Flamebreak is a twin-stick fantasy fighter, with roguelike elements and a harsh difficulty curve. Drawing on inspiration from sources like The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and Rogue Legacy. Those are some pretty good titles to draw inspiration from, but Flamebreak feels, ironically, a bit more watered down than any of it’s inspirations. Having played each of those games and now having seen Flamebreak, I’ll walk you through the similarities and differences, as well as the game’s own unique strengths.
Characters are randomly generated from elements such as their skills, race, weapon, which is similar to Rogue Legacy. You’re not required to reroll after every death, and this means you can save a character to try, try again as much as you like. That’s a real benefit if you can find a style that you enjoy, since you need not stress over losing it forever after one death. However, you aren’t able to check on what new builds are available until you let your existing one pass on, so players may be tempted to take a gamble by losing a decent build in hopes of finding a great one. Different profiles can store different runs, but don’t share unlocks. This is a good mechanic that can add variety to an otherwise repetitive game, but in this case it doesn’t feel like it worked out as well as in others. Besides unlocked races and abilities, as touched on later, there isn’t much that carries over from one run to the next, as in Rogue Legacy. A lengthy run ending in failure feels too futile. This, combined with the sustained series of combat sections, makes it seem as though you’re trying to press your fist through a wall like some kind of slow motion martial artist. Maybe you eventually get good enough to achieve your goal, but it just ends up hurting in the intervening time.
Once you have selected a character, you’ll go through a tutorial about their current set of abilities. Every time, even if you just died and are trying again. Once you button mash through that, you’ll progress across an overworld map, crossing a grid consisting of battles, shops, and random encounters. Similarly to FTL, you’ll need to hurry along to the boss area before a slowly encroaching force, the Shadow, both re-inhabits defeated areas and disincentivizes fighting in new ones. Anything the Shadow touches will no longer give treasure, and will be inhabited by difficult enemies, even if the area was previously cleared. This kind of mechanic is present to keep the player moving, and to dedicate them to the choices they’ve made already. In later stages where mountains often block the way, it becomes more important to use items like the spyglass to reveal territory before entering it. It’s never explained what the Shadow is, which you would think is important given that it’s devouring the world. In FTL you need to flee an encroaching armada through space, but the existence of the armada is a pretty important plot point which they aren’t shy about discussing. When I pass through a town and heal up on their cheese supply, does the shopkeep know he’s about to be devoured by encroaching darkness?
The story of Flamebreak and its events are related through rhyming couplets and illustrations displayed between areas and in the intro, . They’re very well done and I consider them one of the strongest points of the game. The rhymes are sometimes a bit slanted and the prose clearly came second to fitting in the story as written, but I thought it was a very nice touch that elevates Flamebreak above a mere hack ‘n’ slash. The story follows a tale of rebellion among the demigods, their creator’s downfall, and the player’s part in these events. It also explains things like the symbolism of the phoenix that’s frequently used, and the role of the gods you encounter in play. They still don’t touch on the nature of the mysterious Shadow, but the events and story are otherwise nicely explained in these little vignettes. The narration is very professional and fits the material, definitely above the caliber expected from an independent game, and better than certain lackluster AAA attempts as well.
As you progress, new aspects of character builds, like races and skills, are unlocked for the rotation, akin to Binding of Isaac‘s items. These enter the cycle of randomized parts you might find on the available characters. Each new unlock opens up a skill the character gets based on their race, their weapon, or their two wildcard skills. Every time a boss is defeated, you earn some points into your ‘spirit level’, each rank of which unlocks something new. This also mediates some extra game modes you can enable at the start. It’s gratifying to have that progress between games, but feels stunted if you can’t try out the new abilities at will. The ones I unlocked didn’t seem to be unduly more powerful than others, but all abilities are eventually increased with your stats or through upgrades.
