Dying Flame Review
Following a huge boom in the early 2010s, the RPGMaker engine has become an invaluable resource for developers looking to channel the JRPGs of yesteryear, even evolving into its own sub-genre. Horror RPGMaker games, in particular, rose in popularity thanks to breakout titles like Ib, Mad Father and The Witch’s House being showcased by a large number of popular YouTubers. Dying Flame, the debut game from Malaysian developer Roundtable Games Studio, follows in their bloody footsteps of puzzle-solving and psychological horror while carving its own unique path through the RPGMaker realm.
Protagonist James wakes up in a strange mansion in complete darkness, his only possessions being a lighter and a handful of cigarettes. Using these as his only source of light, he begins to desperately navigate the mansion searching for a way out, troubled by the appearance of his wife Mary, who also seems to be trapped there. But something is lurking in the darkness, hunting him at every step, and the meagre light James clings to could lead to a grisly end.
Right off the bat, the absence of light is unnervingly effective. While darkness is common in horror titles, games often utilise dim lighting rather than complete blackness to give players a way to at least vaguely map out what’s ahead of them. It’s almost a given and taken for granted. Playing Dying Flame will make you treasure every single spark! Striking James’s lighter only gives you a small bubble of light, and unless there’s another source of light in the room like a lamp or a fire, that’s all you’re getting. The darkness itself feels alive, sapping at the edges of the bubble. The mansion is decrepit in places, and creaky floorboards litter the floors, collapsing and plunging you to your death if you linger too long. And of course, your lighter won’t stay lit forever — soon it will go out, and you’ll have to strike up again…or will you?
I’m not particularly easy to scare, so if a game manages it, it’s definitely doing something right. Dying Flame starts quite slow with the occasional flash of lightning or sudden noise. When your lighter goes out, you furtively strike it again, but nothing unnatural pops up for a jump scare or to relieve you of your innards. You soon begin to relax and think, “Is this it?” Then you solve a certain puzzle. Suddenly a grotesque form races towards you with a bloodcurdling scream, and you’re thrown into complete blackness again with the creature’s unearthly growls reverberating around you — the sound design in these moments is superb. And if you’re me, you’re now a squealing mess hiding under your desk.
Fumbling in the dark
The game then takes a whole new turn; striking your lighter means certain death, so you must blindly retrace your steps and find your way out of the room to evade the creature. From then on, every time you enter a room, you’re desperately trying to remember every feature, every crack in the floor, how many steps from point A to point B. Very few big-budget horror games can say the same. Nicely done, Roundtable. You got me, hook, line and sinker!
Like its predecessors, Dying Flame focuses on storytelling through exploration and puzzle-solving. James finds excerpts from his wife’s journal scattered around the mansion, slowly painting a picture of their life before. Riddles and objects provide hints on how to proceed, and the difficulty balance feels just right — not too subtle or too “Over there, silly!”.
Using items, however, can be clumsy at times as it’s unclear whether you use an item via the inventory or simply interact with something to use what’s appropriate; the interaction options do not change. While not a game-breaker, it does happen often and can hold things up a little, causing unnecessary backtracking to figure out what you’ve missed when you may already have what’s needed. But there’s one aspect that Dying Flame executes unexpectedly cleverly: saving your game.
As you move through the mansion, you’ll find cigarettes on desks, in plant pots, stuffed in cubby holes. These can be smoked to save your progress and provide a wider area of light (and an extra source should your lighter go out). Given the spoop levels involved, it’s tempting to save every few steps, but you only have so many. But added to this is the stress bar. The longer you go without a smoke, the more stressed James becomes and the harder it becomes to strike the lighter, requiring more and more attempts. Smoking and saving lowers the stress level and makes this increasingly easier. But every time you light up, you feel the weight of feeding James’s addiction and get the sense of everything being interconnected. Do you risk what little light you have by fighting it or feed it to save your skin?
Roundtable Games Studio have certainly put their best foot forward with Dying Flame. Fans of layered psychological storytelling and atmosphere will be intrigued, and fans looking for a dialled-up-to-11 spoopy adrenaline rush will be more than satisfied. The RPGMaker genre has another great title in its library, and indie gaming has another promising studio to look out for.