Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Ratings: M (ESRB), 16 (PEGI), MA15+ (ACB)
PC version provided on behalf of Focus Home Interactive. Thanks.
Bound By Flame, the fantasy RPG developed by Spiders and published by Focus Home Interactive, tells the story of Vertiel – a land of humans and elves (but not dwarves, dwarves are a myth don’t be ridiculous) – besieged by the powerful and seemingly immortal Ice Lords. These mighty sorcerers are using their powers to raise undead armies and freeze the lands of the living in an unyielding lust for greater power. You are Vulcan, a member of the mercenary group the Freeborn Blades, and your company has been contracted to protect a small group of scholars – the Red Scribes – while they perform a ritual to help the war effort. Of course, something goes wrong and the Scribes end up imbuing Vulcan with the spirit of a powerful Demon, granting him/her alone the strength to defeat the Ice Lords and save the world.
Vulcan is a mercenary in occupation and spirit. Her (I chose a her) cynical nature suits the character well, although she does tend to be a little too okay with some of the more unexpected things that happen. She’s cocky, self-confident, and jaded, but with enough idealism to carry her through. Vulcan’s journey through Vertiel on the way to the Worldheart is clearly the focus of the game, and it doesn’t stray from that aim. I do feel like there was a much bigger tale Spiders was aiming to tell, but, restricted by either budget or time (or both), we ended up with a decent enough fifteen hour romp.
The overall lack of polish is evident from the outset. Your first action is to customise your character. You can choose your gender, and you are given a handful of cosmetic options, such as the half a dozen pre-made faces and hair styles. You also get to choose your name – but, strangely, it’s always the same in-game. You are always Vulcan – that’s your name in dialogue and voice, and it isn’t explained at character creation that the name you choose is actually unimportant. This name issue does get handwaved in some incidental dialogue about an hour into the game – every member of the Freeborn Blades chooses a nickname on joining – but without an explicit mention of it during character creation it just feels off.
Largely perfunctory writing further suffers from a few awkward tone shifts, with its liberal swearing and a number of the occasional jokes feeling forced and out of place. Some jokes, however, do hit their mark, and the quality improves continually. A number of the later characters are much better conceived and written than the earlier ones. Edwen the mage (no, not Edwin the mage) is amusing enough, in a dry, cynical, Claudia Black-ish kind of way, and Mathras especially becomes a high point. Voice acting is inconsistent across characters, falling generally in the range of mediocre.
Despite the average writing, erratic tone, and inconsistent voice acting, Bound By Flame goes a long way to creating a great fantasy setting. You feel like you’re working through a small slice of a bigger world – one that is fleshed out in the relevant areas and glossed over in extraneous ones. It feels like the world of Vertiel is much bigger than your experience of it, but that your journey is the most relevant part of the experience. Exposition is mostly incidental and natural, delivered directly and then moved on from. The few choices you are forced to make along the way are ultimately unimportant and slightly out of place, but are handled seriously enough.
Bound By Flame falls apart when it comes to combat. Instead of walking the hard but fair line like Dark Souls, Bound By Flame frequently lapses into cheap. Enemies are damage sponges and are capable of dealing large amounts of damage to Vulcan. Four or five hits will generally kill you, while monsters will frequently tank off dozens and dozens of heavy strikes. Things frequently move too quickly to approach situations tactically, which is what the game requires. Despite fundamentally sound mechanics, the implementation is messy and awkward, feeling like a dull chore between the more interesting story bits.
Combat revolves around two main stances – warrior and ranger stances. Warrior stance uses heavy two handed weapons, like swords, hammers, and axes. It focuses on hitting hard, tanking damage, and breaking guards. Warriors can also do a multi-hit circular attack, damaging many enemies at a time. Ranger stance uses quick striking low damage daggers to dodge blows, counter, and deliver critical hits. You can enter a stealth mode with your daggers, which lets you sneak around and perform high damaging sneak attacks if you’re lucky enough to approach enemies undetected. In reality, stealth attacks are very difficult to pull off taking enemy placement into account, making stealth attacks mostly a novelty.
Each stance is supposed to play a specific role against different enemy types, but in reality I found ranger stance far more useful. Firstly, there is a mechanical imbalance. In warrior stance, blocking is done by holding space, guard breaking is with Q, and counterattacks are performed by tapping space at just the right time. Ranger stance, however, blocks with space, dodges with Q, and counterattacks by pressing Q at the right time. This creates a fundamental imbalance between the two stances – rangers can just hold block and tap dodge to counter safely, while with warriors countering presents a distinct risk. Warrior stance’s exclusive guard break ability quickly becomes redundant as you gain the ability to imbue your weapons with shield ignoring fire and an aggro soaking companion. Quick hitting attacks, inflicting poison, and dodge counters are much more useful overall than slightly higher damage when all damage inflicted is so minor anyway. As you level up and get better gear the experience of combat improves, but it never quite feels fluid or enjoyable.
The third talent tree Vulcan is capable of using is Pyromancy. Harnessing the power of the demon inside her, Vulcan can now use fire magic to burn away her foes. In reality, this means you can boost defence, boost attack, and perform ranged and AOE attacks. These skills are practically necessary to survive, with your flame armour soaking up errant hits and flame blade adding much needed damage and avoiding enemy shields. Throwing fireballs and the close range AOE knockdown spell aren’t that useful, but they can help on rare occasions. Learning to use these abilities greatly help combat, but aren’t enough to eliminate the ultimate tedium of sword fights.
