I've decided that I like Bound By Flame. It's won me over by virtue of its clunkily-gruelling, Dark Souls-lite combat system, its rich and varied approach to crafting, its plethora of throwaway one liners and non-sequiturs, and by generally being a little bit bonkers. For every mechanical misstep, jagged pixel, or dreadfully uttered line of dialogue, there are moments when the sheer force of the game's accidental B-movie personality just sticks a smile on my face.
But that doesn't make it a good game.
You play Vulcan, the powder master for a band of badass mercenaries known as the Freeborn Blades. Pleasantly, you can opt to be either male or female, but the customisation options beyond that are hilariously limited to six heads or so apiece. To the game's credit, you can actually rename your character, but it's completely pointless as the game and all of its characters will still call you Vulcan.
A war has ravaged the land of Vertiel, with seven Ice Lords invading from the North (it's always from The North) and sweeping all before them with an army of undead warriors and monstrous generals. The Freeborn Blades have been hired by a group of magicians known as the Red Scribes who seek to tap into the source of the world's power -- the Worldheart -- and seek a way of vanquishing the Deathwalker army that has never lost a battle. Unfortunately, the Deathwalkers show up at the time of the ritual, everything goes tits up, and though the Red Scribes end up summoning something, it breaks free of their enchantment and seeks out the nearest available host... which would be you.
And so it is, half-possessed by a demon, that Vulcan sets out to "purify" the Worldheart and bring peace once more to Vertiel.
You have a few tools to help you in this matter, some of which fall under the metal-and-pointy category, whilst others are a little more magical thanks to the nature of your resident spectre. Vulcan has two combat stances that he can switch between on the fly: Warrior involves wielding a massive, two-handed sword, axe, or hammer, delivering powerful-yet-slow strikes. It's a stance that's all about patience, blocking and parrying attacks, and breaking out a big fat boot to smash through the defences of shielded enemies. Time a parry perfectly, and you'll be able to counter-attack, complete with a nice little slo-mo signifier.
Ranger, on the other hand, is all about speed. You can't break down the defences of shielded opponents, but you do have a dodge. It only works in one direction, unfortunately, but it just about works, allowing you to dance out of an attack. As with parrying, if you time your dodge just right, you'll be able to riposte with your dual daggers, pirouetting about in slashy fashion, and filleting your opponents up like trout. The Ranger stance also allows you to sneak up on enemies by entering a stealth mode of sorts. If you can remain unseen, you can unleash a hidden attack that'll do bonus damage and spring the surprise on your enemies.
Combat in Bound By flame is a clunky affair. It's not the slickest or most responsive system, and the backwards-only dodge is really very annoying at first. But it doesn't take too long to get used to, and the dodge and parry system works well enough for Spiders to really ratchet up the difficulty setting. You'll die a lot in Bound By Flame, mainly because the game makes it fiendishly difficult to take on more than one enemy at a time and delights in spamming you with foes, but the checkpoints are generous, you can save at any time, and more often than not you'll have died because you failed to make the most of everything at your disposal.
Potions matter in this game, as does tailoring the experience to suit your playstyle. The game doesn't punish you for not being any good with one weapon or the other, but rather allows you to customise the experience through levelling to suit your needs. I sucked as a Warrior, for example, but the brisk levelling allowed me to quickly unlock a bunch of goodies as a Ranger. Becoming host to the demon unlocks the Pyromancer skill tree too, but there are no active powers to unlock across any of these trees, rather each unlock delivers enhancements and modifiers to your abilities. As soon as you can access mana, you can fling fireballs around, set your sword on fire, and knock enemies back with a wall of fire. But the Pyromancer skill tree adds damage and flammable enhancements and extra fireballs and magic regeneration. You can try out everything, and the game encourages you to see what works for you, but you'll have to sink in skill points if you want to be truly effective.
I quite like the freedom that gives you as a player. Abilities aren't gated, only efficacy, and that sort of makes more sense to me in terms of narrative progression.
Speaking of things that make sense, the crafting mechanics in Bound By Flame are pretty damn good, simple to use, and surprisingly deep. You have raw materials that can be combined together to make more specialised raw materials, as well as filling up recipes for augmentations for your weapons and armour. Certain equipment that you pick up will come with slots for customisation. Swords, for example, can have their guards and pommels modified to dish out greater damage, interrupting power, or critical hit percentages. Armour can be doctored to protect against physical, magical, and elemental damage. However, it's imperative that you unlock the feats that make combining raw materials a less expensive and therefore prohibitive process. Crafting is a bit unbalanced, and you really have to grind to obtain the ingredients needed for some of the more rare materials. It's worth it, mind, especially when it comes to armour -- you're going to need all the help you can get.
