May 21 2014

Review of Bound by Flame


Bound by Flame is a game with some really interesting ideas but a noticeably flawed execution, it’s a game that wants to play with the big boys of the RPG genre but fails at providing the same kind of scope and complexity that you might expect out of a Dragon Age or Witcher. That goes for everything in Bound by Flame, be it the gameplay, the graphics, the story, or the dialogue, it all feels like it’s trying to be something more than it is and ends up falling somewhat flat as a result. It’s not an absolutely terrible game but it’s lesser in scope than many might have been hoping for considering that this is arguably the first decent sized RPG on the PS4 (though it is also available for the last gen systems and the PC).

Probably the most interesting part of this game is the premise: you are a mercenary by name of Vulcan whose company is protecting the Red Scribes, a group of scholars trying to save the doomed world of Vertiel from the encroaching armies of the necromantic sorcerers known as the Ice Lords. However in the course of a ritual the scribes were performing, things go bad and whatever entity they were summoning finds its way into your body, giving you immense power but an unhappy roommate. The rest of the game involves you fleeing from the Ice Lords and fighting against/working with the so-called Demon in your head long enough to use its power to strike back against your frozen foes by saving the Worldheart, which is where all the magic in Vertiel comes from. While the setting and overall vibe of the game definitely feels like pretty generic Dark Fantasy, the story is a little less formulaic. The decisions you end up having to make, especially those regarding the Demon, generally end up being somewhat interesting and more ambiguous than I expected. The invasion of the Ice Lords is pretty far along and it’s clear that the world is basically fucked, this allows for the game to play with morality a tad by saying things like, why save a bunch of refugees if there’ll be no place left for them to go? Now don’t get the wrong idea, Bound by Flame doesn’t sport Walking Dead levels of ethical ambiguity, but it does manage to get away from the standard binary Good/Evil balance that so many other games get stuck on and that’s definitely a plus. This is especially goes for the Demon, which despite being called “the Demon” and having a thinly veiled contempt for mankind, does generally seem to be on the up and up regarding most things.

bound_by_flame-12Sadly the competency and interesting nature of the story don’t carry through to the dialogue and general writing which ends up falling upon well-worn but poorly done archetypes and unnecessary amounts of swearing and blue humor. Our protagonist Vulcan and his Demon are the worst offenders here, the latter speaks like a failed English Lit student’s attempt at recreating Shakespeare and the former swears more than a 12-year-old on Xbox Live. While I get that the swearing is meant to lend an adult atmosphere to things, starting off a boss fight by calling the offending monster an “ugly fuck” ruins the mood somewhat. It doesn’t stop at mere swearing though, constant jokes are made about how one of your female companions wears very skimpy armor and the sexual preferences of one of the Ice Lords is played for laughs on multiple occasions including one point where a masturbation joke is made directly after you kill all of his wives. At no point did I ever really find any of these jokes actually funny, it all ended up feeling rather immature and highlighted how shallow the characters actually are. As I mentioned, you do have companions with you throughout the game but none of them are very interesting or at the very least don’t express enough of their back stories to become interesting. I talked to everyone at every opportunity but no one ever really had all that much to say. You get the rare interesting moment of revelation, such as the hearing the sad past of Randval, a suicidal knight who constantly speaks in the third person, but the characters overall just aren’t willing enough to really spill their guts and flesh out themselves and the world.

Similarly limited is the gameplay, which despite having a strong base of unique crafting and fairly smooth combat, never offers up enough variety to become truly interesting. A lot of what you’re doing is taken straight from the developer’s last game, Mars: War Logs; the action combat system is very similar, being dependent on parries and strategic use of abilities and the equipment augmentation system for M:WL is taken wholesale. These aren’t bad things though, the crafting and reworking of equipment was my favourite part of M:WL and while the combat doesn’t necessarily feel all that varied (more on that in a minute) it does feel very smooth and blocking and attacking has a nice immediacy to it with little animation priority to worry about. While this makes for a pretty solid base for the gameplay, it all ends up falling apart thanks to two major problems: a lack of variety and the enemies’ ungodly endurance.

