Western RPGs were quite popular in the late 2000s, with titles such as Dark Souls, Dragon Age and of course: The Elders Scrolls IV and V, selling like crazy. Though the popularity sparked the opportunity for plenty of newcomers to enter the scene, many lesser titles got swept under the rug and forgotten. Glancing over the PSN one day, I stumbled upon Bound by Flame, an action RPG that was on sale for only a couple of euros. I remembered seeing the logo somewhere, but thought it was just a title made to cash-grab on the success of the mentioned titles. Still, being inspired by something, could lead to something entertaining, right?
Why dark-fantasy can be like dirt
A war has started with the elves and the mages known as Red Scribes fighting against the Ice Lord and his army of undead. His army is growing stronger by each encounter, and the elves and mages decides to hire mercenaries known as Freeborn Blades for support and holding defences against these creatures. When they fail to do so, your playable character Vulcan, one who is a part of the Freeborn Blades, storms in to defend the mages, but is caught in a ritual they are conducting. Through this, he gets possessed by a demon and gets the strength of fire. With his new companion inside his consciousness, he ventures to battle against the evil forces of the Ice Lord and tries to decide what he is going to do with the demon inside of him.
I will state outright that the concept is intriguing. The idea of having a demon inside of you who clearly wants you to take negative choices is neat since his fiery powers are more suitable against the creatures of ice. We also get to see the destruction the Ice Lord has caused to some of the lands you will be visiting, and it can be emotionally effective. Sadly, this is pretty much it. Bound by Flames lets you visit very few locations with minimal inhabitants, making it hard to relate to how big the deadwalkers terrorism is . The locations do not feature any interesting cultures or stories to them and the interaction with the inhabitants is limited. Yes, you can read about some aspects about these places or characters, but that is an incredibly lazy way of narrating the world’s situation. This should be only for lore-building.
This leads me to the characters, which are barebones. Our main-character has a giant identity-crisis that is not caused by the demon, every sub-character are one dimensional, and despite some quirks, barely memorable. The dialogues as well do not help, as characters often to use vulgar language to try to make everything seem on the edge or be tough, and often lingers on useless stories, dumb anger-issues, and yet have no diverse characteristics or arc. Partly adding to this problem, is how quickly the story moves and how rushed it is, with plenty of exposition coming as soon as in the intro-scene.
However, where Bound by Flame trips over its own sword, is with the multiple choices. This could certainly have made the plot more interesting, but plenty of the choices are worthless and only adds to you becoming more demon-like, or are obvious paths to take. Some do affect characters life which is interesting, but due to their lack of personality, the simple “good vs bad” concept, and how abrupt and sudden they can appear with no buildup or interesting twists, they become forgettable. It is impressive when there can be so many different paths to take and yet, you will not even care about a character’s death.
The overall plot is not much better, as it cannot find a good tone between humour and serious moments, as they feel incredibly misplaced. Right after I met a legit humorous character, I witnessed a death that was quite impactful. This is terrible way of progressing a story, as it does not let these two strong moments last in order to have an affect on the player, or contain a good transition between them. On top of this, the cutscenes can be awkward, with some featuring characters simply standing in the background and not helping our hero when he is bitten by a dead creature for example. Despite an interesting set up, the story is just messy and dull. Even the sidequests do not add anything and I did not even realise I had a romantic attachment to a character before after the game was over. It is that unfinished.
Story Score: 3/10
Before the game starts, I want to point out that the customisation for your main-character is very restricted. You can only choose race, head-hair, and the sex of the character, making me wonder why they did not just focus on having a more general hero, than one to represent you partly. It is a minor thing indeed, but Bound by Flame has these issues all over the place and it starts already before the game’s intro. Think of this as an example of things to come.
Set as an action RPG, Bound by Flame starts out well by giving you three skill-trees to focus on. The first one, warrior, focuses on much more aggressive combat with two-handed melee-weapons, with better blocks, attacks, and a kick to stun foes. The second one, ranger, uses dual-wielding daggers, does less damage and has worse defence as well. However, ranger has an incredible useful dodge that can avoid unblockable attacks and can sneak up on foes. You will be able to use both quick and area-attacks with both styles, which is a nice way to make Bound by Flame more focused on combat-style, with one dedicated to a singular enemy and another slower one that is meant for crowd-control.
Another important element, is the ability to parry, which will demand an accurate press of the block-button when a swing hits you. This is tricky to do, but you always get to see when an enemy is about to attack, which makes combat engaging and dangerous as enemies can take a big chunk of your health. Sadly, due to some attacks not possible to block or parry against, ranger will be a much better choice for just about every encounter, making combat unfortunately unbalanced. The warrior skill-tree has some neat abilities, such as making you able to parry automatically behind your characters, but the ranger is much more diverse and stronger against just about any foe and in every bossfight.
The last part to your skill-tree, is the pyromancer. With this, you can cast fire-spells which are quite strong and has multiple uses, such as lighting your weapon on fire. You can change stances between ranger and warrior at any time, as well as use magic. The combat is enjoyable, since it gives you the ability to change stances easily and focusing on both aggressive and defensive play. For example, a skilful player might be able to avoid getting hit from any attack, while the more tactical can set out traps and use a crossbow, both being secondary weapons. The game makes every skill useful, but the game does a poor job making everyone equally useful, like the mentioned issue with unblockable attacks above. You can change and mix, but the ranger and pyromancer should be first-choices because of the warrior’s lack of a dodging-ability.
