Bound by Flame is an action RPG in the mold of Dragon Age or Dark Souls. It’s also a difficult game to judge.
When reviewing any videogame, you have to look at the game in context. You have to consider its genre, its target audience, its influences, its developer and even its development cycle. To judge all games by a rigid set of identical standards is unfair as how can you pit multi-million pound, multi-year developed games with hundreds of employees behind them, against an indie game made by a team of two people working part time in a basement apartment?
Watch the video review below
This is were Bound by Flame, developed by Spiders Games, becomes a complex and confounding game to pin a fair score to. On the one hand, it looks like a fantastic spectacle of an epic adventure, worthy of consideration against some of the top tier gaming studios RPG offerings. On the other hand, it is actually an indie game coming from a relatively small studio with the comparatively tiny budget that implies.
The game looks great. Dark, somber and moody, it boasts well designed character models, interesting and varied landscapes and an impressive level of detail in places – especially when it comes to the fully customisable lead character, Vulcan. The world moves well with very little break up in textures or clipping of any kind. Not perfect, but pretty solid – at least on the PS4 version.
Cut scenes are graphically very impressive, rendered with a higher level of gloss than the in-game action, which is still impressive in its own right. Menus are clean, crisp and easy to follow. The game looks the part of a triple-A game. Though overall it’s looks are that of a last-gen PS3 / 360 game, there is a touch of a next-gen veneer that shines through during certain parts of the game, mostly during cutscenes.
The setup is a kind of pseudo-open world adventure. Each area has a hub zone that you return to after venturing off into the wilderness to complete each quest. The map is clear and easy to follow, but also highlights the fact that the open world isn’t really all that open.
The story is classic fantasy. Arguably too classic. You play as Vulcan, the explosives expert within a group of mercenaries. Your group have been hired by the Red Scribes to help support their efforts in holding back the Deadwalkers, an army of icy, undead warriors descending from the North, threatening all of the lands, humans and elves, etc to the South. The similarities to the works of Tolkien and George RR Martin were not lost on me.
Before long, due to some clerical error with the Red Scribes, Vulcan becomes possessed by a demon and is imbued with fire powers. This makes Vulcan a force to be reckoned with in the fight against the undead hoards.
The demon talks to Vulcan, hidden in his thoughts, it is mistrustful of all those around him and tries to convince him that they do not want the best for him. Instead, the demon urges Vulcan to grant it more freedom in his mind, make more room for its soul and Vulcan will reap the reward of more power. It’s up to the player to decide who to believe, what decisions to make based on the morality of the situation and, ultimately, determine the course Vulcan will take towards either humanity’s salvation or demonic power.
There are some twists and turns along the way, and your decisions impact, not only how your relationships with your allies develop, but the overall outcome of your game (multiple endings are on offer for those wanting to experience the game a second time, following a different path and developing different skills).
As action RPGs go, I’m as glad as anyone to see that they’re moving away from the button mashing days of God of War, et al. Bound by Flame continues this proud new tradition of eschewing the frantic, fast-paced, hack and slash mayhem, and replacing it with something more evenly paced and thoughtful. At least, that’s the intention. At first, it’s a bit of a slog. Movement is slow and labored, especially during combat.
However, the skill trees, that you can upgrade as you delve deeper into the game, do improve things. Vulcan can upgrade his skills across three classes: Warrior, Ranger or Pyromancer. Warrior class is based on heavier weaponry, blocking and countering; Ranger is all about quick attacks, dodging, countering and – when the opportunity presents itself – stealth attacks; the Pyromancer class develops your fire based, demonic abilities.
There are nuances to the battle system, chiefly that of increasing your ability to interrupt what the enemy is doing to deliver your attacks, and building up a resistance to the enemies ability to interrupt your own attacks. These can be improved by leveling up, acquiring new weapons or, most interestingly of all, crafting. Crafting allows you to use elements found in the game world to make useful items and potions, or to customise and improve your weapons and armour. The amount of items available in the game world is affected greatly by the difficulty setting you choose, but even on higher skill levels, you can use your skill points to improve the frequency with which the enemies drop useful items. This is worth doing early in the game.
At first, especially if you’re not used to the slower paced battles in this type of action RPG, combat is quite challenging, even on Normal difficulty. When you’re fighting one on one, combat is pretty straightforward, when you are facing multiple enemies, attacking you from a range of distances, it can quickly become overwhelming.
