Before ash-ridden eyes, the ravaged lands of Vertiel trickle forth like tears down battle-hardened cheeks. A world torn apart by wars between the free peoples and their Undead oppressors from the distant north. Swamps flow into arctic tundra, each filled with corrupted beasts capable of ripping men asunder with nothing more than a twitch of their claws. Sorcery meets sword on the field of battle. A field where each soldier has the power to change the tide of war in a manner of their own choosing. Bound By Flame promises such an adventure to you, gamer.
From the very moment this adventure is offered to you though, it is snatched away and all hope is burnt to nothing more than a charred crisp.
Bound By Flame is a “game” (note the quotation marks, they will make sense later) which places you in the role of Vulcan, Vulkan or Volcan. Why the three names you ask? During gameplay both in the subtitles and the loading tips the name is spelt a variety of ways. Sadly this lack of continuity is just a taste of what’s in store. Very shortly after fighting through a small assembly of tutorials Vulkan is possessed by a demon of flame. Straight away it becomes clear that Vulkan is barely a character and the demon rules the roost. Instead of being a parasitic influence the Demon actually speaks the most sense in the whole of Bound By Flame’s experience.
Every single character besides this supernatural being speaks only in curse words or convoluted exposition. This exposition is almost always based in their status as the last of their kind. Every character seems to be the last. Usually in games we are drawn to sympathize with that character who is the last of a dying race, for example Javik the Prothean in Mass Effect 3, but Bound By Flame uses this plot device with most of the companions. Not making us care for these characters but loathe them for being so bland and similar.
By far, Bound By Flame’s greatest asset is its soundtrack. Olivier Derivière may not be as household a name as Ken Levine or Vince Zampella but he makes a name for himself as a brilliant composer of game soundtracks and Bound By Flames music is probably his greatest musical achievement. Harmonies dance across the eardrums astride horse-born melodies stemming from an orchestral score and an incredible vocalist. As a visual spectacle Bound By Flame stands up for itself quite well. It’s not going to be winning any awards that’s true. Nor is it ever an offensive scratch across the eyes. Textures are just enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief you need to engage with the world. Where the artistic direction deserves merit though is in creature designs. Every enemy you face has a look about them that you just want to study their art rather than bury them beneath the dirt at your feet.
It’s a shame that the actual “game” is nothing more than offensive that it was created by human hands.
Bound By Flame’s first sin is quite simply the camera. Far and away from providing you with a porthole into the world, at every turn it pulls curtains of frustration over your eyes. During FMVs it will often sit obscuring the view of the speaking character with another’s backside or leaving only the forehead on show. Far from a curse this could be seen as a blessing because the lip syncing hits the mark with the frequency of a Stormtrooper firing squad. Where the camera shows its trophy failure though is in the only aspect Bound By Flame really had to get right as an action-oriented RPG. Combat.
The art of warfare no matter who the combatants should be an elegant dance towards victory for one and failure for the other. Within Bound By Flame the maelstrom of battle is ruined by its camera, among other factors. Instead of being a tool for use it becomes your greatest enemy. It’s frustratingly positioned right at the very back of your character by default hindering your view of the enemy even if you tilt it to be almost above you. Should you want to rotate the camera slightly to the side though you are destined for disappointment. It instead flicks between your enemies and not in a fashion which can be predicted. Usually in a game such as Dark Souls moving your lock on to the enemy at your right is as simple as… well moving your lock on to the enemy at your right. In Bound By Flame you instead are found randomly flicking through the enemies in some order which only the gods of folklore seem to know. Many a time during gameplay for example I was facing down three enemies ahead of me and one behind so moving my lock on to the next closest made sense, the one to my left. Imagine my surprise then as the camera darts around to an enemy behind leaving me hopelessly defenseless.
I’m going to rail hatred at that camera just once more before moving on although its not necessarily its fault. Still a distinct flaw in Bound By Flame though. Environments are full of environmental obstacles like trees and fences which are intended to add to these locales, far from it. Rather they take up arms in cahoots with the walls to restrict your view of conflict. Too many times throughout each area you find yourself up against a wall surrounded by four enemies who force you back, pressuring the camera into acutely poor positions all to consistently. This isn’t incessant nit-picking, its a problem which rolls around more often than not.
