Platforms: PC, PS4, PS3 and Xbox 360
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Spiders are back with yet another RPG. Their previous effort was Mars: War Logs, a heavily flawed game that nonetheless sported some good ideas. And that’s a pattern seen throughout all of their games, moments of greatness buried amidst heavy problems. While this latest offering in Bound by Flame continues that trend, it also serves as proof that Spiders have a potentially great future ahead of them.
So, you take on the role of Vulcan, a Powder Master for legendary mercenary company the Freeborn Blades who taken a contract to defend a group called the Red Scribes as they perform a magical ritual in the hopes that it may give them a way to defeat the incoming undead army, which is commanded by a group known as the Ice Lords. Needless to say the ritual goes horribly wrong and through the cruel whims of fate, or pure chance, Vulcan ends up with a demon embedded in his or her mind, which will ultimately be the key to saving the world, because this is a videogame and that’s just how videogame logic works. You get all that? Good.
The foundations for a solid, if slightly predictable and clichéd fantasy tale are there, but the narrative is ultimately damaged by questionable writing. The story is littered with swearing, for example, something which I’m not averse to in the slightest but which feels heavy-handed and just a little childish here. Your band of merry mercenaries, for example, are written to be foul-mouthed and even a little juvenile, , but their banter doesn’t come across as brotherly or sell the idea that they’re comrades-in-arms, instead it just makes them sound incredibly stupid. It feels like Spiders have attempted to craft a dark, gritty fantasy tale in the vein of the Witcher by sprinkling in plenty of profanity and having a main protagonist with a snarky attitude, completely failing in their attempts because that’s just not what makes a mature fantasy tale work. The small group of companions that join you on your quest and fight alongside you are made up of some potentially fascinating personalities, especially the ancient Mathras, but again iffy writing and a lack of time lavished upon them tend to leave them feeling shallow, making it hard to really care about them. They each get a quest or two that you can do for them, but even these fail to provide more characterisation, and more often than not your buddies come across more as a way of delivering exposition than as people. A trip to grab some books for Sybil, for example, should be prime time for character development, but alas that just doesn’t happen. Romance is a possibility, but it’s hastily penned in like the developers just wanted to put a tick in an imaginary list of stuff expected to appear in a fantasy RPG. You might chat up one of your group, but like the developers you’ll probably end up doing it just to tick off an imaginary box, rather than because it adds something extra to the narrative or because you genuinely care.
This and other things, like how the game tries for dark sarcasm that doesn’t work while also expecting you take most of its insanity seriously, all lead to a story that’s enjoyable, but also incredibly flawed and inconsistent in its own tone. It’s poorly told with bad pacing, awkward dialogue and inconsistencies everywhere. Characters fail to react to events as one would expect, nobody seems to ever make decisions which make much sense and motivations are vague at best, especially in the case of the Ice Lords, who are seemingly evil because fuck it, that’s why!. All of this successfully covers up the genuinely good pieces of the plot such as funny one-liners, and ruins moments where characters have interesting moments that give them a touch more depth. The narrative is constantly undermined by the writing.
At various points throughout the game you’re presented with a choice to either side with your inner demon’s advice or try to hold on to your dwindling humanity, the decision essentially boiling down to a black and white morality choice. Choose to side with the demon more and you’ll be rewarded with several things, starting with physical changes. Your skin will change to grey, and then near black, your voice will take on a demonic tinge, horns will sprout from your skull and half your chest will end up on fire, which presumably makes taking a bath quite challenging. This gradual transformation comes with a greater control of your fire-based abilities and a bump in your offensive capabilities, as well as just making you look like a badass. Trading away your humanity does have some draw-backs, though; your horns stop you from wearing a helmet and your personal chest heater burns away a chunk of whatever torso armor you’re. Both this and the lack of a helmet decrease your defense, naturally. As a creature of fire you’ll also become more susceptible to ice-based attacks and magic. Furthermore not everyone will appreciate your new-found appearance or the fact that you’re being influenced by a strange being, although for the most part everyone seems strangely calm about the whole thing. You’d think they would be a bit more surprised when you return from a mission with numerous horns sticking of your skull, but nope, they all just carry on as per normal. That’s some crap writing, there.
While it’s really not that different from the morality systems seen in something like the Fable series, with the physical changes being very reminiscent of Lionhead’s work, Spiders have done a solid job here anyway, and the differences are neatly balanced. Despite the fact that I normally play as the good guy, I actually found myself about half-way through the game sporting a strongly demonic appearance. Sure, I winced whenever I took a blow or got hammered by an archer wielding icy arrows, but I grinned whenever I went on the offensive. Still, a few more visual flair during combat would have been appreciated, should you choose to do down the demonic route.
