Bound By Flame is a fantasy action-RPG made by a relatively unknown development team named Spiders. When the game has been discussed in the past, they promised challenging yet rewarding combat, deep and significant customization, interesting characters, meaningful choice in the story, and more… a tall order, it left me wondering if a relative unknown would be able to deliver on such ambitions.
When I found out that people who were involved in the making of Darksiders 2 were going to be a part of the relatively rookie team designing Bound By Flame, I was excited. Surely the people behind such an amazing title would be able to help them realize their goals… right?
Challenging Yet Rewarding Combat?
Yes, this is a challenging game. There’s no question about that. But the challenge has more to do with weirdly tuned numbers and awkward mechanics than anything else.
Normal enemies will often hit you, even on the second lowest of four difficulties, for large fractions of your health regardless of what your defense is. The normal enemies are very predictable though, typically only having one or two types of attacks to do. Where it feels kind of strange is that special enemies and bosses usually don’t deal much more damage than regular enemies. This is both fortunate and unfortunate… fortunate since it means that boss fights aren’t absurdly difficult, but unfortunate because it makes boss fights feel a lot like just longer regular enemies. I actually can’t think of a single boss I fought during the game where I actually felt good after beating them.
A lot of that; however, is because the game’s mechanics are abysmally designed. Commands are awkwardly inefficient, dodging is absurdly overpowered, and none of the weapons or abilities really feel good to use. I mostly played using the daggers, as these seemed the least bland overall, and until I hit the maxed point and got the ‘final ability’ I never really felt like I was able to damage anything efficiently.
The dagger style also promotes trying to use the game’s stealth system. The stealth system reminds me a lot of Skyrim’s, except even less reliable which says a lot. You can never be sure what is going to see you, or what isn’t… and there is no grace period… if something even slightly sees you, stealth is over. There’s no ‘partial detection’ that you can recover from., it’s either stealthed or not stealthed. And stealth can’t be used at all in any important encounter, which makes stealth based talents utterly pointless except to get further down the tree.
Deep and Significant Customization?
When you first make your character, you’re allowed to select some very basic appearance options. The customization, visually speaking, is really quite pitiful. The options all looked poorly rendered and kind of awkward. You can also change the character’s name. The problem? The game doesn’t seem to care what customization options you pick. Characters always refer to you by the original name, regardless of if you choose to change it or not, and if you choose to be a female character your companions will sometimes still refer to you as ‘he’. It seems like a minor thing, but it really has a big impact on the game’s cohesion overall.
Bound By Flame does feature a fairly extensive set of in-game customization. It has a pretty basic skill tree as well as a series of secondary feats that you can only unlock after meeting certain conditions. These do allow you to specialize, but in the end you don’t get many new abilities from them, mostly just passive effects. This means that, while the abilities you use will have different effects – you’re still, for the most part, using the same abilities as anyone else.
The real customization in the game comes in the form of the crafting system. The equipment itself is fairly homogenous, but the game does have a relatively thorough crafting system which resembles the socketing found in games like Diablo 3. Items have slots that you can craft enhancements for – up to 3 in some items. Unfortunately, most of these enhancements are fairly boring, providing very bland and basic stat increases in stead of interesting effects.
But that’s just the way this game is designed: everything is neutered down like that. Items, talents, feats, sockets… they’re all just incredibly bland. Even your spell selection is basically between the most rudimentary and predictable spells known to man… so yes, while there is a lot of customization, none of it is interesting or fun in any way.
If there’s one thing I can say about Bound By Flame… it does have a large cast of diverse characters. What Bound By Flame proves is that diversity isn’t necessarily a good thing. With a fairly large cast of characters counting permanent NPCs and PCs, there are only three that really had anything going for them. You see, the game tries to make characters ‘edgy’ by having them swear a lot and crack a lot of bad dirty jokes.
In a few cases, though, these jokes actually fit the character. A six thousand-year old decomposing corpse knows some pretty good dirty jokes, for example. Conveniently, the characters who work with the dirty jokes are also the ones that the game’s writers know how to actually write stories for. So we do get a few relatively well-developed characters. These characters are a dramatic minority, but they do exist.
You get to pick one character to join you at any time, and they help you in the game as well as offer ‘insight’ into the events of the game. Not only is this insight usually pointless – although if you have the right person at the right time you might get treated to one of the rare good dirty jokes – but their AI is so bad that they can’t really help in combat much… so I usually just opted for the person I could set to ‘heal me’ mode and did everything myself. Even this didn’t seem to help as the supporting characters often get caught on random geometry and then get left behind until you hit a loading screen or story event.
Meaningful Choice in the Story
The game does offer a lot of choice. That is absolutely the case. There are several cases where you get to make some pretty significant choices… and in most cases the choices do seem to matter. The story doesn’t really branch, but you do definitely get to see the impact of your choices on the characters and on the story. Whether it be forcing a character to turn on you or deciding to give up part of your humanity… the choices are there and they have impact. It’s simply really hard to care about the impacts in this game.
The problem: Bound by Flame has a really bad story with terrible writing. It was hard to feel engaged with this generic plot… and that was why when the ending came, I simply did not care which choice I picked. The ending is supposed to be some sort of profound decision, but it ends up feeling really hollow. And when I went back and tried the other side of the ending, just out of curiosity, I was rewarded with an ending that is, in theory, vastly different. The actual story implications of the two endings are drastically different, but the scene you watch isn’t actually all that different at all – so who knows?
What makes this all so much worse is that I can’t tell whether they are trying to make fun of Tolkien, or whether they’re just attempts at lighthearted jokes gone horribly wrong… but the game is full of little plays on Tolkien style nomenclature and lore. The simple plays on naming led me to believe they were just inspired by it… but then they started making bad jokes and things that felt very much like they were trying to make fun of it. And it really just rubbed me the wrong way.
Nothing about the game’s graphics or animations is memorable in any positive way, and for the most part it looks ugly, brown, and homogenous in about half the game’s areas, and ugly, white, and homogenous in the other half. What really surprised me is that the sound track feels much the same. Games nowadays rarely have bad soundtracks… but Bound By Flame certainly manages to do so just fine.
What few good elements Bound By Flame has are vastly overshadowed by its horrible execution, poor writing, awkward humour, and superficial choices. The end result is an unforgiving, boring, and awkward experience. When I told my wife I’d spent all day playing Bound By Flame one day, her response was “Why do you hate yourself?”