Bound by Flame Review (PS4)
When’s the last time you played a game that was both great and awful? Well if you’re the kind of person who likes to categorise games into the good and the bad, Bound by Flame is here to teach you the folly of false dichotomies. It’s the best/worst game of the year and I love/hate it more every second I play it. You should/should not buy it immediately/when it’s on sale.
Let’s cut the game down the middle and examine the innards – like chopping an orange in two and looking at all the sections. Half of those segments are juicy and ripe and delicious, and the other half are maggoty and rotten. Soundtrack: juicy. Writing: dried up. Combat: delicious. Character design: squirmy. Item crafting: succulent. Voice acting: oh God I’ve just sicked in my mouth!
Bound by Flame is that type of mid-range, mid budget game that games writers keep telling us have gone away. They have been talking about the death of AA games for the last ten years, normally in every single AA game review. These games have always and will always exist. Games that lack the budget or scope of a Skyrim or Mass Effect, but that nonetheless aspire to offer the same experiences as their bigger budget brothers. And Bound by Flame does as much right as it does wrong, both exceeding those games in some areas and falling desperately short in others.
You are given some scant character customisation options at the beginning of the game, but you play a very clearly defined character. Well, a character clearly defined as a complete prick, but we’ll come back to that later. You can choose from a few pre-set features and then you’re up and running. I have been informed recently that if you chose to play as a female character, everyone in game treats you as a male, which is really shoddy.
Straight away you’re thrust into a tense situation as a bunch of conjurers from a secret society called The Red Scribes are working on some magic ritual, and as a member of a mercenary group called The Free Blades you must protect them from the games main antagonists, the Deadwalkers. So straight away you know what you’re in for: bargain basement high fantasy nonsense that cribs ideas from George R R Martin as much as Tolkein. It’s painfully generic, with the city of Calderas home to the King of…. oh I don’t know, Aldremarish of Andruil son of Gargameor high lord of the Druidin’s and Dwarfhelvindim. Ok, I just made up names through free association and still couldn’t manage to create something as generic and utterly boring as the developers (Spiders) have created for Bound by Flame. There’s not a single original idea to be found anywhere in the game.
Once you start playing you’ll see that Spiders have clearly looked closely at The Witcher 2 for inspiration. You play as Vulcan, and it seems like he’s supposed to be cynical and acerbic like Geralt. The problem is that both the voice acting and writing are terrible, so Vulcan comes off as a complete tool. His neutral American accent certainly doesn’t help (especially while he’s surrounded by an assorted cast of poor regional UK accents), but it’s what he actually says that’s the problem. Littered with immersion-breaking profanity, it’s laughably bad when it’s supposed to be serious, and when it tries to be funny the results are beyond embarrassing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the dialogue in Bound by Flame is some of the worst I have ever heard. It’s not the fun kind of bad though, clearly these are semi-professional voice actors, but everything about it is cringeworthy. When you combine high fantasy with puerile bad language the results are hilariously bad; your characters response to an Ice Lord of the Deathwalkers shooting a bolt of energy shouldn’t be “Oh fuck that!”.
I don’t want to labour a point here, but I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a lead character as much as I dislike Vulcan. I think the problem is that if I was playing a truly repellent character, like Trevor from GTA5 for example, at least I know that I am supposed to dislike him, or at least struggle to identify with him. Trevor is an interesting, challenging character. Vulcan meanwhile is just awful. Prickly and petulant for no reason, often the dialogue choices you have for him involve acting rude, or acting rude and threatening violence. He has the personality of an anti-social 12 year old. Meanwhile, all his interaction with the women characters is creepy and learing. Looking at your witch companion Edwen’s exposed chest (she wears armour everywhere except on her breasts) he says, “Aren’t you cold.” “Well I’m not complaining!”. Just awful.
While Vulcan might be a shit Geralt, the combat in Bound by Flame is also like The Witcher, but (in my opinion at least) much better. The opening sequence in the game shows Vulcan having a tough fight with just one Deadwalker, and while he is shortly after possessed by a demon that makes him more formidable in combat, Bound by Flame never goes easy on you. That opening scene shows the heavy, weighty nature of combat when people are wielding huge broadswords, and the combat throughout the game is similarly chunky and deliberately paced. This isn’t a game about combos and juggling; rather it’s a tactical affair where you will be using every advantage you have to take on your tougher, more numerous opponents. No matter how much you level or equip your character, you can always be cut down in moments if you get cornered by a few enemies. This means that each encounter is demanding and satisfying.
In combat you’ll be using a whole suite of different tricks and techniques to take down your enemies, and again these will be very familiar to anyone who’s played The Witcher 2. First off you have two different main weapons: your big sword and your twin daggers. Switching between sword and dagger stance completely changes your movement style and speed and the attacks you can use. While in the “Ranger” stance (daggers) you are quick and can dodge attacks with a back dash. Meanwhile, in your “Warrior” stance (sword or other heavy weapon) you are slower and can kick enemies to break their guard. As you level up each of these styles they become more differentiated and useful. The warrior stance will allow your health to regenerate faster, making it more useful for defence, while your ranger stance will allow you to move even faster and execute damaging riposte’s, and you can even use a stealth mode which will grey out the screen and allow you to strike enemies from behind for a huge initial burst of damage.
