When we pick up games, we generally hope the entire thing is worth our time and effort, but frequently, that's not the case. Games can sometimes shine in some areas, while remaining horribly deficient in others. Dragon Age II's combat didn't do it for me, but I slogged through it to get to the characterization. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was kind of bland when it came to the story side of things, but the combat was a ton of fun. Game design and development isn't a science; a good set of core ideas can be let down by the final product.
That's probably the case with Bound by Flame.
Bound by Flame tells the story of Vulcan, a mercenary who is part of a losing war against The Ice Lords, a group of seven immortal necromancers calling upon an undead army. In the course of protecting the last ditch effort to push back the Ice Lords, you become possessed by a fire demon. This puts you in the unique position of being the best weapon to take down the necromancers and restore peace to the world.
That's a pretty generic plot there, but it's as good a starting place as any. Developer Spiders is a smaller team and you can feel their desire to jump right in and stand alongside Bethesda, Bioware, and Obsidian, but Bound by Flame is not that game. It is their Icarus, reaching for the sky without fully thinking it through.
The tone of the story is all over the place, partially due to poor dialog and voice acting. At one point during my game, I stopped to look up information about the developer's base of operations - Spiders is based in Paris, France - because I figured a poor localization could explain things not coming together in the English version. Bound by Flame wants Vulcan to be a quick-witted, somewhat-vulgar, rogue character, but there's no consistent balance. Many of the character's lines clash with one another, like early on where Vulcan asks in astonishment "how did I do that?" only to follow it immediately with a snide joke. The uneven tone extends throughout the entire game. A writer can pull off humor or braggadocio in the middle of serious situations, but it's a matter of how it's handled. In Bound by Flame, it's not handled well and I don't know who to blame for that. The tone whiplash ruins important scenes at times and destroys any emotional connection to Vulcan.
I refer to the character as "Vulcan" because that's what everyone calls you. You have a limited amount of customization: gender, a few faces, a few hairstyles, and your name. But no one ever refers to you as anything other than Vulcan, so it's odd that Spiders didn't just follow The Witcher or The Bard's Tale and give you a single, unchangeable character. Your choices in character creation don't really affect the world in any large manner outside of your romance options.
The poor characterization is extended to your companions. You'll run into a number of characters who will join you in your journey, but you can only have one in combat with you at any time. Characters like the mage Sybil, former villain Edwen, and the foreign warrior Randval all have a ton of revelatory dialogue, but the delivery tends to make the emotional connection die on the vine. In fact, there's a whole world that Spiders has created that you won't care about. There's nothing here you can completely sink your hooks into, just generic fantasy tropes.
There's some major story choices in the game about who you wish to align yourself with, but the main thrust is your decision to give into or deny the demon you have within. Like Fable, giving in means a demonic appearance and more offensive power, while denying the demon allows you to remain human with some defensive bonuses. Ultimately though, your lack of caring about the world you inhabit will probably lead you to choose the more fun offensive path, living a life with wicked horns and charcoal skin.
Which brings us to Bound By Flame's combat. This is an action-adventure title in the vein of Fable or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, so all action takes place in real-time. Vulcan has three different combat styles: the sword-wielding Warrior, the dagger-wielding Ranger, and the magical Pyromancer. The first two styles are direct and effect how you move and fight, while the third augments the preceding choice. In addition, there are craftable traps that add a bit of flavor.
Whichever style you decide to make your primary focus, the real-time combat starts off pretty satisfying. The Warrior's style has a good bit of weight to it and an attack-interrupting kick, the daggers of the Ranger can whittle enemy's down with swift strikes, and nothing thins the herd like a wave of fire. Combat is based around attacking, interrupting, parrying, and dodging your enemies' attacks. Parry or dodge at the right time and you get a slow-motion sequence where you can immediately counter-attack. Early on, it's a solid combat system that reminds me of the fun I had in Reckoning.
Unfortunately, there are huge difficulty spikes because the system doesn't play well when you have a ton of enemies on the field. You can easily find yourself in the midst of a number of enemies, dodging over and over again with very little chance to counter-attack. Your companions are frequently useless in encounters with more than a few enemies, outside of being a decoy until they die. Certain tactics become completely necessary to proceed, like the fire wave attack I previously mentioned, explosive traps, and a perfect mastery of dodge-timing. But once you've worked out those tactics, the excitement of combat begins to wear off. Spiders could've fixed this by either giving the player more stuns and control than the Warrior's kick attack, making your companion more useful, or a number of other options. What's here works on paper, but it falls down when it meets the levels and monsters.
One place Bound By flame does excel is in the skill tree and crafting system. The skill tree system is an action-RPG standard: you get points when you level and you can put those points into any of the three trees. It's not the deepest skill tree system ever, but it does allow you to customize your Vulcan to your playstyle. Straight-forward and well done.
The crafting system is the game's standout feature. Every item you find and collect in the game feeds into the crafting system. You can use materials to improve and upgrade your weapons and armor, which actually changes their appearance. You can craft potions and traps. Old equipment can be recycled for materials. If you're low on a specific material, you can even craft it from gold if you're desperate. And the best part is you can craft anywhere, even during combat. Spiders doesn't hold you back in that department.
I wanted to like Bound By Flame more than I did, because the wait until Dragon Age: Inquisition is a long one. I was hoping Bound By Flame was the next link in a chain that would tide more over until October, but it looks like I'll have to lean harder on Divinity: Original Sin or Risen 3. Bound By Flame has some good ideas, great art direction, and a strong soundtrack, but design decisions and overall execution keep it from being satisfying. Better luck next time, Spiders.
The Ultimate Decision:
- Graphics: One thing I can say is Bound By Flame looks pretty damn good for a smaller studio.
- Audio: The soundtrack is also great, especially the game's opening theme.
- Interface: It is an interface. It tells you things you need to know. Nothing amazing.
- Lasting Appeal: Once you've finish your first run, there's some mileage to be found in revisiting save games to see other choices.
Bound By Flame is a number of good ideas poorly crafted into a final product. The story itself is rather generic, with poor dialog and voice acting preventing you from getting emotionally invested in the world. The core combat is good, but once it meets with the larger game, it begins to break down. Even an excellent crafting system can't save Bound By Flame from being a budget RPG. If you can find it for $15-20, it might be worth a go for action-RPG fanatics.
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