Further aggravating the unbalanced combat is a tedious lock on system and bad camera. You can lock on to targets using R, which focuses the camera and delivers most attacks to that target. Strangely, you don’t lock on targets that the camera is looking at, you lock on to those that your CHARACTER is looking at, when the camera is ALSO looking at that target. This leads to some critically awkward spots of locking on to the wrong monster and, occasionally, dying. And, as the camera follows your locked on target, it frequently flies through world geometry. In quite a few situations in the earlier game this means there are trees and leaves between the camera and your character, which is not conducive to survival. Or fun. Luckily, fighting without lock on is entirely feasible, and you can still autoaim attacks on other monsters that you aren’t locked on to, and the game does this generally pretty well.
Luckily, you almost always have a companion with you to help out in battle. They’re not usually very useful at dealing damage, but they can distract an enemy for you while you thin the ranks a bit. I found Sybil to be the most useful, with her healing ability that lets you take more hits and recover faster after battle. Sometimes you get saddled with a specific companion and, if their abilities are not consistent with your play style, things can get complicated. Either way, there’s always someone else for the monsters to hit for a while, and that’s always welcome.
Naturally, there are a number of side quests for you to complete. They’re nothing really out of the ordinary – go here, kill this, rescue that, pick these. Quests give out unique items and plenty of valuable XP, so it’s definitely worth the time to take care of some. None of the quests are particularly tedious, and some even provide some interesting character moments, but they don’t stray away from the staid generic conventions.
As an RPG, Vulcan gets more powers as she kills more things or helps more people. At the earlier parts of the game, levels come thick and fast, but around level 18 or so you really start to feel that progression slow down. It doesn’t help that killing foes only nets you relatively small amounts of XP. When you gain a level, you get two points to go to your skill tree, and a point or two (depending on your level) for feats. Skill trees follow the warrior, ranger, and pyromancer lines, strengthening those abilities in a progressive dependent tier system that works well. Feats offer you passive abilities, like better item drop rates, more XP gained, better health recovery from potions, or more efficient use of crafting items. I liked the level system, with its split between skills and feats, which felt intuitive and rich, despite the lack of real diversity in the abilities available.
Bound By Flame’s crafting system is actually very good. It’s immediate and flexible, letting you craft and upgrade items on the fly. There are a list of ingredients you can collect, which can be refined and changed by using them. You can, for example, refine ore into refined metal, which you can turn into steel by combining metal with leather and blood. That steel can then become magical steel by adding heart dust collected from dead enemies and so on. Ingredients are used to make potions, traps, and crossbow bolts, as well as upgrading your weapons and armour. Most weapons and armour gives you a number of slots with predetermined upgrade types. For example, you can upgrade the guard and the pommel of your daggers, adding a chance to poison, or increasing critical hit chance, or raw damage. Armour – like chest, boots, gauntlets, and helmet – can get bonuses to health regeneration, or poison, cold, or magic defence. Upgraded parts make a small cosmetic difference on the character model too, which is a nice touch. You can also get rid of unwanted items or upgrades by “recycling” them. This destroys the item for good, but gives you a chance to recoup the ingredients that made them. Investing in feats that boost recycle percentage is very useful, allowing you a 70% chance to recover those five very expensive tainted gems that went into that special upgrade. The biggest disappointment about the system is that it isn’t explained or UI’d particularly well.
There are one or two quite minor bugs I encountered on the PC version, too. Quickloading after death instead of waiting for the reload last save prompt leaves the mouse cursor on screen until you open the menu. Sometimes the enemy’s health bar will disappear. Some loading screen tooltips are misspelt – a noticeable one calls the hero “Volcan”, and referred to my female character as a “he”. Occasionally some dialogue lines are repeated by the wrong character, although this only happened once or twice. More noticeably, the first few words of spoken dialogue are cut off immediately after loading a new screen, which can mess with your reading of a few character interactions. Nothing is broken, but it does give off a rough feeling.
Bound By Flame looks a bit rough around the edges too. Models and animations are rigid and a little stilted during gameplay. Cutscene fight choreography is pretty great, though, and that offers some spectacle around the dull battles. Areas are visually distinct, with good art direction, but a lack of technical panache to match it. It isn’t ugly, but it isn’t up to the standards of many modern games. I did like the later frost levels, and some of the visual effects were used cleverly, but it all looks entirely mediocre.
There is one unmitigated triumph in Bound By Flame, and that’s the soundtrack. Each fantastical epic accentuates and evokes the high fantasy world Bound By Flame is aiming to be. Each track is beautifully realised in classical orchestral tones that lift the surrounding action and build on the universe. Other sound elements are sufficient, but not outstanding. Monster sounds and battle effects work, but aren’t a particular highlight in the soundscape. But that soundtrack is truly wonderful.
Bound By Flame is an interesting mixture of concepts, some that work, some that don’t. It feels undercooked, uneven, and unsure, but it does have its good parts. I know that, by the end, I liked it a lot more than I did when I first started. The great world, fantastic music, and well executed crafting system is at odds with the average dialogue and mediocre graphics is at odds with the terrible combat. I can see a good game in here, somewhere, I’m just not sure exactly where. And that’s Bound By Flame’s biggest problem – it’s unable to express itself as a cohesive whole. It’s a mixture of systems and mechanics that are conceptually sound, but lacking enough polish to make them feel right together. Bound By Flame is a nascent spark among the kindling, sometimes burning bright and drawing you in, but ultimately guttering and failing to take hold.