There’s so much more besides the countering and dodging and guard breaking and charge attacks of the basic weapon sets though. You also have your pyromancy, and you will find you use it constantly. Using up your mana to soften up enemies with a fireball was one of my favourite tactics to employ at the start of a fight, but I also always had the flaming weapon power activated. Once you learn you can set your blades on fire, you’ll feel a bit naked when they’re no longer ablaze. This power up is a necessity later on, when attacking with a non-flaming blade begins to feel ineffectual.
You also have a crossbow that does a fair amount of damage and knocks most enemies over, giving you breathing room. The bolts are expensive to buy or craft though, so you tend to only use it when you’re in trouble. Traps meanwhile are normally reserved for boss fights where you can lay down a lot of them in areas where you think one of the big creatures will stumble into.
And as well as your crossbow and traps and magic and the two main combat styles and stealth, you also have one sidekick with you at all times. You can give them orders using a menu system (which slows down time to almost a stop) or give them general instructions when you’re outside combat and in dialogue with them. Generally they don’t do an awful lot of damage to enemies, but depending on who you chose to take with you they might be able to lock or stun enemies or at least serve as some sort of distraction.
All of these different systems integrate really well, and I think Bound in Flames combat is just about the best I have experienced in a western RPG. Because each battle is difficult, you need to use all of the options at your disposal to survive. If you go into battle relying on your blades alone you’ll quickly be swarmed and overwhelmed. Because the different skills and abilities are easy to use and intuitive, and because the controls are so well laid out, you quickly learn how to use every trick you know to tip the odds in your favour. The whole system is really slick, and while in other games you will normally just use one or two of your favourite attacks or spells over and over, Bound by Flame encourages you to use everything you know to prevail.
To give an example, in the snowy section outside Calderas I came across a patrol of Deadwalkers. There were two archers, a halberd soldier and a big, bloated, poisonous giant thingy. I went into stealth mode, sneaked up behind one of the archers, ignited my flame blades and, in Ranger mode, attacked him from behind. My first blow drained a huge chunk of health, and I followed it up with a whirling, spinning barrage of fiery slashes and stabs, whittling his health away to nothing in a flash.
In a moment the enemies in the area congregated on me. I threw some fireballs in their direction while Edwen, my backup, used her own magic on them to slow their advance. I charged into combat with the halberd soldier, slashing and cutting at him. Each time he drew his weapon back to strike, I hit the dodge which, when timed perfectly, causes the whole game to go into slow motion. Each time I artfully dodged his attack I was able to jump straight back in with more stabs of my flaming blades.
Suddenly the fire faded from them though. I was now doing far less damage and I got clumsy and failed to dodge an attack. I winced as a huge chunk of health was carved off me like meat from the bone. The archer also hit me a few times and soon my health was halfway gone.
I changed to my warrior stance and pulled out my sword. I could now block almost all of the attacks of my enemies, and in Warrior mode my health started to regenerate. I turned on my flame sword magic power, and kicked the halberd troop away. Now I had some room to manoeuvre. I backed away, blocking arrow after arrow. The bilious giant was close now, and it vomited a noxious gas attack. I was poisoned and in trouble. My health was critically low and Edwen was about to go down too.
Suddenly she cast a mind control power on the giant and he was stuck, unable to pursue me. Gambling that I could escape, I switched to ranger mode for speed and ran. As arrows flew past my ears I found some cover. The enemies were closing in on my refuge.
I drank a health potion and started to lay traps. This was where I would make my final stand. I stepped out from the boulders and stones that hid me from my opponents. Firing a crossbow bolt at the nearest, I issued the challenge. Here I make my stand! I set my sword on fire and waited for them to come at me. They hesitated only a moment before they met my challenge head on. My blade sung through the air, and, and…..
*Ahem* Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. But this is what the combat feels like in Bound by Flame, and this is what many writers and critics are missing. The minute to minute gameplay is fan-fucking-tastic. I love it. Some of the boss battles are even better than the encounter I described above. At moments like these I forget the awful story and characters, and I make up my own tale of heroism and glory. If this games combat could be transposed onto something narratively satisfying… well that would be quite a game!
If I can get granular for a second, I think the biggest thing they get right in the combat is the way you can cancel animations. In games like Dark Souls there’s a very deliberate system of non-cancelling animations. It makes for a challenging, hardcore experience. Meanwhile in games like the Arkham series, all animation can be cancelled, meaning that as long as you can press the “counter” button in time, it doesn’t matter what Batman is doing, he WILL counter an enemy attack.
