting runs you made, rather than carefully hosing an inferno into nothing more than dank, dripping furniture, may not be worth the rescue time you’re shaving off. Then again, it might very well net you a couple of stranded folk that you can barrel back towards the exit to grant a time extension. Flame Over is constantly throwing these delicious quandaries in the player’s direction. Go this way, or that? Risk fighting a blaze with only a water fountain nearby to ever-so-slowly refill the tank, or traipse back through the complex to hit an instant refill of both flame retardant and water at the risk of fire regaining control of a room? Will you take a survivor deeper into the building to rescue other colleagues in one fell swoop, or play it safe and lead them to safety, one at a time?
Against the clock, these choices dramatically alter player experience. Flame Over is undeniably tense. and even with a number of hours under the belt and growing familiarity with the systems at my side, I never lost that leery excitement that the next door I kick open just might be the pivotal moment of the session. Procedural generation of levels means the approach to tackling one of the four locales is never something you can practice in the traditional sense, so experience is crucial. Players should expect to die quite regularly, especially when getting to grips with how far you can push things. Even in death, though, each session feels like an accomplishment. Something is always learned.
Whether it’s a tale on the perils of exploding circuit breaker boxes, or the ballad of fireball; Flame Over is not just a punitive playset for newcomers, but a healthy and robust roguelike for the veterans. Genre snobs might take umbrage at the use of the term in describing anything that isn’t turn-based, but the fact remains that the tenets are strongly represented in Laughing Jackal’s effort. Much like the PC gem Teleglitch, I don’t believe you need to adhere so religiously, so fastidiously, to the original concepts that they cannot shine through elsewhere. What better place to transmogrify fantasy-driven death-at-every-corner than within the confines of a burning building, the depleting clock given harried impetus to every decision? It’s a fine match.
Even in a month where the Vita line-up touts Hotline Miami sequels, the magnificent Helldivers and enigmatic gear like Oreshika, Flame Over demands a spot in the playlist. Featuring tight controls, whimsical audio-visuals that belie a ruthless-but-fair set of game systems and a minute cost of entry, there remains little to say but get it while it’s hot.