- Format: PS4 (version reviewed), PS3, 360, PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
- Developer: Spiders
- Players: 1
- Site: http://www.boundbyflame.com/
One of our favourite quotes from Bound By Flame can be heard in the prologue, and we’d like to share it with you. It tells you quite a lot about the game. Your character Vulcan is a member of the mercenary band The Freeborn Blades, who have been tasked with protecting the Red Scribes. These magic-wielding scholars are, under your protection, conducting a ritual which they hope will summon power to drive back the undead army which has ravaged the land. Telling a colleague to take care, Vulcan declares: “If you lose an arm, it’s gonna be my ass that gets blamed”.
Before getting to the stage of trying to ensure that your ass remains as blameless as the rest of your body parts, however, you begin with some basic character customisation – though as well as fiddling with appearance, you can at least choose to play as either a man or a woman. You can choose a name too, though there’s not much point as everybody will call you Vulcan anyway (and sadly not, as we desired, Darren). With that done it’s on to the game proper, which gives you a handful of fights to learn the basics of combat before the ritual inevitably goes wrong. A fire demon jumps into your body, gives you a few fire powers to play with, and then takes the opportunity to speak to and through you throughout the rest of the game with lots of ‘thou’ and ‘thine’ so you know it’s old and powerful.
Bound By Flame does an awful lot wrong which we’ll get on to soon, but credit where it’s due for what it does right. Firstly BBF, like pretty much any action RPG released in the last five years or so, offers you dialogue options and other choices at various points in the game. There are definitely titles that have done this better, but there are times here where your decision has an important effect – such as unexpectedly causing an ally to turn on you (and incidentally, it’s not always clear who you can really trust). Also, the demon asks to merge more of its power with you, and will give you advice from time to time. Embracing or denying the demon completely has varying results, and also dictates which two of the three possible endings will be available to you.
You’ll constantly act the sword-wielding magpie, recovering materials from fallen enemies and the environment. This is worth it thanks to the well-implemented crafting system. Health & Mana potions, crossbow bolts, traps (essentially proximity mines) and weapon & armour upgrades can be made at any time, provided you have the necessary bits and bobs. You can even sacrifice gold for raw materials if you’re desperate and far from a merchant. Throw into the mix an XP upgrade system that allows you more control over your play style than most, and the potential is clear to see.
Frustratingly, that potential is never realised. The game is largely dragged down by combat. Real effort has gone into polishing it, which is the saddest thing of all. As well as the aforementioned crossbow, traps and fire powers, you have two melee ‘stances’. Warrior sees you use a longsword or battleaxe, with strong but slow attacks and the ability to knock back enemies and break through shields. Ranger arms you with twin daggers, weaker but much faster, and the ability to dodge. Pleasingly you can switch between the two at any time, and blocking at the right moment with either allows you to launch a counter-attack. The problem is simple: most fights drag on too long.
The bottom line is that combat isn’t smooth or satisfying enough to sustain interest over long, protracted battles. Most normal enemies can take a fair amount of punishment even on the easiest difficulty, and bosses are almost uniformly depressing wars of attrition. Not even the regular autosaves soothe the pain. Speaking of which, the final boss could really have done with at least one checkpoint; a hideously aggravating fight where success seems more dependent on the items in your pocket than any amount of skill. A good tactic is often to run in circles like an overexcited toddler; it’s that sort of boss fight.
It feels like you’re only getting half the game too; once the story picks up pace and you’ve killed one of the six ‘Ice Lords’, you’re mere minutes away from the final confrontation. Depending on difficulty and side quests, you could theoretically finish the game in less than twelve hours. Even worse is that shoddy writing makes up the game’s backbone. Half the people in this otherworldly realm speak like foul-mouthed American high schoolers; even your captain (known as Captain), who does his very best Sean Connery impression throughout. The undead ally you eventually meet, Mathras, is written and acted better than anybody else – though that’s not much of a compliment. The only other interesting character is Edwen, a mysterious witch who keeps most of her secrets close to her enormous and barely concealed chest. Despite her well-developed character, the script generally treats women as something for men to leer over.
The atmosphere is nonetheless repaired to an extent by the well designed (if clichéd) enemies, and especially the wonderful soundtrack. The music is in fact arguably the star of the show, a constant presence of high quality for the rest of the game to lean on at its lowest points. And that’s Bound By Flame all over really, quality in the background that you can’t actually see or interact with. There are some great ideas here – even buried in the script – but they’re never allowed to flourish.