The meat of Bound By Flame is quite obviously the combat; a shame that it’s been sandwiched in between a slice of poor camera and uninspired characters. Not that it doesn’t fit into the meal of mediocrity. At its core Vulkan has what by all accounts is a personal armory of abilities and techniques available. Not that they seem to be of any use in combat. Its possible to play the stealthy sneaking route or as a two-handed weapon swinging warrior with the helpful addition of Pyromancy, all tied together with a dose of ‘tactical’ combat. On the flip side combat boils down to blocking or dodging begging and praying for a safe window wide enough to grant the chance for a strike. Medicore tedium is perhaps the most accurate way to put into words the action in this action RPG. Boring combat can be forgiven though. So many games have boring combat that its genuinly surprising when a game comes along to revitalize the staple of our much-loved medium.
Bound By Flame on the other hand mixes boring combat with fundamentally broken mechanics. So broken in fact it drags the whole game down from mediocre to a disgrace.
Battling against your opponents is for one incredibly poorly balanced. For once, drifting out of an enemies immediate area regularly leads to the monster both resetting their position and resetting their health. This reset of health is a slap in the face as Vulkan rarely has the strength to take down a foe in anything less than ten strikes, on the lowest difficulty setting. The reset is made even worse when attacked by two foes capable of this feat almost teaming up to force you into an unnecessary and joyless position.
Often you can be knocked back on your ass which, granted, is just an interesting way to put the player in danger. However pair this with enemies who do this and then follow up with a second damaging attack straight after and Bound By Flame’s combat system instantly goes from interesting to cheap. This mechanic has been used in many other titles to punish the player for making easily avoidable mistakes while offering the chance at another strategy. The developers at Spider Games though apparently didn’t take the needs of the player into account. Either the designers, developers or testers felt that challenging the gamers patience is more important than fun. Rather than victory over opponents giving you a sense of joy Bound By Flame fosters a feeling of relief that it’s finally over with the bitter taste of remorse for wasting time playing the game.
Deaths rarely feel like a fair outcome to failing in action, rather taking the stance of a cruel joke thrust into your face. Games like Dark Souls, early entries in the Resident Evil series and even platformers in the vein of Spelunky use what to the untrained eye looks like an unfair advantage on the part of their gameplay. They are in fact challenging the player with a situation which may look impossible but has that little opening or weakness which can be exploited. Bound By Flame simply delights in reducing everything to a game of chance with heavily weighted dice. Eschewing the commonly held framework of predictable patterns for a more random state of conflict may sound interesting but becomes unfair when leading to no discernable path to victory. Enemy attacks are sporadic, powerful and painfully unpredictable to a point where brain-rending thought gives way to barbaric button bashing in the vain hope of success.
In itself this unpredictable and untamed AI behaviour wouldn’t be a game breaker. Neither would the overly strong attacks enemies are given. Mix them together before adding in fights which can last upwards of 5 minutes though, only to end in untimely failure resulting from a poor camera angle or lack of response from your character and you have a corrupted heap of misadventure laid before you.
Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Maybe you don’t care about repeatedly failing due to poor game design. Maybe what peaks your interest in Bound By Flame is the other half of its genre definition. You want an RPG. Well sadly Bound By Flame is going to spend even more time kicking sand in your eyes before stamping on your extremities while humming delightful music in your ears. Contrary to the definition of Role-Playing you don’t get to play a role as you would. Rather your character of choice is dragged through each situation kicking and screaming until the outcome the game desires for you is achieved. A little thing called Player Agency is lacking in the game, a game which has not hesitated to advertise choice as part of its execution.
During my whole time playing this mess I was twice offered a meaningful choice. Twice in over fifteen hours did I get to make a decision which didn’t seem to be forcing me in a direction or ended in the same conclusion aside from a line of dialogue or two. Even then each choice is shallow. About as shallow as the character customization outside of the opening. Yes at the very start Bound By Flame allows you to make your character look how you want; offered multiple races, facial structures and hairstyles. Several hours in, the option to allow your charisma-oozing demon to take some control over your body is offered. Taking this choice once you would figure that at every opportunity the same question would be asked again. Not a chance. Replacing a constant opportunity to give the player choices is a stream of backlash for deciding once to give the demon what it seeks.
You don’t want to have horns which stop you wearing a helm? What a shame because you don’t get to decide. You didn’t want to have half of your chest replaced with burning flames which rip away most of your armour? Next time don’t make that one flippant decision 6 hours ago then. Oh you wanted to know what would happen or at least get an inkling of the consequences? Better luck next time gamer. Disregarding the common courtesy of asking the person who paid for their game how they want to develop their character and replacing it with a binary yes or no choice early in the game is lazy, unforgivable and reeks of interesting ideas implemented with no thought paid to if they work.