However, choosing whether to side with your inner-demon or not is part of a larger system at work, one in which the developers claim that your every decision will affect the game. Technically, I suppose, they’re correct, and there are a couple of different endings on offer that reflect your choices and provide just enough resolution, although more would have been much appreciated. In truth, however, your decisions mean very, very little. Take one section in which you’re asked to choose between fighting a battle at a city, or using the tussle as a diversion to make your way to your ultimate goal, and thus save the world. On paper it’s actually quite a good setup, one in which there’s no real right answer: do you try to help them win the battle, or do you focus on the bigger picture and head straight for your objective? It doesn’t matter. Whichever you choose, you’ll end up in the city anyway.. At most your decisions alter inconsequential things or perhaps the attitude of a friend in some small, but even that fails as within the next conversation they’ll fail to react appropriately.
Your demonic room-mate grants access to several fire-based magical abilities that can be used during combat, all of which can be upgraded in the Pyromancer skill tree, which exists alongside two others; one for the two-handed sword-swinging warrior stance, and another for the dual-dagger Ranger stance, but we’ll get back to those later. Your repertoire of fire magic includes setting your weapon ablaze, summoning guardian flames, unleashing a wave of fire and hurling fireballs, and while they all look and feel rather timid in comparison to other games they’re invaluable tools in a fight. The bad news is that the design of the game prohibits solely focusing on magic, so any thoughts of becoming a fire-wielding God should be banished. Upgrading your magical abilities does not increase your mana pool, so the only way to do that is through armor upgrades, while most spells also have long casting times that leave you vulnerable. The end result is that you never have enough mana to throw constant spells, nor the time to sit idle while casting. No matter what you’ll need to combine magic with physical combat, and as enemies grow more powerful you’ll also need to invest some points in combat skills, just to pump up your damage output as health bars become larger.
Another area where Bound by Flame falters is the handling of main protagonist Vulcan, whom Spiders seem unable to choose between being a fully developed personality in his own right or having his or her characteristics defined by the player. At the start you’re given the chance to customise your hero to your liking, as per almost any RPG, and choose to play as either a male or female. However, customisation options are severely limited, and thus no matter what you do you’ll merely end up with a slightly altered version of the default look. Dialogue choices give you the chance to tailor Vulcan’s responses during conversations, but these are actually not particularly common nor are the options very varied, and long stretches of time pass between them. During that time Vulcan often takes on a personality that has little to no relation to the choices you’ve made prior, and frequently manages to suddenly become a complete dick to whomever he’s talking to, even if you’ve been completely friendly when given the chance. These sudden changes in attitude are jarring, as are some of the events they can lead to. In once instance, without spoiling anything, I was forced to fight and kill a character, even when it seemed completely out of line with the Vulcan I had been playing as. It feels as though the developers could not decide whether to create their own protagonist or go down the Mass Effect route, eventually settling on a half-ass middle-ground that ultimately fails to work, although if you go down the route of a demonic, badass then Vulcan’s mood swings won’t seem as bad.
There’s other problems as well, such as the fact that if you choose to play as a female character everyone still refers to you as a lad, apparently oblivious to the fact that you have breasts. Spelling errors are common, there’s some glitches to run into and there’s also an incredibly expensive economy. Gold is strangely hard to come by, and items are absurdly expensive, resulting in me buying only a few items along the way. One might think that the ability to sell acquired loot would combat this, but most of the time you need to recycle the loot for materials with which to upgrade your currently equipped gear, make new traps or create crossbow bolts. This is a particular problem in regards to health potions, which cost a damn fortune. After playing for a few hours I had amassed somewhere in the region of 3-hours, and for my trouble had about 150 gold, which was enough to purchase just three health potions. Ah well, at least Vulcan knows how to home-brew ‘em.
It also almost feels like a piece of the game is missing as well. The adventure comes to a close at around the 12-15 hours mark, just when it feels like you’re reaching the mid-way, with little in terms of build-up to the final fight thanks to the developers choosing to reuse the same boss numerous times. Despite the fact that there’s supposed to be seven Ice Lords, you’ll only ever see and battle one of them, almost making it feel like the other six were cut out somewhere. Would it not have been easier to write one Ice Lord into the story, if the others were never going to get a look in? Or are going to end up seeing them in DLC?
