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Bound By Flame Review: The Undercooked RPG That Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Although their last couple of games have definitely been magnets for mixed-opinions, Bioware a company that holds a venerated position in the games industry. Critics constantly harp on about the superb characters and immersive storytelling of Bioware games – it’s the kind of reputation that every other RPG-developer covets, and Spiders Software is no exception. Bound By Flame is a game that feels like it desperately wants to be held up on the same pedestal as Dragon Age and Mass Effect but a few cut corners hold it back from reaching its potential.
Bound By Flame is set in a fantasy world where the realms of elves and men are under siege from the unstoppable necromantic armies of the Ice Lords. It’s easy to see where the game draws on contemporary fantasy stories like Game of Thrones and Dragon Age and while the premise might lack some originally, they do get the dark tone right for the most part.
Bound By Flame sees you take on the role of Vulcan, a powder master in a band of mercenaries called the Freeborn Blades. The Freeborn Blades have been hired by a group of sorcerers called the Red Scribes who aim to turn the tide of the war against the Ice Lords by summoning a powerful demon. The ritual quickly goes awry and Vulcan finds himself sharing a body with a powerful fire demon. From there the Freeborn Blades set out to complete their contract with the Red Scribes and strike back against the Ice Lord forces.
Putting the similarities Bound By Flame has with other fantasy stories the side for a moment, one of the biggest problems the game has is the lack of depth when it comes to its setting. Fans of the genre crave detail and Bound By Flame often falls flat in this regard. The lore constantly mentions the presence of seven Ice Lords but only one of these antagonists plays a major role in the story. Additionally, the world of Vertiel is barely examined beyond the immediate scope of Spiders’ narrative. It says a lot about the level of depth in a fantasy story when players aren’t even offered a map with which to understand the geography of the world.
While it misses the mark in regards to lore and world-building, one aspect of successful RPG formula that Bound By Flame manages to nail is its character-driven subplots. Both inside and outside the Freeborn Blades there’s a pretty decent amount of characters for Vulcan to interact with and there’s enough variety for each member of the cast to stand out, at least when it comes to the writing. Vulcan can have one companion attached to him at any given time and they each offer a handful of side-quests and dialogue encounters over the course of the game. It’s nothing as heart-wrenching as Telltale’s recent work to be certain, but it was definitely cool to see the outcomes of major plot points change depending on whether or not I had completed these side quests.
While Spiders definitely ‘get’ the style of RPG they are trying to make, a lot of the design decisions in Bound By Flame don’t go far enough to make it memorable in its own right. Some of the subplots might have a ripple effect on the main narrative, but these often feel more like deviations than something with any sort of lasting impact on the Vertiel itself.
Similarly, Bound By Flame’s hook of sacrificing Vulcan’s humanity for stronger demon abilities is disappointingly simplistic. The mechanic is more or less scripts with a number of specific story beats offering you the chance to either seek out and destroy a mini-boss to increase your demonic powers or sacrifice the power upgrade to save the life of nearby allies. It’s a let-down that’s made all the worse by the effort that’s gone into conveying how demonic Vulcan becomes over the course of the game. The different dialogue and reactions that party members give you is a great touch but it falls short of making this Faustian mechanic compelling.
Any good RPG lives and dies by its combat system and while this might sound a bit harsh, Bound By Flame’s only just gets a pass in this regard. The combat is very much a hybrid of The Witcher and Dark Souls and while the combat is definitely fun when it all comes together, it’s not without its flaws. There’s an emphasis on timing your strikes/blocks and launching counterattacks but the whole experience is held back by some animation issues and a lack of enemy variety.
Much like Bound By Flame’s setting, the character customization leaves a bit to be desired. There’s a triplet of skill trees and a perks system to sink points into, providing options for exploring the aspects that most intrigue you. It’s a shame that the high speed with which Vulcan games experience undermines the leveling system a bit because I think Bound By Flame did a better job of selling me on typical ranger/thief abilities than most other RPGs. It actually made setting traps and using stealth seem like a viable approach that was worth sinking points into.
Bound By Flame is very Dragon Age 2 inspired when it comes to its visuals, and the cast are all very rich and exaggerated in their designed. Similarly, the level design has some rough spots but there are a few cut-scenes and environments that are handled particularly well.
The soundtrack doesn’t always gel with the tone but it still ended being a doing a pretty effective job at helping build up the tone of the setting where the writing wouldn’t. Dialogue is a mixed-bag with some of the side characters handled quite well but main plot sequences coming off as occasionally cringe-worthy.
Without a doubt, Bound By Flame’s biggest problem is a lack of polish. The core game itself may be fun and Spiders ambition to try and emulate Bioware’s character-driven style of RPG is commendable, but the game ultimately falls short on these fronts due to a lack of polish. The environments and characters, while passable, feel very cheap. Combat animations could have been refined and the story and skill trees fleshed out. Bound By Flame definitely feels like corners have been cut and features curtailed. The game has all the right ingredients of a great character-RPG but fails to put them together as elegantly as fellow Bioware-wanna-be’s like Liquid Entertainment did with Rise of the Argonauts, or Obsidian and Alpha Protocol.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.