In Bound by Flame, you can cancel out of almost anything, but the difficulty of each encounter is still high. This makes you feel like you are fully in control of everything you do, so when you fail to block or counter an attack it’s because you weren’t paying enough attention. For example, you can start to summon a fireball – a lengthy animation – but at any point you can dodge or block instead. In other games a summon or magic attack would normally be high risk as it would leave you vulnerable, but in Bound by Flame you can constantly adjust your approach, summoning a fireball or other magic attack, but then cancelling it if the situation changes and dodging or blocking instead. It also helps that all the animations and character movements look great, with your daggers being fast and lethal in close quarters, while your sword is slow and crushingly heavy and deadly. Combat just feels good.
Outside of the combat you’ll spend a lot of your time talking with the cast of characters, all of which are either forgettable or fantastically irritating. The weak and grating Sybil is a damsel who heals you because all women in fantasy are healers or witch’s, while Edwen (the witch) is a caricature of the standard sultry, scantily clad dominatrix. The male characters are less awful but more forgettable, with a dandy gentlemen skeleton who fences with a stick being the only real highlight.
There’s a hint of tension between the characters too, and they bitch and moan to you about each other. Because you can only take one at a time though there’s no real drama. It’s not like Mass Effect or Dragon Age where pithy dialogue is swapped between the NPC’s because the character never talk to each other, only to you.
And who accompanies you is arbitrary and awkward. When I met a new companion, the old one would often simply disappear from the world completely without a word of explanation. Even a line of dialogue like “there’s too many of us, I’ll stay behind” would be preferable to this system. As it stands, I was in the middle of an icy wasteland with my witch friend when she simply disappeared from existence. I assumed her exposed breasts meant she had frozen to death.
All dialogue is stilted and awkward, with little animation from the characters mouths let alone their bodies. Most amusingly, you will sometimes engage in dialogue while enemies float around in the background. When I rescued a merchant from being attacked by Deathwalkers, it was hilarious to see a skeleton just sit and watch our ensuing conversation from just a few metres away. “Thanks for saving me from those creatures” he said, as one of them breathed on his neck, the enemy character model so close that it looked like the monster was smelling his hair.
Weird glitches like this are very common in Bound in Flame, and contrast sharply with the well-designed combat and crafting systems. When you’re preparing to take on enemies, the crafting and levelling system is both clever and intuitive. Using bones, and metal and leather, you can create crossbow bolts or traps. You always have enough to be useful, but they still also feel scarce. Each trap or bolt is a valuable commodity, to only be used at the appropriate time.
There’s also a comprehensive system for augmenting your armour and weapons, with tassels and shoulder plates and pommels and hilts that you can also craft from the items you collect. The system for weapon and armour upgrades is really simple and satisfying, with free slots providing potential for resistances, buffs or bonus features like the ability to set enemies on fire. The upgrades are visible on your character too, which makes you marvel at how much effort must have been put in by the developers to craft so many weapons and armour combinations. It’s funny to see how much Spiders have learned from and built upon their last RPG (Of Orcs and Men), but also sad to see that they can write a good story with humour and charm, but they just didn’t bother to here.
Similarly the levelling system for your character is brilliant, with bonus traits (that make a real difference to how you play) and feats unlocked from in-game challenges, like countering a certain number of attacks or killing X number of specific enemies. Considering how much detail is in the stats and systems that underlie the game, the developers have to be commended for how well it’s all laid out. The UI designers for Bethesda need to look closely at Bound by Flame, because the way they expose and explain the underlying systems of the game through the in game stats is perfect. When you see that a sword has a “+10% chance to interrupt”, you know exactly how this will transfer to its performance in-game.
And the soaring orchestral score of Bound in Flame is glorious too. I swear there’s an ocarina playing in the opening swamp area and there’s echoes of Kakariko village, while the icy mountains feature beautiful, haunting vocals that accent the isolation and vulnerability you feel on the snowy slopes.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. Sometimes it can look a little rough, especially in the dialogue and story sections, but the combat animations are great and the environments, while perhaps a little bloom-heavy, are nonetheless varied and interesting. Enemy design meanwhile varies from the bland to the weird, but the way the enemies behave in combat is interesting and that’s the main thing.
At the centre of Bound in Flames is some story about a demon that possesses your character. Vulcan must decide whether to allow this demon more control and harness its increasing power to defeat his enemies, or fight it and retain his humanity. Similarly I felt myself constantly torn by Bound in Flame. One minute I would be completely immersed in its dark fantasy world, carving up my enemies and carefully planning each encounter. The next minute I would be bored by insufferable dialogue (of which there’s a ridiculous amount) and my loathing for the characters would make it hard for me to continue to play.
It’s a weird game. The good bits aren’t just pretty good, they’re great. The bad bits are so bad that I was sometimes starring at my screen in disbelief. On balance though, I would rather have a game that’s occasionally great than a game that’s consistently pretty good. No doubt that’s not how everyone will feel, and I can’t argue with anyone who says that Bound by Flame is badly written, technically rough, derivative and full of awful characters. Still, I didn’t finish Dragon Age 2 or The Witcher games or Amalur, but I will finish this. I’m over 25 hours in, and I would play 50 more. So that has to count for something. Right/wrong?
3 best/worst experiences of the year out of 5Bound by Flame Review (PS4),