Should you go into Bound by Flame expecting strong world-building or a massive, open environment waiting to be explored then disappointment will strike on both accounts as Spiders have opted for a structure akin to the Witcher 2, with a series of hubs that also contain side-missions, which like the primary story quests never deviate from the trusty “kill everything and grab that thing” formula. From a technical standpoint Spiders have done a tremendous job given what must have been a tight budget; textures are great, animations are solid (not counting some dodgy lip syncing and conversation animations) and the framerate holds steady at all times, at least on PC. Armor and weapons are also wonderfully detailed and designed, enticing you to have a good look when equipping your character. But there’s just a few environments to explore. Each one is initially lovely to look at, but then harsh reality makes itself known, and you realise that each hub is merely a collection of tight corridors that all look largely the same. There’s no distinguishing landmarks or cool things to admire, it’s just one more samey corridor after another. Once you’ve seen the first minute of an environment, you’ve seen all it has to offer. And then there’s the big city, which does not, in fact, remotely resemble a city. It’s unsurprising, then, that I chose to spend most of my time in full sprint, getting from one quest to another without ever bothering to stop and sniff the non-existent roses along the way.
Bound by Flame also includes the seemingly mandatory crafting system, but manages to make it feel less arbitrary than most. Armor and weapons all come with the usual varying stats to consider and weigh up, but also feature several crafting slots that allow for modification, which also changes the visuals of the item as well. A chest-plate, for example, could have a set of griffon shoulder pads added which bolster defense and look pretty awesome with their sculpted heads, while a sword could have its pommel swapped out for something that makes blocking easier. The range of items on offer isn’t as substantial as you’ll find in other games, but there’s a solid amount and each piece of armor and each weapon looks distinct, and it’s nice to be able to add some extra flair to how they look through modification as well.
As Powder Master, Vulcan is an expert in using traps, and indeed when correctly deployed in a fight they can be pretty damn good, but Spiders missed a huge opportunity here by only having a single type of trap throughout the entire game. That’s it. Just one. Likewise the crossbow presents something of a wasted opportunity with no variants on the standard bolt, meaning a long-range build is largely out of the question. Indeed, Bound by Flame gives the impression of a game that wants to present you with different styles of play, but is ultimately, at its heart, a pure brawler with light sprinklings of magic and stealth chucked in for good measure. You can’t play purely as a fire-wielding maniac or a stealthy rogue, nor as a distant archer. Instead, you’re a full-on melee master, who also just so happens to be able to set people on fire.
Although Bound by Flame takes a vague stab at being a role-playing game, it’s severely limited in that form. There’s just not enough freedom to craft your own character, class or adventure, and while one could certainly argue that something like The Witcher 2 is equally linear in these regards, CDProjekt RED’s game has immensely strong storytelling that allows you to become invested and inhabit the role of Geralt. In reality Bound by Flame is really an action game with light RPG elements, the focus squarely on combat with around 90% of your time spent fighting various enemies. But that’s okay, because combat in Bound by Flame is the game’s single strongest element, although flaws still abound. Emphasis is placed on a slow, methodical pace and precise timing in order to block attacks, as well as prioritising enemies and ensuring that you don’t get surround. The end result is actually quite challenging, far more so than we usually see, and resembles Dark Souls in some ways. Once you master the basics battles will obviously become easier, but even then there’s no room to grow lax, especially during the tough, if slightly unfair, boss battles.
During combat you can, of course, sling some spells as we’ve already discussed, but mostly you’ll be swapping between the two available fighting stances by pressing the appropriate button on the game pad, and yes I recommended using a controller for a smoother experience. The Warrior stance is all about wielding big, slow, two-handed weapons with the parry and riposte providing the foundation of the style. A guard-break lets you knock opponents off-balance and open up holes in defenses. Attacks in this stance are slow, almost ponderous, and as such the controls can almost feel unresponsive, but thankfully the block button keeps up well, except for one or two occasions when Vulcan gets caught up in completing your inputs and refuses to defend himself, which can be frustrating as even with the heaviest armor you can’t take much punishment. Blocking an attack is as simple as holding down the correct button, but to launch a counter-attack (riposte) requires very precise timing, and therefore an eye for enemy attack patterns as well. Fighting in this stance has a slow pace, but there’s plenty of satisfaction to be had from it.
In contrast the Ranger stance is all about speed, featuring dual daggers and a dodge mechanic. Once again you can block incoming attacks, but that takes a backseat to a well-timed dodge, which also allows for a counter attack if timed correctly, possibly accompanied by a faint sound of satisfaction from the player. Unlike blocking I never once encountered an instance in which the dodge button refused to work as advertised. Generally speaking I found that the warrior stance was my go-to style, largely because blocking can be abused when the correct upgrade is applied which allows blows coming from any direction to be halted. On the other hand the Ranger’s dodge proved useful during boss battles.