The game does occasionally have a few cheap difficulty spikes, and some of the bosses can fell you in two hits. It's not helped at all by a camera that occasionally has a mind of its own and will bury you in scenery or behind a tree or a rock. For a game whose combat revolves around keeping a careful eye on the movements of your enemies, that can be a big problem. You can lock onto enemies with a click of the right stick, but Bound By Flame does not do crowd control well at all, and the lack of a lateral dodge means that getting yourself surrounded is a recipe for cheap deaths. Don't expect any help from your companions, either -- they're pretty much useless apart from as decoy dummies.
Speaking of which, the supporting cast is laughably awful. If Bound By Flame is a series of all-too-visible homages -- the open-but-not-really hub system rips off The Witcher, the clunky combat is pure Dark Souls -- then the NPCs are derived straight from Dragon Age. There's even a feisty witch that you find in the woods who's basically Morrigan. But without Claudia Black. Or, you know, particularly good writing. Or adequate clothing. Bound By Flame occasionally tries to make fun of such things, attempting awkward self-referential humour, and trying to make fun of outmoded, sexist RPG conventions. But, as Deathspank proved, it's difficult to do that when you go right ahead and fall into the same traps as the things you're supposedly pillorying. The witch in question constantly proves herself to be the most capable member of Vulcan's little band, but she never gets the credit she deserves.
Thing is, I can't tell whether Spiders are misguidedly shooting for maturity with the amount of F-bombs in this game, but to be honest, the script sounds like it was written by someone for whom English is a second language. The sentence construction and localisation is ever so slightly out -- I've never ever heard anyone or anything described as a "bunch of scrotums" before, and I laughed my arse off when I heard it -- and that leads to lines that are perhaps supposed to be serious sounding more like B-movie hilarity. As such, I found it increasingly impossible to take Bound By Flame seriously, which actually made it better, I suppose.
But I didn't have to pay for this, having been sent review code by Spiders, and this is where I foresee issues. See, Bound By Flame is the perfect example of why the "middle ground" died out. Here we have a decidedly last-gen game that crashed my rig six times, looks like it was made c. 2005, lasts about 15 hours (which isn't that long for an epic RPG), and has below par production values, voice acting, animations, and writing. And it's £40 on PS4.
It's £30 across PC and last-gen consoles, and that seems a little steep for what Bound By Flame is, and that price tag makes it incredibly difficult to recommend. The PS4 version certainly doesn't warrant an extra tenner given the framerate issues it has. It's a game built on last-gen tech and then ported to PS4 at the last minute.
£30-40 is a lot to ask for a game that has a lot of heart but lacks any sort of meaningful direction. Its B-movie charm wears off when the difficulty really spikes as bosses from the early game return as regular enemies and the game collapses under its rickety foundations. The story never hits home in a genre when story is often everything, it's impossible to care about the side characters, given their emotionless, blank expressions, and even more blank voices, and the grand choices that the game has you make (hello Witcher!) affect very little and are rather empty.
Timing will certainly work in Spiders' favour. There's a hunger for fantastical ARPGs, and if you can find a good deal for Bound By Flame then it might well scratch that itch. I certainly had that to a certain extent -- I'm so very ready for The Witcher III. But this isn't really the answer, and in spite of having a big heart, some tall ambitions, and some attempts at commenting on the nature of the genre, Bound By Flame sort of ends up as the butt of its own joke. In the end, I can say that I had a bit of fun, but I'm pretty sure that I wasn't laughing with Bound By Flame.
- Challenging combat might hold appeal for some
- Crafting system is well implemented and deep
- The music is pretty good
- Friendly AI is awful
- Production and construction values are fairly woeful
- Attempts at serious epic fall short, attempts at levity often make the game the butt of the joke
- £30-40? Hahahahahahaha...haha...ha....oh, you're serious
The Short Version: Bound By Flame wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and its chest, and its legs, borrowing cues from pretty much every ARPG around. Its an earnest attempt by Spiders, as are most of their games, but the elements here feel slapdash and dishevelled. At best, Bound By Flame might offer a spot of B-movie-esque filler while you wait for Dragon Age and The Witcher III. At worst, it's a clunky, hot mess of a game with an over-inflated price and little to offer of any distinction.
Platforms: PC (tested) | PS3 | PS4 (tested) | Xbox 360
Publishers: Focus Home Interactive