Available on Xbox 360, PS3, PS4 (version tested), PC
Sometimes you come to a game rooting for it, and in Bound by Flame’s case it’s not hard to see why.
It’s a plucky upstart title from a small European developer. It’s an old-fashioned, hack-and-slash fantasy RPG, and it’s the first of its type to appear on a next-gen console.
It looks pretty good in the trailers, with detailed graphics and some nice lighting effects, and you can’t help feeling that it might have been the next Torchlight or The Witcher – a low-budget game that comes from nowhere, but turns out to be a contender.
We’ll admit it: we had hopes that Bound by Flame might be one of these games.
Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a game full of problems, some deep, some superficial, yet the biggest is that it’s just not much fun to play. At best, it’s a playable stopgap for PlayStation 4-owning RPG fans until something better comes along, but – really – wouldn’t you rather splash your cash on something more?
It’s hard. We can see that Bound by Flame is the work of a small team trying hard to perform miracles on a meagre budget, and we can also see where Bound by Flame is pushing to do the same as a Dragon Age or Witcher, but without the resources Bioware or CD Projekt bring to bear.
Bound by Flame is the story of a mercenary fighting in a war between humanity and the seven Icelords who have trapped the world in endless winter. As with Dragon Age and The Witcher, it sits more in the school of gritty, dark fantasy than Tolkien-esque high fantasy, and there’s a focus on moral choices that aren’t simply black or white, but between different shades of grey. So far, so good.
There is more good to come as well. The basic gameplay blends Diablo-style action RPG mechanics with the kind of combat you might see in a hack-and-slash brawler like God of War; a mix we’ve seen handled successfully in games like Darksiders II or Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning (though without the platform adventure elements of the former).
Your mercenary can switch between three stances: the warrior, where he or she uses two-handed weapons, blocks and counters and deals out heavy blows; the ranger, where he or she dual-wields lighter arms and relies on speed and evasion; and the pyromenancer, where you supplement your attacks with spells, gifted to you by the flame demon who shares your body from the opening prologue onwards.
Each stance has its own weapon set and skill tree, and the experience system works in a way that you level up fastest in the attacks and abilities you use most. In practice, you’ll need to mix and match to defeat specific enemies, but there’s certainly some room to hone your favoured style.
To be fair, Bound by Flame works as a functional RPG. It’s structured around a series of hub areas rather than a sprawling open world, but each is stuffed with main mission quests and side quests, and all the staples – shops, blacksmiths, crafting – are in place.
As in a Bioware RPG you’ll find yourself recruiting different characters to your cause, and how you treat them and what you say to them will alter the relationship for good or ill – to the point that characters can stop cooperating altogether. This matters. You can keep one ally with as you explore, and picking the right one becomes crucial in some situations.
Meanwhile, the tried-and-tested cycles of fighting, levelling, upgrading then fighting more still have their merits, and there’s a solid weapon crafting and customisation system in place too. If you love fantasy RPGs so much that you’re prepared to play practically anything, then you might find Bound by Flame a decent bet.
But for most of us the game’s faults will be too many and too serious. The most superficial come down to presentation. Bound by Flame isn’t a bad looking game by any means. The PS4 version has some nice, detailed textures and some fine dynamic lighting effects. Even when the models look dated, there’s a layer of surface sheen that covers up.
Sadly, the art and production design is generic, there’s a ridiculous amount of re-use, and the close-up animation is just plain awful.
For instance, all the male human characters seem to have been cobbled together from the same small assortment of body parts, and in the cut-scenes, nothing appears to be animated bar the eyes and jaw. They have several noted video-game actors providing voices, but the dialogue is frequently awful, and the delivery painful to watch.
What’s more, here’s yet another fantasy game where the female characters wear stupidly revealing outfits, presumably in the hope that monsters will be fatally distracted by the acres of heaving cleavage on display. After years of playing RPGs we can state categorically that this strategy has never worked, and never will.
Then there are the controls and interface. While Bound by Flame has some nice ideas here, like slowing time while you pick items and abilities from a radial menu during combat, it’s a very fiddly game. There are too many different skills, abilities, quest and inventory screens to flip through, and switching between different stances or using spells is never that quick or easy, partly because the game is so reliant on using the shoulder triggers as shift keys for shortcuts.
Locking onto targets and using ranged weapons or spells is a faff, and not always a guarantee of accuracy. In a combat-focused action RPG like this, everything needs to be tight. Bound by Flame feels worryingly loose.
Next, we come to the quests and level design. We’ve seen it all before. Too many dull "go here and fight this" quests. Too many quests with unclear objectives, where you spend more time staring at the map than you do ticking off your goals. Too many monsters simply dumped in a space, without any thought to strategy or a measured challenge, and too many boss battles that become wars of attrition rather than feats of skill or cunning.
To make things worse, Bound by Flame runs the old Dragon Age 2 scam of making you revisit the same few locations on multiple quests; good for budgets and development constraints, not so good when it comes to making players feel excited about what’s around the next corner.
Beyond all this there’s an overall lack of polish. Little things keep getting you, like the way that skipping a pre-boss battle cut-scene means taking a huge whacking blow, or the way that your CPU-controlled allies can get stuck behind a scrap of vegetation or lump of rock, or leave your company with just a brief line of text as a warning – a line you’ll miss until you find yourself in combat and wonder where they’ve gone.
All these things make the game a little less fun, and when the world feels so generic and the action so average, there’s just not that much fun left in the tank.
Bound by Flame looks like a budget RPG contender, and there are some nice ideas in the combat system and the Bioware-like treatment of the side-characters. Sadly, there’s just too much about it that’s generic, unpolished, badly animated, poorly implemented or uninspired. If you must have a fantasy RPG to play on PS4 then this might do, but there will be better around the corner, and this really isn’t an easy game to love.
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