Gamersyde Review: Bound by Flame
As the first fantasy role playing game to be released on PlayStation 4 there was a real opportunity here to grab the hearts and minds of new PS4 owners hungry for more software. There's no better time to introduce console players to a new series than early in a console generation, after all, and success could lead to a new generation of fans. If you play on PC, Xbox 360 or PS3, you're also given the ooportunity to embark upon a potentially epic adventure. Does Bound by Flame have what it takes?
Since 2008 the delightfully named French studio Spiders has been releasing RPGs on a semi-annual basis. With a staff of just twenty to thirty people, however, their games are often strong in concept but fall short of greatness. It’s clear that the team desperately wants to create a game that can hang with the best of Bioware or CD Projekt RED but doing so on a shoestring budget with a small staff is a tall order and one they’ve yet to achieve. After working through their latest game, however, one can’t help but feel as if history is once again repeating itself. There’s a strong combat system, interesting characters, and some novel ideas here but all of that is offset by a small scope and general lack of depth that ultimately prevents Bound by Flame from delivering on its promise. If you’re been paying attention to the promotional material you might want to re-adjust your expectations before giving it a shot.
Set in the war torn world of Vertiel, Bound by Flame follows the exploits of the mercenary Vulcan on a quest to put an end to the Ice Lords and their undead army. Early on, during a failed ritual, Vulcan is possessed by a demon which attempts to exert its influence over his body throughout the game. This push-pull relationship between Vulcan and the demon acts as this game's take on the morality paradigm with choices throughout the story shaping both the gameplay and narrative in equal measures. Embracing the demon increases your power in battle and dramatically alters your appearance but limits your ability to utilize armor such as helmets, while keeping the demon at bay produces the opposite results. The narrative impact of these choices is also interesting at times with certain paths even leading to the death of important characters, or at least resulting in some interesting conversation. That said, the inconsistent reactions to your physical changes, should you side with the demon, can feel a bit awkward when certain characters seem oblivious to the fact that you’re now a big, ugly demon while others cower before you.
You’ll run across a nice assortment of colorful characters, five in total, capable of joining your party throughout the journey, including a six thousand year old undead English gentleman. These relationships can play out in a variety of ways depending on how you respond to dialog choices, romance being part of the equation. While these relationships aren’t particularly deep, they definitely add a nice touch to the experience and kept us playing at least. The possibility to talk with them to find out more about their past and the history of Vertiel is quite interesting, as it shows Spiders put a lot of effort in creating a coherent world. They’re useful in combat as well though only one may accompany you at any one time. Each character specializes in a very different form of combat such as healing, magic, or a good ol’ sword and shield. Thankfully, in most cases you're able to choose which character you'd like to travel with, making the choice an important piece of strategy.
Vertiel: War Logs
It is combat, then, which stands as perhaps the games strongest suit. Vulcan has access to three combat archetypes; the Warrior, the Ranger, and the Pyromancer and you’re free to switch between them at any time. Similar to that of Mars: War Logs, combat plays out in real-time with a simple but effective system that heavily favors parrying and riposting. Even on the easier difficulty settings this is one difficult game; a game where button mashing simply isn't going to cut it. Mastering the art of parrying as the Warrior or taking out enemies from the shadows as a Ranger pays dividends with even the basic enemies putting up a significant challenge. While there are a limited number of enemy types available in the game it can be quite addictive to execute the perfect strategy for each group of foes. Holding the left shoulder button also triggers a command menu allowing you to effectively slow-down the action while making both strategic decisions for your ally as well as utilizing items such as traps and potions – again, something that will remind players of their previous game. Some actions can be assigned to specific buttons that you can use as shortcuts, much like in games like Mass Effect or The Witcher.
Character building is handled through the acquisition of skill points which can be spent upon any of the three combat trees, corresponding to each combat style above, unlocking additional skills and buffs along the way. There are not really a lot of options here and maxing out a single tree by the end of the game shouldn’t be a problem, though we preferred to spread our points across all three. It is however impossible to max out all three of them, forcing you to choose wisely how you wish to play the game. Crafting also plays a role both in weapon and armor enhancement as well as in the making of items. Most pieces of equipment contain slots (think “material slots”) in which stat boosting items can be inserted through crafting. Craft-able items, however, are much more limited in scope with just four possible items including a potion for healing, another for magic, a trap, and bolts for your crossbow. The amount of resources is also quite limited, which means you have to carefully use the items you make. Bomb traps may be very effective, but you won't be able to have too many of them for example.
