Flame Over is what Spelunky would be if you played as a firefighter. It's damned hard, but oddly compelling; every failure strengthened my conviction that I could do better next time, even if I rarely did.
It stars a little cartoony firefighter — sadly not the shirtless, charity-calendar type — being entirely unprofessional and entering burning buildings alone, dousing the flames and rescuing trapped cats (and office workers, less importantly). It could be one of the Vita's secret hits next year.
Flame Over plays rather like a twin-stick shooter. You strafe around, jetting water in all directions to quench the flames that lick at everything around you, trying to create little drenched safe zones from where to battle the rest of the blaze. Rooms are entirely consumed by fire, flaming plants spew fireballs in your general direction, and stealthy electrical fires continue to feed the flames until you find the mains and switch off the juice. You have to be careful of explosive back drafts: open a door without soaking it in water first and it's probably instant death.
The characterisation is fun and cartoon-esque
It really is extremely hard. In almost an hour of play I never got past the first "world," and I am definitely not terrible at video games. There are four "worlds" altogether, with four randomly generated levels each: an office building, an executive suite, a laboratory and a factory. You start off with five minutes on the clock, and that's all the time you've got until you rescue a few people trapped in the blaze, which earns you extra time. Unfortunately, when I was playing, the flames killed them pretty much every time before I managed to lead them to safety, which is partly why I never got very far; when you run out of time, you get chased around the level by a grim reaper whose touch means instant death.
The flames are inexorable. They spread dynamically, so if an unlucky fireball makes it through the doorway you just came from, it will restart the blaze behind you. Until you develop decent firefighting technique, you're just chasing the flames in a circle around the room. On the flipside, it's extremely satisfying to finally douse them, penning the fire into a corner before finally putting it out. Especially if you manage to rescue a cat in the process. Despite playing through essentially the same level or two for an hour, Flame Over didn't feel samey. The randomly generated levels pick from a selection of hundreds of hand-made rooms, so every playthough genuinely is different.
Navigating the flames becomes increasingly tricky
There's going to be a persistent upgrade system in the final game, though it isn't in there yet. Every few levels you come across a shop that will sell you helpful items (gas masks, speedy boots, that kinda thing), but there will also be health and other upgrades that stick with you for your next playthrough. This will be an important addition, I think, to prevent Flame Over from feeling insurmountable. It's difficult not to feel dispirited in the face of repeated failure, and any good roguelike has to find the balance between encouraging the player and softening the challenge.
Flame Over has some interface issues at the moment that lead developer Alasdair Evans is healthily aware of, and that he and his studio Laughing Jackal will be working on for the next few months before release. The in-game map sucks, and some of the on-screen elements don't make immediate sense. My first few attempts, I struggled to see why I was dying in certain situations; some of that was the natural learning curve of any roguelike, but some of it was just the game doing a poor job of showing me what was happening. Most games aren't any fun at all until they're extremely close to finished, though, so the fact that Flame Over is enjoyable already hints that it could be very enjoyable once it's done.
Flame Over will be out in 2015.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.