Founded six years ago, in Paris, France, Spiders is a company that has been toiling away in an attempt to make a name for itself within the video game industry. That’s something it has now done, with the release of Bound by Flame, its largest project to date. However, the predominantly negative attention that the game has been receiving is, of course, not what the developer was hoping for when it aspired towards popularity.
At its core, Bound by Flame is an action-RPG in the vein of Kingdoms of Amalur, with some Dark Souls and The Witcher mixed in for good measure. It’s a recipe that could have been great, but isn’t, possibly due to developer inexperience or limited resources. Still, the final product isn’t bad, and is worth playing by those who are starved for a new role-playing experience. It’s likely that many early PlayStation 4 adopters are in that boat, which is why a lot of hope was riding on this game, being that it marks the genre’s debut on the next-gen device.
One of this title’s most notable shortcomings is its storyline, which attempts to be grandiose and memorable but falls short of both goals. Despite this, Spiders’ team deserves credit for at least trying, because it’s evident that a lot of effort went into the attempt. Unfortunately, though, it’s held back by cheesy writing, inorganic dialogue and profanity that often feels out of place. In fact, it’s as if the developers went out of their way to add profane words into their script, in an attempt to make things more mature. The result is exactly the opposite.
Upon booting up Bound by Flame, players are tasked with creating their ideal warrior, using limited options that don’t allow for much customization. And, once all of the design decisions have been made, there’s a chance to pick a unique name for said male or female hero – something that would normally allow for more immersion, but doesn’t in this case. You see, there’s really no need to give your avatar an original moniker, because the game doesn’t give a shit if you do or not. It’ll constantly refer to you as Vulcan, anyway, because all of its dialogue is voiced and that’s the hero’s pre-set name, no matter his or her gender.
Although the developer’s decision to render an offered choice moot was perplexing, I didn’t let it tarnish my hopes for this game. In fact, I’ll admit that I wanted it to be something that I could essentially champion, by recommending it to all of my friends and those who read my reviews. I did that with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game that I felt didn’t get enough credit, but I won’t be doing so with this one. It’s unfortunate, and admittedly disappointing, but its quality just isn’t there in comparison to that of its peer.
Things begin on a sand-covered cliffside, where Vulcan is out on patrol. There, he sees a shambling corpse with a sword, and takes it out with surprising difficulty. It foreshadows what’s to come, because as soon as we’re given control we’re tasked with telling our commander about the confrontation – something that precedes preparation for a forthcoming assault.
Following a battle that serves as a basic tutorial, things start to roll, and the game’s campaign truly begins. It does so within the ancient walls of a dimly-lit temple, wherein the mercenary group’s bosses — scholars and amateur magicians who call themselves the Red Scribes — are performing a ritual, which ends up going bad. The result isn’t what you’d expect, though, because the failed spell ends up freeing a demonic soul, which then floats its way into Vulcan’s innards. It all happens in a flash, and results in a surprised hero who must not only battle his physical enemies, but also his newfound second soul, which is begging to show off its ferocious fire powers.
Outside of its main character’s inner struggle — which features morality-based choices that combine to decide whether or not the demon gets to take over — Bound by Flame‘s storyline is utterly forgettable. Then again, it’s not as if the aforementioned character study is handled perfectly. In fact, there’s nothing exemplary about this narrative, or the big bad that it attempts to give prominence to. There’s simply a lack of cohesion to be found; an issue that is compounded by a wealth of uninteresting dialogue that fails to paint a descriptive or tense picture. It truly feels as if the game’s writers gave the battle within most of their attention, and then tried to half-assedly create an overarching plot that could surround it.
Through progression, Vulcan becomes allies with an assortment of flawed NPCs, who aid his questing. Each one brings something new to the table, ability-wise, but none are particularly helpful or dominant. They manage to occupy foes’ attention, though, which makes them somewhat useful. However, their lack of intelligence usually leads to quick deaths and recovery waiting times. Still, it’s always best to take a friend with you whenever you’re out on the town, because Bound by Flame is far from a cakewalk. In fact, it tries to mimic the inspirational Dark Souls series, by mixing its mediocre mechanics with a whack of difficulty-based cheapness and frustration.