Sure you’ve got a cast of five possible companion characters ranging from discount Legolas to Imhotep right the way to amply bosomed witch with a twisted past and barely a thread covering her shame. Each one really tries to be likable or intriguing. They instead only become as important as secondary weapons to help you struggle through infuriating combat. For all of ten seconds before they are put on their backs by the first enemy within arms length. Edwen (aka token large breasted witch) is probably the most interesting character placed before you but she still has the depth of a paddling pool. Each companion is well voiced though so there’s something.
It’s only one thing but its still something right? Right?!
Wrong again kids. Bound By Flame has one final unceremonious trait. It’s broken at a fundamental level. Let me tell you a little story. Upon recieving my copy I ravaged the game. Running through every door and talking to every single NPC. At this point the game felt unpolished yes, but it didn’t feel broken. However twice during the days I’ve been reviewing the game it has thrown up the same bug. The same game breaking bug as plagued my time with this title twice. The first time upon returning from a simple quest I find the town under siege from invisible enemies.
They didn’t fight back and didn’t move, yet could still be killed. Ok I figure, this is a pretty simple bug which will probably be ironed out by the time a day one patch lands. Then I enter what should be the final battle of these opening stages to find an imposing enemy stood perfectly still, arms spread hovering across the field of battle. Again not attacking. So again I figure its a simple bug probably a one off. However after the battle, I cannot progress further. After four whole hours of gameplay I’m trapped. Reinstall did nothing, neither did a cache integrity check. Therefore I chose to load up a duplicate save made 2 hours previously. Two hours later, same outcome. This meant restarting everything. Having to restart a whole game due to a bug likely embedded deep inside the architecture of Bound By Flame was only the beginning, although it never got as bad again. Don’t believe me? See the video proof below:
Enemies would hover in walls as their arms flailed at me. Conversations would abruptly start and end with no telling reasons. FMVs would play too late and end too soon. Interactions with the game world would randomly become impossible and enemies too large for their quarters would become jammed in the environment. These issues are far from a Day One patch fix. They are rooted deep within the code and tell us one thing. Bound By Flame seems to have a lower bar for quality control than anything you’ve ever played before, at a price higher than you’d be likely to pay.
There are so many other issues which need to be detailed but if I were to go through them all in fine detail this review would contain more lines of dialogue than the game its based upon. So instead, here’s a bottom five. Five final issues which serve only to bury Bound By Flame deeper than any landfill in New Mexico.
- Lootable containers are only visible thanks to a faint white glow which is barely visible in half of the games areas.
- The variation of environments is distinctly lacking as each section of the story takes place in a small zone where you retread the same paths repeatedly instead of visiting new pastures.
- Important plot points are mentioned merely in passing instead of taking the story’s focus away from the four events Vulkan fights through.
- The much advertised “crafting system” actually only lets you add some modifications to the small selection of weapons Bound By Flame holds.
- Bound By Flame is simply not fun.
Bound By Flame could have been a wonderful jaunt through a very well crafted dark fantasy world, complimented by its combat and fed by interesting characters. Yet at every possible juncture where design decisions could have gone the right way or the wrong, they chose the wrong. At their very core games are supposed to be enjoyable experiences no matter their challenging sides. The reason Bound By Flame fails to deserve the definition of a ‘game’ is fairly simple, there is no fun to be had in a game broken to its very centre. Bound By Flame is a new yardstick in games development. A point from which all developers/designers/testers should work at their hardest to be distant from. Some good ideas and interesting mechanics can be lost between early concept and final product so easily, as this title proves. Far from being Bound By Flame, you’re thrust into a Trial By Fire.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a game as “An activity that one engages in for amusement”. This is why all the way Bound By Flame has no reason to be called a game. It could have been an immensely challenging yet rewarding experience, it could even have been a blindingly simple four hour visual novel and it would still be a game. However Bound By Flame instead sits at the bottom of all these piles. The only amusement to be had in Bound By Flame is at the expense its technical execution. Bound By Flame is an ambitious project which fails at every possible turn to be a game worth playing.
This review was done using a PC copy of Bound By Flame provided by the developers.
Disclaimer: Several hours before this review went live there was a large patch to the PC version. However it seems to have had very little effect on the issues listed in this review.