The difficulty curve is pretty steep. You will be trying many times and regenerating new characters repeatedly before finding one that works. That isn’t a bad thing in games like this, but I would have liked to see more variety in the gameplay that I was repeating over and over. In Isaac, many rooms and items made the game feel totally different from play to play. Even just in the basement (the game’s first area) , finding special rooms or a certain item could feel like something new altogether. This sort of sensation just doesn’t come across in Flamebreak, unfortunately. Each combat is like an endurance match, and you keep trying to avoid the next one. Health is so hard to manage, with healing potions a rarity and villages with their life-giving cheese only sporadically placed, making avoiding damage a primary priority.
Things do get shaken up from time to time, with some combat scenarios have various hazards, and some are replaced with a couple of minigames, but the tone never changes. Hazards, like raining fire or extra enemies, just make the combat tougher, not more varied. Different enemies have different techniques, but you’re likely to be attacking them the same way throughout the game. The minigames are fun, if incongruous, but end up being minimally rewarding. And finally, even though you unlock new abilities over time, and can look for secrets in the overworld map, your character hardly ever changes during a playthrough. Even if you have a good build and are on a lucky streak, each combat is going to mean trying to use the same abilities time and again. Rarely, if you find a skill item for sale it will occupy one of the unused buttons on your controller, or if you assemble a particularly exotic set of gear your playstyle might change around that. Both of these things are tough to do, and because of the expense it’s unlikely you’d manage more than a couple of these additions in one game.
Throughout the game, you’ll have the chance to purchase upgrades of various sorts. Minor items from towns will boost your stats, sometimes your skills can get upgraded, and more prestigious items will additionally provide a special effect when you have multiple of them in a set. The simplest of items are basic weapons and armor, and gain a bit of damage here or some health there. Above that are amulets dedicated to the gods, which do the same but also add favor with that god, an extra stat which can be raised by collecting such charms or protecting that deity’s temples. Enough favor earns you various boons in play. The best and priciest items are named armor or jewelry, each of which comes in a set of three, never available all at once. If you collect all the parts of a set of such things, you’ll unlock a special power appropriate to that set. There aren’t explicit ‘equipment slots’ in play, and it seems like every item is more like a token that grants its buff than a real item. For example, while playing a spearman, I bought a sword at the shop and got an attack boost, but was still using my spear. Same situation if I bought another sword or three pairs of boots. There’s no visual change or addition to your sprite, either, so at least he’s spared the embarrassment of having to wear several helmets in public. The aforementioned skill items are also available this way, but are unpredictable in their placement, which is at least exciting to look for through a run.
Flamebreak didn’t entirely sell me on itself. It doesn’t do much more than is expected of it, and what it does do can come off as monotonous. There are some good ideas here, even if they’re cribbed from other titles, but none of them are fleshed out quite as well as in their ancestors. The difficulty is a turnoff, not because hard games are bad, but because hard games without variety are boring. Flamebreak has variety, but it’s limited to starting a new run as a different character. Once you’re in it, you had better be satisfied at fighting monsters in whatever optimal style fits with that build, because that is now the rest of the game. This means that after the starting line, everything is an endurance match to keep from dying, punctuated by chances to heal or increase your stats. Eventually, you can fall into a groove of managing to stay alive while teleporting across the map, seeking out decent gear, but this avoids the combat, which should be the core gameplay focus. It’s not entirely bad, but it would better if you wanted to get into the combat more often.
Overall, fans of roguelikes or other RPGs will probably be turned off. If you’re someone who likes a harsh game, needs a lot of variety in their potential characters, and enjoys things like horde modes, Flamebreak is a good choice for you. It’s a good example of twin-stick combat with lots of enemies, sometimes to the point of being shmup-esque. The storyline and it’s presentation are very well done, even if their epic fantasy feel doesn’t really jive with the experience of the actual gameplay. Adding in some more ‘downtime’ to interact with NPCs, easing off a bit on how hard it is to get health back, and otherwise breaking up the onslaught of combat rounds would go a long way toward improving Flamebreak, in my eyes.
Flamebreak was reviewed on Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
Programmed well-enough, designed well-enough. Other than its nice cinematics, Flamebreak is what you'd expect.