Regardless of which stance you’ve opted to go for, and switching up generally is advisable against certain enemies, one button is for focused strikes against a single foe and the other is for weaker attacks that can hit numerous baddies at once. This is important to remember as you’ll often face off against half a dozen or so enemies, all intent on murdering you in the face, and in a crowd like that spotting incoming attacks is hard. Generally speaking the Warrior stance works well in those situations, because with a certain upgrade you can hold down the block button and stop incoming strikes from every direction. The Ranger stance’s dodge is handy, but you can only dodge backwards, thus in large crowds learning how to properly use it to keep yourself in the best possible position is key, otherwise you’ll simply leap backwards into a falling sword.
Mobs also force you to consider which enemies to single out and kill first. In particular archers wielding ice-arrows are worth taking down before anything else, as being struck by ice has a change of slowing you down for a few seconds, and the archers will simply bombard you from afar whenever you get into a brawl with a melee enemy. Failure to eliminate them can lead to you being slowed down at the wrong moment and pummeled into the ground. Likewise shield-wielders can pose a serious threat to your health when they’re within a group, so trying to eliminate them before closing in to deal with the others is a sound idea. Again, this creates a more methodical sensation to the combat. Rather than just rushing in, you quickly prioritise enemies, and then rush in.
For everything combat does right, though, there’s a problem just waiting to mar the good work. For starters enemies don’t really respond to the vast majority of your strikes, failing to sell Vulcan’s muscular sword swings, while the controls can sometimes be a little sluggish. Indeed, I often found Vulcan getting caught up in executing a few more swings, refusing to block or otherwise cancel them. Considering parrying requires quite precise timing, there should never be any question of the controls failing to respond correctly.
Your buddies, meanwhile, display all the combat proficiency of a drunken monkey. At any given time you can have one of them accompany you and lend a hand in a fight, but not only are they unable to take on even the weakest adversary one-on-one, they also die extremely fast, essentially making their presence during a battle pointless. Sadly they can’t be revived mid-fight, either, so once they’re down they’re down. As such I took to taking Sybil with me much of the time, because at least she could patch me up after a fight.
There’s also the strange fact that if you venture too far from a fights starting locations, enemies will suddenly turn around and head back, completely forgetting your existence. It’s like they’re on an invisible leash, and when they reach the end that’s it. Stranger still when this happens enemies regain their health, although as an added benefit your downed ally will also spring back to life and come trundling back to your side, seemingly unaware of what just occurred.
There’s a lock-on system at work, but it’s fickle and switching between enemies on the fly is more trouble than it’s usually worth.
And then there’s the stances themselves. While I can see what Spiders were aiming for, having your options split in this manner feels limiting, especially considering that switching between them mid-fight can be a tricky proposition. Why can’t I use a defense-breaking kick when I’m fighting with daggers? Or dodge backwards when I’m wielding my sword? Having these available to me in a single stance would have made more sense, at least from my viewpoint, and created a more fluid combat system. This could also have allowed for a wider array of weapons, bringing more options to the table. For example, with overly heavy armor the dodge could become less proficient, but a shield could be wielded instead, or perhaps spears could have been introduced, giving you more reach but less ability to block.
Before I bring this to a close special mention must be made of the soundtrack which was composed by the very same fellow who handled Assassin’s Creed IV, Olivier Derivière. He’s created a wonderful score here, and is arguably the game’s single greatest asset.
Bound by Flame is clearly a step in the right direction for Spiders, but they’re still struggling to refine their clear talent, especially in regards to writing. Perhaps it’s time they consider investing in some new writers in order to create a more consistent tale, and in searching for solid voice talent to bring it to life. Go in with the knowledge that you’re entering a heavily flawed experience and Bound by Flame is actually surprisingly fun, one which veteran RPG fans will probably get along with more than anyone else. The thing is from an objective stand-point it’s really not that good, yet I found myself plodding through it with a smile on my face. Perhaps it’s true that there’s comfort to be found in mediocrity and predictability.
Come on, Spiders, you’ve got more to give us yet.
+ Relatively strong combat.
+ A solid crafting system.
+ Provides a good challenge.
– The writing is poor, on all fronts.
– Progressing through paths that all look the same.
– Choices have little consequence.
– Battles become repetitive.
The Verdict: 2.5/5 – Okay, bordering on good.
There’s potential here. There’s potential in the world, in the graphics, in the characters, in the story and in the combat. The foundations are there. But Spiders can’t pull it off, they can’t refine their own vision, and until they do, they won’t progress.