bound_by_flame-03You’ll never, no matter how many side quests you complete, be able to one shot an enemy in this game. Perhaps if you spent hours grinding you might be able to but I completed every single side quest and made sure I had all the best equipment with the best augments possible on them and still never managed to kill the even the weakest enemies in the game in less than two hits. Of course such tenacity does not extend to you or your companions, even fully armored up and with multiple buffs on, you’re still pretty fragile and your companions serve as nothing more than bait for the minute or so they mange to survive in any given fight. This problem becomes especially prevalent in the back third of the game which is littered with former bosses turned into regular enemies, all of which in addition to being massive dumpsters of hit points, deal tons of damage and respawn constantly. Just getting from point A to point B on the map could force you through several fights that can each go for as long as ten minutes and are never fun. You’re basically the tide breaking against the enemies hoping to eventually succeed through sheer erosion. The worst part is that it’s not even challenging as the same basic tactics work over and over again; instead it’s simply grueling and repetitive which casts an unpleasant pall over the rest of the experience.

Of course I also mentioned a lack of variety earlier and that only serves deepen this game’s problems. Progression feels quite limited overall both in term of equipment and leveling, with nothing you unlock ever drastically changing things. The crafting, for as interesting as I find it, always seems limited to the same handful of augments which never convey anything more than a simple stat boost. This is made worse by the somewhat sparse amount of loot in the game; the first chapter or so gives you plenty to work with but by the time the mid-way mark rolls around you’ll start feeling the squeeze as equipment (and armor in particular) becomes somewhat rare. As you may have guessed there’s also not a ton of different enemies in the game and you’ll end up fighting the same fights against the same dudes constantly. Of course if you had a decent array of abilities with which to combat the identical hordes you could at least make your own fun but unfortunately the arsenal at Vulcan’s disposal is quite limited. Aside from standard attacking, you have some minor stealth abilities, a crossbow, some land mines, a few buffs, and a couple piddly fire attacks. You learn pretty much all those things within the first hour or so of the game and almost every upgrade you make afterwards via leveling is some sort of minor passive boost or ineffective modification to those existing skills. But at least Vulcan gets to upgrade his skills and equipment, his companions have no progression whatsoever, wearing the same armor and using the same attacks the whole game and as a result being completely ineffectual from start to finish. To restate my point, while the foundations of the gameplay are solid and have merit, the lack of variety and unpleasant grind ruin the overall experience and never give you enough power or options to really stretch your legs and actually enjoy yourself.

bound_by_flame-17The presentation similarly starts off strong but¬†nosedives near the end. I played the PS4 version which should ostensibly be the best looking version (barring the PC version on max settings of course) and while there’s certainly some next-gen shine present, it definitely feels like a split gen game. But even with that said it is at least an artistically interesting game thanks to some good metal looking enemy designs and the way that Vulcan physically changes as he comes to accept the demon. As time goes on Vulcan’s skin goes dark, he grows horns, and his shoulder becomes enveloped in constant flame which in a nice touch makes it so that any armor you’re wearing is torn away on that side. It’s a minor thing but the fact that there’s a normal model and a torn arm model of each armor set is pretty neat. But as the game goes on, their dedication to the concept seems to waver and lots of story events that seem like they could be visually interesting happen only in dialogue. A specific example that really bugged me was a side quest in the last chapter where you need to unlock the secrets of an ancient artifact, the secret turns out be combining fire and ice and thankfully you have along a companion with ice powers when you discover this. My expectation was that I would get a little laser light show where we combined out powers and then some magic bullshit would pour out of the artifact. Instead my companion simply said “yep, combining magic sounds like a plan” and then I got a notification saying that the quest was completed, all the cool stuff happened off-screen and they never even told me what the artifact actually did. To quickly touch on the sound design, the music never really grabbed me but I liked the title theme for as rare as it plays; the VO is a mixed bag at best with Vulcan once again being the worst offender as he flits between subdued curiosity and angry swearing.

Bound by Flame in a lot of ways really does not feel like a complete experience. There’s a strong base here and some good ideas but none of it is ever explored deeply enough to really amount to anything as the game barrels towards its end point at a rather alarming speed. You definitely get the feeling that some grand plans were made for this game but that not too long into development they realized those goals were unrealistic and they just lumped together what they already had.¬†In the end I’m giving Bound by Flame a 2 out of 5 stars; I can’t really recommend it, a solid base and an interesting premise don’t make up for the dull underdone slog the game becomes.

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