Flame Over review for PS Vita

Platform: PS Vita
Publisher: Laughing Jackal
Developer: Laughing Jackal
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

Based on the reaction Flame Over has been getting — both critically and in the broader gaming public (at least as represented by NeoGAF and Twitter) — I think it’s safe to say it’s an all-or-nothng kind of game: you’ll either quickly fall in love with it or quickly hate it, with very little ground in between.

I’d really like to say that I fall in the former group, that I’m ready to declare 2015 the year in which a firefighting roguelike (more on what that actually is in a second) captured my heart, but, quite frankly, I just can’t. I don’t want to say that I hate it, but if I had to pick one side or the other…well, let’s just say I can’t imagine myself penning odes to it any time soon.

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In my (and the game’s) defence, I’m pretty sure the reason I dislike Flame Over — that is, its insane level of difficulty — is the very same reason so many people are over the moon about it. People like to be challenged, and I get that. The thing is, though, the challenge Flame Over poses to players seems to be far greater than any other game I can think of. And I say that without any sense of hyperbole or exaggeration. This isn’t like La-Mulana EX, where you can gradually make incremental improvements with the help of a walkthrough and trial and error. Nor is it like Dark Souls, where, again, trial and error goes a long way towards helping you improve. It’s not even like an especially challenging RPG, where you grind and grind until you get enough XP to level up.

No, Flame Over is unlike all those games in that it actively works to stop you from improving. For starters, you’re playing as a firefighter making his way through randomly-generated dungeons offices, so you can’t exactly try to memorize the right path through the burning buildings to rescue all the people and cats that need your help. They’re in different places each time, and the only way to save them is to search each room, fight back the flames, and escort them back through the other rooms and hallways until they’re free. Seeing as flames can sometimes return to rooms that previously looked safe, you can imagine the whole setup poses a bit of a challenge.

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Of course, this isn’t a big deal by itself. It’s tough, sure, but people have been playing roguelikes since the dawn of gaming, and they’ve always found ways to get better at them. Just because Flame Over is a “pyroguelike” it shouldn’t be immune to that general rule.

But when you add in other things, then you see why it’s so hard. Things like the controls, and the fact the game doesn’t tell you what they are. Sure, you’ll learn by pressing buttons until stuff happens, and it doesn’t take that long to figure out, but considering you’re facing a time limit and pretty aggressive flames, the game has a built-in way of stressing you out as you mash buttons.

Not only that, it has a built-in way of making it insanely hard to upgrade your character. See, eventually you’ll piece together that the only way to improve is with better equipment and skills — not a revolutionary idea, obviously. But the only way to get those things is with power-ups, and those are substantially harder to get. Ignore all those coins you earn fighting back flames; they’re largely useless. You need to find power-ups, and those are hidden in offices with particularly flammable items, and can be revealed only if you rescue a person in the room who refuses to do anything to save themselves until the room is free of fire. Then they’ll give you a power-up…and if you earn enough of those, eventually you get to upgrade one small, specific aspect of main character Blaze Carruthers. The logic here seems kind of circular to me — how do you get better? With power-ups. How do you get power-ups? By getting better. — and honestly, it what really makes me never want to play the game again.

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Clearly, though, your mileage with that level of difficulty may vary. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t just like a challenge, but likes a game that rebuffs your every attempt at improving…well, here you go. Flame Over does just that. I can’t say I understand the appeal, but if constantly burning and suffocating to death from smoke inhalation is your idea of a perfect game, it’ll be right up your alley.

Grade: B