Though the combat is fun, if unpolished, there are few enemy-types and the only differences are simple parts, such as ranged-attack and magical/poison attack. It makes the vast abilities you have as a player, quite insignificant. As an example, you can craft traps and potions, and equipments have slots for putting in more bonuses, such as more health, but due to how short and simple the game is, many abilities become useless. I never had to make my equipment stronger and as long as I had potions for health-regeneration, I was safe. These confusing design-choices can also be seen in the game’s structure. This is a linear game, with 3 acts giving you some decent sidequests that are entertaining, if nothing special. However, due to this linear design, it makes it hard for feats to be upgraded. In this game, you can unlock feats to upgrade, if you do certain requirements. For example, you will be able to pick a feat where you will deal more damage with an axe, if you kill enemies with an axe. This is fine, but with little diversity or wish to explore, you might find yourself grinding instead in the same location and outright not care about experimenting with different setups.
With this poorly, story-driven game, we also have some choices you can make, and they affect our characters humanity you could say. Doing things that will please your inner demon, will make your avatar become more demon-like, which will make him unable to wear helmet because of his horn, but powerful in other ways. Though some choices have barely any impact on the game, others can possibly kill other characters, making this aspect incredibly inconsistent. Then we have also some unfortunate pet peeves. Aiming with magical attacks and your crossbow can be unresponsive, thanks to your character turning slowly towards the enemies, last part of the game has plenty of similar boss-fights and the bosses in general can take an incredibly long time due to long healthbars. This is made worse by the attack-patterns being monotone and how only “magic” and poison are available as status-effects. The cherry on top, is a unfinished final boss. I would believe it was not even playtested, it is that big of an inconsistent mess
Again though, there are some legitimate parts to enjoy about the game as well. The combat is simple, but entertaining, your AI-partner follows your commands to a tee and you can even chat with them if they need to refine their strategies. They are also all different, with some having the ability to control minds, heal, or tank fiends. Since the combat is the biggest part of the game and you can be quite diverse with it, despite warrior not being as suitable choice, it provides a lot of fun fights. The ten hours felt short due to few enemy-types and not much interesting happening outside of combat though. More polish could have also come a long way, but I was at least entertained, for the most part.
Gameplay Score: 5/10
The fire burns too much
The game’s presentation also shows a lack of polish. Because of the poor lighting, environments can change from cell-shaded style to more realistic, because of the line marks being made very clear. This makes the game very indistinct and the visuals becoming a literal mixed bag. That being said, when it actually unwillingly goes for a more cell-shaded presentation, it looks quite good due to strong colours that gives each location a clear atmosphere. This is an odd praise, but it is also true, despite the 2D-backgrounds being unappealing. The environments are also implemented well, with a city of dead bodies in the cold winter, and a cursed forest being traditional, but good designed with enough details to be believable. However, there are only four acts in total, and each takes place in a small location. None has enough diversity to be distinctive, making it quite jarring when I suddenly realised the game was over. It does not help that the creativity with armour-, weapon-, and monster-designs are generic, with traditional get ups and spiders, skeletons and zombies being 90% of the enemies you will fight against. I can recall only two bosses that were somewhat unique with very imaginative design, but that is about it.
When it comes to the humans and elves, things are better. They have a more general-style, making me believe they are a part of a group and only stand out when they are clear outsiders, which is a nice touch. They are not memorable due to this necessarily, but at least it feels more interesting because of you yourself being clearly part of a team, than distinguished in every possible way. As a nice detail, your characters equipment are shown ingame and as you venture through the game, new armour sets and possible features will be shown on your character to show that you have grown compared to your comrades. However, the character-animations are very awkward due to having huge movements when they attack and especially when they speak. It almost seems like the developers wanted to mask the poor voice-acting by making you focused on the visual oddities.
Yes, this is unfortunately not good. The voice-acting goes from mediocre, to terrible. Half of the cast do try their best to give their characters a clear personality, while the rest do not even sound like they care about their work. Really, their voices are good choices, but the direction they got can be awful. As for the music, it is hard to comment on. Olivier Deriviere known from his work on the soundtrack for the Alone in the Dark-reboot and Assassin’s Creed 4, has a heavy focus on strong orchestral soundtrack in many of his works and always deliver something grand and beautiful. Sadly, his music does not fit this world. Some tracks convey good intensity to fights and make them more on edge with strong use of different instruments. Unfortunately, those that take on a more native-sound with vocals representing chanting, does not work here thanks to elves and men being more in common with each other and none are traditional tribes or practices old traditions. It breaks my heart when such a good composer is not given enough to create a complementary soundtrack. Lastly, there are a lot of technical issues with audio disappearing, cutscenes involves characters awkwardly standing and looking while you are fighting, and clipping-issues are a common part.
Presentation Score: 5/10
Letting the demon consume you
While the sidequest are not very interesting, they are fun in their own right and some can at least give different reactions and lead to different scenarios where you become a demon or maintain your humanity. This will also lead to different endings, including more if you romanced one of your fellow companions. The story is still lacklustre and I cannot say I cared much for my AI companions outside of combat, but it did tickle my curiosity to give the game another go.
Extra Score: 5/10
I definitely had moments of enjoyment, but Bound by Flame feels like a game that was rushed too quickly out the door. It needed more polish in every aspect and more variety to stand strong, but the core gameplay is entertaining. If you think the sound of “an unfinished Bioware project” sounds interesting, you might be pleasantly surprised. Though do not expect this to light your world on fire at all!