Flickering Out

HIGH Enjoyable loop with a decent amount of challenge…

LOW …that quickly runs out of steam.

WTF Jumping challenges from a tilted overhead perspective?!

Flame Keeper is a cartoonish roguelite that’s still under active development while the early access version is available on Steam and the Nintendo eShop. This is made inherently clear to the player as soon as the mission select screen appears – only two of the proposed four biomes were open for exploration at the time of review. The same goes for the list of upgrades and pool of passive bonuses, and I’m assuming there are even more changes waiting in store. Despite this unfinished status, the publisher has explicitly sent the game out for review, so here we are.

In Flame Keeper, we take on the role of a living ember tasked with restoring a primordial flame stolen by minions of the dark side. This event is narrated via an animated intro cinematic depicting future bosses as they lead an assault on the village where the flame resided. The forces of good prove unable to defend and have to call on the ember’s aid to make things right again. Also – they’re all cute, round characters with glowing eyes that depict their mood.

The titular character, Ignis, needs to make its way across the spreading darkness by clearing areas segmented into three or four chunks. The downside of this is that if we were to lose right at the end of the last segment of a given level, it’s back to the village (the central hub) again, while the entire procedurally-generated level resets. However, while safe in the village, we can spend the hard-earned resources we’ve amassed even on a failed run to unlock new magic skills or new combo attacks.

As for the levels, they follow a simple scheme that allows us to prepare for the upcoming segments once we know the pattern — the first two levels are about starting a new fire, the third segment is a tower-defense mode against marching enemy troops, and if we make it to a fourth segment, it’s boss battle time! During the first and second parts, Ignis will have the goal of collecting several lamps and keeping a budding bonfire going. To do so, we’ll have to navigate the areas from a top-down perspective and search for lamps. Then, we’ll have to use our life energy to heat them up so that we can grab them. Then, we’ll have to carry the lamp all the way back to the bonfire at the center of the area, throw it in, and again lose some of our health to light it up.

The catch here is that we can’t use magic while carrying a lamp (though we can attack with a regular strike) and even a single enemy hit will force us to drop the lamp. This isn’t so bad since we can pick it up right away, but the drab environments make spotting a dropped lamp somewhat challenging. Plus, there are some annoying jumping challenges on occasion, which are bad news in a game using a tilted top-down perspective — it’s extra difficult to gauge where exactly will jumping take us.  

As a result of this design, a good chunk of the time in Flame Keeper revolves around health (aka flame) management. For example, if we miscalculate how much health we’ll have left after opening a container, even a single hit from the very next enemy (and they respawn rather fast) will spell doom for that run. Also, if we don’t have the fuel needed to light up a lamp we’ve already thrown into the bonfire, we simply can’t finish the level until we muster enough juice to do so.

To replenish its vitality, Ignis can do things like defeat enemies using its combo of punches, bump into trees that bear fiery fruits, or consume a specific type of mushroom and hope that RNG is on our side to grant us a “rejuvenation” timed effect. Any of these actions completes the gameplay loop’s full circle, but I do wish that circle was far, far wider in diameter than what the game offers as of yet. Things don’t change in the latter two segments of a level as we’ll (yet again) use our health bar to raise fences and traps or have to defeat the boss’s minions to regain sustenance… 

At the moment, Flame Keeper offers a total of six areas following this exact scheme, with only two of them having a special fourth segment (after the tower defense part) where Ignis has to defeat a boss to open the next biome. Then the pattern repeats itself, without even a vague promise of a tempo-change. Unfortunately, none of the unlockable moves and traits are game-changing or at least, exciting. All of the passive bonuses that can be earned through play weren’t nearly creative enough to make me theory-craft a new “build” and none of the skill-tree upgrades motivated me to chase new tiers. It’s all quite basic stuff like adding more power to Ignis’s punches, infusing the dash move with damage or a stamina-draining butt-stomp ability that can’t be spammed on enemies. Nothing I didn’t see coming or particularly wanted to experiment with. As such, it’s all merely OK.

In its current state, there’s some joy to be found in conquering a string of Flame Keeper’s levels with a perfect run, but there are just so many other, better roguelites available. Releasing an incomplete build in a market so heavily saturated with outstanding titles just isn’t a solid strategy.

Rating: 6 out of 10

— Konstantin Koteski

Disclosures: This game is developed by Kautki Cave and published by Untold Tales. It is currently available on PC and Switch.  This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a Switch Lite. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the story, and the game was completed (as much of it as it was available at the moment, anyway). There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game has received an “E” rating by ESRB, and contains Fantasy Violence. The game features cartoony characters and is presented from a top-down perspective. The combat looks cute, with icons appearing on top of the enemies depicting when they’re stunned or open for a follow-up combo. In short, it’s a kid-friendly game aside from the difficulty factor.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game has no recorded audio dialogue, so everything is presented to the player via text boxes, and text size is not able to be changed. Sound is completely unimportant for playing this game due to the total absence of audio-only enemy cues, so in my view this game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: This game offers a controller diagram, but the control scheme is not remappable.

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