Bound by Budget
Unfortunately, the limited scope experienced in item crafting can be applied to the game as a whole. Take its world for instance, which sounds positively gargantuan when discussed by its inhabitants, but ultimately never goes beyond a village, a pair of campsites, and a bunch of monster infested corridors. There’s just not a lot to see here. Despite completing the majority of side quests we managed to reach the ending credits after just 15 hours of play. That’s not to say that the length itself was an issue, rather, it’s the fact that we never felt as if the game truly found its footing. The entire experience feels more like an extended prologue than a real adventure and many of its story beats ultimately feel rushed lacking the proper buildup one might expect. The environments never manage to go beyond feeling cramped and you never feel as if the world was fully explored. With each and every objective clearly highlighted on your map at all times it feels as if you’re just chasing an objective marker rather than actually exploring. No doubt much of this is the result of a minuscule budget but that doesn’t fully excuse often dull map design.
We've already established that Bound by Flame is, in fact, bound by budgetary constraints so it's of no surprise that the presentation is left wanting as well. Artistically the game can be quite attractive to look at but there's a sense that the vision is limited by the technology. Powered by the in-house Silk Engine, a derivative of the PhyreEngine on which Dark Souls is based, the world often feels starved for detail despite being confined to relatively tiny maps while animation always feels a bit rough around the edges. It looks and feels like something we might have played back in 2007. We only had the opportunity to play through the game on PC and, even then, performance was slightly disappointing. Even on a GTX780 utilizing the “ultra setting” for shadows resulted in slowdown. While disabling this ultimately has very little impact on the overall presentation it’s still baffling when one considers the already dated visuals at hand. Aside from shadows, however, the rest of the settings can easily be maxed out without any additional performance issues even on lesser hardware. The audio side of things fare a bit better, however, with a generally interesting score sometimes reminiscent more of a sci-fi title than high fantasy combined with reasonably competent voice acting. Robin Atkin Downes provides the voice for Vulcan sounding an awful lot like his performance as Kazuhira Miller in Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker. Some of the secondary characters fall a bit flat, unfortunately, while others still are let down by some occasionally cheesy dialog.
While Bound by Flame is a perfectly enjoyable game, it’s also one that feels like it could have been so much more. If you can obtain the game for a reasonable price it’s certainly worth a look provided you’re not expecting an epic adventure. We’ve often lamented the disappearance of so-called “B-Tier” games which have become increasingly uncommon this past generation and it just so happens that Bound by Flame falls squarely into that category. It’s a fun, charming RPG let down by a limited scale and lack of content.
After fourteen hours with the PC version of Bound by Flame, and still a little ways from the ending, the general feeling is undeniably more positive than negative. While not particularly attractive initially, due in part to the plasticky, dated visuals, this RPG developed by the small French studio of just twenty people feels generous in many ways. Crafting, multiple skill trees, loot, equipment upgrades, side missions galore, branching narrative, and a rich backstory all come together to create a solid little RPG. Of course, one can't expect such a small team to match the size and scale of a Bethesda production, but despite its flaws, Bound by Flame remains very much in line with Mars: War Logs, their previous title. Bound by Flame is then a rather enjoyable and even endearing experience despite some repetition and a distinct lack of scale. One of the game's strengths undeniably comes from the solid design of its bestiary, with some pretty original creatures. And then there is combat, which is really fun to play despite its repetitiveness.
Beyond the gaps that arise from the limited financial resources of the studio, the real downside here is its price, which seems excessive given the content especially on consoles (360/PS3/PS4). Knowing the current level of demand from players for high quality visual and variety this might affect the chances of success. Bound by Flame is certainly not the most essential of RPGs but may ultimately still satisfy fans who look for more than just pretty graphics. Take heed, the games world consists largely of narrow passageways of a rather labyrinthine design. It's an old style design that may not satisfy gamers used to open worlds and epic experiences. The Witcher: Budget Edition at heart, Bound by Flame doesn't demand tolerance from us, rather, a certain realism, as cruel as it might be. With no other choices in the AAA RPG space hitting the PC and PS4 thus far in 2014, Spiders game is not without its charm. It remains to be seen whether the harsh reality of the market will give it a chance. Nothing is less certain given the asking price, which would be a shame considering the game is definitely worth checking out.
About the game
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