Bound by Flame PC Review
French game development studio, Spiders, has released a couple of fascinating games over the past few years. They might not be fantastic games, but each one had an interesting setting or concept that could have been great, but was let down by either not meeting the potential, including poor design decisions or clunky mechanics. One thing that did connect them all is that each game was distinguishable as falling into the B movie category, the budget game, featuring issues that you can assume were down to time and money constraints for a project of considerable size. Spiders’ next game, Bound by Flame, follows a similar issue, along with lacking the imagination that I found was a key attraction in previous titles from the developer, such as Of Orcs and Men.
Bound by Flame is set in a grim fantasy world, as you take on the role of Vulcan, a player created character that can be either male or female. The player creation is rather barebones, as the options range between sex and a minute selection of hairstyles and facial designs. It’s a shame that the developers didn’t give the player more crafting tools for their avatar, but since the game ignores whatever you call your character in favour of having spoken dialogue, meaning your character is always addressed as Vulcan, this is acting more like picking from a predetermined selection of characters rather than having the power to be a designer.
It’s clear from the start that the world of Bound by Flame is in the midst of turmoil. The dead walk the earth, and these Deadwalkers are led by The Ice Lords, a group of powerful beings that are in the midst of a war with the humans. The war is taking a turn for the worse, and so as part of a group of mercenaries named Freeborn Blades, Vulcan is tasked to protect a group of Red Scribes members, as they attempt a ritual to summon power and hopefully turn the tide of battle in their favour. The ritual goes completely wrong and Vulcan ends up absorbing the essence of the flame demon. With this new found power, the player has the influence to change the course of the war and save the land.
The story is rather nonsensical, full of fantasy traits, and the characters are all over the place, often one dimensional and uninteresting. That’s not to say you can’t find anyone to like. I rather enjoyed my company with the late appearing Mathras, an undead dude who has lived for 6,000 years and has the skin to prove it. He’s highly educated and has amusing dialogue, and with a stick to do a sort of gentleman dance with in battle, he’s one that won’t be boring to have around. The rest of the companions are stereotypical for the genre, such as the ranger elf, the healing girl, the magic using witch and the buff armed warrior. Most people will likely forget about these companions after finishing with the game. The main character is a mixed bag as well. They seem to have a personality complex, as one minute they’re talking normal, then the next they sound like a teenage who wants to sound cool by throwing in a swear word or two in excitement. You never feel like you are in control of developing the hero’s characteristics to others, which is strange in a game that was originally gunning for choices.
However, I do like the transformation your hero goes through if they are willing to accept the power of the demon. An alignment of good vs evil was something that Fable did many years ago, but this takes the visual effect of transformation to much more extreme heights. I saw my female hero slowly transform from a human being into a horn growing (which disables the ability to wear helmets), dark green skinned demon with flames spitting out from around her shoulders. It also helped that some NPCs saw this transformation and had issues with it, but every time that happened others did not seem to take note, and that broke the experience of playing a power hungry human/demon hybrid.
Spiders has stated that Bound by Flame is a story-driven action RPG, and that’s certainly the case. There’s no sense of exploration in this title, as players are locked to small maps that don’t offer much room for roaming. Locations are also ones you’ve seen time and time again, with only the supernatural realm, an area that you don’t visit to the last bit of the game, offering any sort of unique identity. I do wish areas were more open, as most zones are turned into linear corridors, such as when in the sewers, in the ice castle or in the caves. The only time you have a wide area is when you’re in the village in chapter 1 and the swap that surrounds the outside of it. I feel Bound by Flame could have learnt something from The Witcher 2 when it comes to designing environments that escape linearity.
Combat is one important mechanic that fairs better than the rest of the game’s features. The hero has a choice of fighting in a Warrior or Ranger stance, which is easily switched on the fly with the press of a button. The Warrior stance is the big hitter, using large swords to deal damage, while holding their ground with parries to counter-attack incoming strikes. The Ranger is the speedier class, mixing flexibility to get around with quick slashes. The Ranger doesn’t parry, but has a back dash that allows them to quickly move away from danger with invincibility frames for a small period of time. I often found myself using the Ranger stance more, because it made it much easier to dodge enemy attacks. Ranger stance also seems to dish out damage on par with Warrior, so there’s really no positive in picking that stance over Ranger, and since there is no dedicated dodge or roll in Bound by Flame’s combat, the Ranger stance ends up being very helpful with it’s overpowering back hop, while the Warrior has to rely on parrying a move, which on the tougher enemies doesn’t completely absorb the damage impacted on the hero.
Once the power of the demon is in hand of the hero, the Pyromancy skill unlocks, which gives access to flame-based moves. This can be used in conjunction with any of the two stances, as spells are based on using magic to cast fireballs, fire protection and infuse melee weapons with fire. Additional items can be used as well, such as dropping traps – extremely handy when dealing with groups, as it blows apart ganged enemies – and using a crossbow to pick enemies from afar.
Combat is initially fun and seems to offer a variety of moves, even if a lack of a real dodge makes it sometimes frustration. The problem lies later in the game where the difficulty becomes unbalanced, due to horrendous spikes. The enclosed environmental space makes it challenging to do damage when you’re constantly trying to survive attacks from four or more enemies at once. The camera and lock on system are unreliable to do their job, often obscuring enemies behind the close environment. The skill tree should help with this, and while it’s a good inclusion to be able to build your character based around one of three fighting styles, the problem is that it doesn’t remove this issue with small spaces grouped with enemies that are hard to fight against. The excitement of combat changes into a trap and run method of fighting that made it repetitive. The AI companion should help with this; well they don’t, as they don’t take the aggro, so are useless in helping you get out of sticky situations. More enemy variety wouldn’t hurt either, since you’re fighting a small selection of enemies throughout the game’s 14 hour campaign.
Spiders has created a pleasant looking game, with some great lighting and shadows, but optimisation seems to have been left to one side. I had to lower the resolution from 1920×1200 to 1280×720 to get a solid 60fps, which would sometimes drop in very heavy scenes with a lot of graphical effects on screen. The game doesn’t look visually demanding that it should take more than a 6990 graphics card to max it out, so I do think there’s more optimisation that needs to be worked on. Dialogue is all recorded, but the dub is mostly mediocre at best, with only a handful of people having a respectable voice that doesn’t sound like they‘re overworking the tone of the situation or dying of boredom. The script can be criticized for being weak and too spontaneous in changing the attitude of the game’s characters.
Bound by Flame comes from a studio with good ideas and often distinctive locations, but Spiders has crafted an action RPG that is generic in setting, features dull level design that follows too much of a linear corridor approach, combat that initially is fun and engaging, but eventually turns repetitive, and is unbalanced in difficulty. That’s not to say you cannot enjoy Bound by Flame, as my time with the game was met with various moments of joy and disappointment. The game isn’t bad, it’s just not great, and I was expecting a little bit more than a generic western fantasy RPG with competent combat from the studio that brought us the tantalising Of Orcs and Men.