This is where your companions come in. Before long in the game’s story you acquire a variety of allies to your cause. Elves, Witches, Warriors and even an undead warrior will battle alongside you throughout your adventure, at any one time you can take an ally with you to support you in battle – and believe me, you’ll need them!
Depending on your playstyle, you can find an ally to support you. Randval, the warrior gets stuck into the action, giving the enemies pause for thought with close quarters sword play. Edwen, the witch attacks from distance using dark magic to disrupt, slow and even take control of the enemy to support you. Sybil has healing powers to keep you alive without having to constantly stop and craft more health potions in the heart of battle. There’s also Rhelmar the elf who, unsurprisingly, uses a bow to deal physical attacks from range, and Mathras – an undead swordsman who can also employ the use of dark arts.
However you play, there is an ally to compliment your style. That said, I bounced between Edwen, who disrupted and distracted my foe as I swung swords at them; and Randval who joined me in laying the smack down with heavy weapons. I occasionally explored the Ranger and Pyromancer classes, mainly to take down enemies who seemed strong against warriors, but either too slow to handle the speedy ranger or weak to flamey spells!
Unfortunately for Bound by Flame, those lofty ambitions have come at a price. The game has some issues.
One of the most jarring things when playing is the voice acting. With the exception of one or two characters (the Captain and the Demon), the voice acting is not great. Speeches fall flat and dialogue is too often punctuated with overly long pauses that disrupt the flow of ‘natural’ conversation.
The awkward voice work isn’t helped by the script either, there were some extremely cringe-worthy moments where it was hard to tell if it was the poor script or the inelegant delivery that was making me squirm. Most of the dialogue is delivered in a passable sort of ‘fantasy tongue’, where characters speak in a grand ‘I shall endeavor to succeed in my quest fair maiden’ sort of way. At other, seemingly random, moments, a character will deliver something that sounds altogether too modern: ‘I just killed the f***ing beast and you’re all like “what’s for lunch?”‘ Perhaps they were aiming for the rough and ready dialogue of Game of Thrones? Unfortunately, it feels a little more like Nathan Drake just walked onto the set of Lord of the Rings.
In addition, the game seemed strangely unprepared for me naming my character something other than Vulcan. At the start, when customising my character, I chose a male, cropped his hair, kept his bushy beard and called him ‘Richard’ when prompted to name him. Despite this, the game insisted on calling me Vulcan throughout (and ‘Volcan’ on one info screen). Not game breaking, I’m sure you’ll agree, it was just odd that the game had given me the option to name him, then immediately disregarded it?! Had they just not given me the option, I would have been none the wiser and wouldn’t have spent the first hour of the game correcting the NPCs in my head whenever they called me Vulcan.
Once you get used to the rhythm of the combat, it turns from sluggish into quite enjoyable, however the lock on system was often frustrating. A tap of the R3 button (borrowed from Dark Souls?) allows you to lock on to the enemy, but then if you so much as touch R3 again, your focus shifts to the next enemy – even if they’re not on the screen. More than once, I was suddenly thrown round to face completely the wrong direction as Vulcan locked onto enemies outside of my field of view – leaving my back open to attack from the enemy who had been directly in front of me. It becomes less of a problem once you unlock the ability to block from all sides (do this EARLY!) but its still an irritation.
The last issue I discovered, was rare but infuriating to say the least. When battling through a particularly difficult area, swarmed with baddies of all shapes and sizes, my companion, Edwen, and I were close to the end when, sadly, I was slain. Upon returning to my last save point, right back at the start of the area, I discovered that Edwen had vanished. Completely. I had to attempt to battle through the same area, with no support. The only saving grace was that when I, again, succumbed to the evil masses, Edwen decided to return for my third attempt and we eventually progressed. This only happened on a couple more occasions, but was an annoying bug that I could happily have done without.
In summing up, Bound by Flame is a wonderfully ambitious project for a studio that doesn’t have the kind of spending power of those big names behind the triple-A titles. Some games have all the right elements, but put them together in such a way that they don’t quite fit and the game ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Others combine meager elements in such an impressive way that the game is elevated to being much greater than the sum of its parts.
Bound by Flame feels like one of those rare games that is exactly the sum of its parts. Some of those parts are stunning, imaginative and exciting, other of those parts are bewildering, frustrating and defectively executed. I’m left with the feeling that this game could have been so much better – if the studio hadn’t tried so hard to be a triple-A game and spread themselves too thin.
You Might Also Like