If you’re going to play this on normal, or prove your masochism by playing on one of its two top-tier difficulties, then you’re going to have to be patient. That’s because, despite being an action-RPG, this is a game that demands trial and error. Even during the first act of the game, regular enemies will take a lot of your health away if you’re not paying close attention to their indicators. And, as you progress, encounters become even more challenging, thanks to the introduction of status effects (such as poison, ice and dark energy), and more powerful foes. This means that, if you’re to succeed, you’ll need to become an expert at blocking and parrying, and will also need to know when to run away and wait for health regeneration.
I’ll be honest and admit that I switched the difficulty to easy at the beginning of the third and final act. Things were simply becoming too frustrating, and it wasn’t fun dealing with three to five enemies at one time, when just one could take a quarter of my health bar away with a well-placed attack. Making the change allowed for more fun to seep into the experience, and made it so that I didn’t need to run from enemies as much. Playing on normal was simply too frustrating to be enjoyable, and Vulcan’s three different fighting styles didn’t help much.
As mentioned above, Bound by Flame embraces a three-tiered combat system, which is complemented by three unique skill trees. First, there’s the trusty Warrior stance, which allows for heavy weapon usage and traditional blocking techniques. Then, there’s the Ranger stance, which favours speed and stealth over basic swordplay. Last, but not least, is the Pyromancer skill tree, and its fire-infused talents. Its special abilities — which include flaming swords, thrown fireballs and other Hellish delights — can be combined with the Warrior play style for extra damage.
The combat is serviceable and generally fine, but it’s far from being as badass as it sounds. Even with the demon’s flame-filled capabilities, there’s nothing memorable about it, so don’t go in expecting anything exemplary, or anything that’ll have you on the edge of your seat and fully engaged. It is what it is, and it works. However, it could have been quite a bit better, and a lot more interesting.
Extra strategy is added through a crafting system, which relies on players’ interest in searching fallen enemies and scouring the land for hidden chests. Through this, weapon buffs can be crafted, allowing for added elemental damage or other perks. The most important aspect of this system, though, pertains to the inventory items it’s responsible for generating. It’s a list that includes ever-important health and mana potions, in addition to helpful long-range crossbow bolts and explosive traps. The latter two items can be extremely helpful, especially when things get really tough at the end of the campaign.
Though it’s been said that Bound by Flame can last for upwards of thirty hours, I finished it (and a lot of its side quests) in about twelve hours. That leads me to believe that the developer’s estimate was based on multiple playthroughs, which will be forced upon achievement and trophy fanatics. You see, as with Mass Effect, Spiders’ latest RPG has romance options. They’re limited, but they exist, and only one of the four targets can be wooed during one playthrough. That is, unless you save regularly and reload one of your saves before the “Let’s have sex” comments begin. If you do that, then you should be able to get all four trophies in two playthroughs — one as a male and one as a female — provided you choose the right dialogue options.
Presentation-wise, the PlayStation 4’s first RPG is most definitely not a show horse. Its cel-shaded environments look pretty nice at times, but tend to become muddy and dated-looking during dusk and nighttime sequences. Additionally, its lip-syncing is always off, and its animations’ stiltedness feels far from ‘next-gen.’ This is the type of game that is more at home on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and even then, it isn’t up to par with those systems’ best offerings.
Like its writing, the campaign’s sound effects and voice acting are lacking. Its original score, on the other hand, is actually pretty good.
Although I’ve been hard on Bound by Flame throughout this review, I find myself disagreeing with how tough others have been on it. Without a doubt, it’s a flawed experience that has more rough edges than it should, but it’s not a terrible game. In fact, I liked it quite a bit at first, and although my appreciation lessened as it became more repetitive and increasingly frustrating, I never disliked it. For those reasons, I’m giving it a middling score. Some may feel it’s a bit too generous, but I feel it’s deserved, especially when you consider the game’s budget-friendly price tag.
This review is based on the digital PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Bound by Flame is a rough and dated-feeling role-playing game, but those who can look past its flaws will find a relatively enjoyable experience.