Bound By Flame is one of those titles that I went into with absolutely no expectations. I hadn’t played a game by developer Spiders before (though I’ve been tempted to pick up Faery: Legends of Avalon and Mars: War Logs on multiple occasions), so I really had no idea what to expect from them. I had heard that Mars was a seriously flawed game that showed a lot of promise, but didn’t understand what that meant until I played Bound By Flame. This is a game that gets fairly close to the greatness—and moral ambiguity—of the Witcher games on several occasions, but that also consistently fails to provide entertaining gameplay that lives up to that promise. Bound By Flame is a potentially great game consistently undermined by awful gameplay, mind-numbing tedium, and an overwhelming feeling that a huge chunk of the game near the end is simply missing.
Some memorable characters
While the main character and supporting cast in the beginning of the game are absolutely worthless, you soon swell your ranks with more interesting characters. Randval the knight, Edwen the magician, and Mathras the immortal spirit are particularly memorable, and despite there not being an abundance of such worthwhile characters, many portions of the game are made bearable for their presence. That’s not to say that all of them are original, though: the whole “last knight of an order” thing has been done to death, and Edwen’s cold, borderline-evil personality shamelessly parallels Morrigan from Dragon Age: Origins. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because of how much these characters end up adding to the experience, and I’d be lying if I said that I was ever bothered by their lack of originality. In truth, those three characters are interesting enough to be a selling point for the game, and I could even see Mathras getting his own spin-off because of how intriguing and amusing he is.
Choices and consequences
Early on, main character Vulcan becomes possessed by a “demon,” though there’s a lot of ambiguity about whether said demon is actually an evil entity; the world is on the verge of collapse as nearly-immortal ice sorcerers invade with their seemingly endless army of undead soldiers, and said demon grants you the power of fire in order to oppose them. The opposite natures of your powers and those of your would-be conquerors allow the demon to make some really good points, and giving him more and more leeway over your actions has an impact on how the story turns out (there are 3 possible endings). More immediately, giving in to the demon changes your character’s appearance, giving him glowing eyes, molten skin, and later in the game, even horns.
The best part is that giving in to the demon isn’t necessarily a clear-cut “bad” choice. Even at the end, I had a choice that led to an ending that I felt was fair given my prior actions. Not only that, but I was also given the opportunity to save or condemn a number of my companions, so you have quite a bit of power over who lives and dies. All of this is a plus in the game’s favor, offering more reactivity than most games bother to include. However, only the “canon” goody-two-shoes ending offers you an epilogue, which may irritate some.
Combat is a disaster
I have far fewer positive things to say about the game’s combat system. For one, it’s explicitly cheap. In the video above, pay close attention to the fact that I get hit by an arrow 46 seconds in. Notice anything strange? How about the fact that the archer was on his back when he fired the arrow, having just been knocked down? The game allowed him to fire the arrow anyway, and this is just one of many ways where combat fails. Another huge failure is the lack of any kind of recovery move. This means that it’s possible for enemies to knock you down, then continue to hit you (keeping you down each time) before you can stand up again. What this amounts to is a one-hit kill, and it’s not fair in any way, shape, or form. In fact, I should probably mention that the combat is so clunky and unenjoyable that I played the game on the easiest difficulty setting. This kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem on the easiest difficulty setting, but it is.
Most of the time, combat consists of you running in circles around your opponents, occasionally firing a crossbow bolt or fireball at an enemy. The reason for this is that the swordplay is an absolute disaster. There’s no sense of weight behind your strikes, and even worse, interrupting an enemy’s action is dependent on a percentage chance to interrupt rather than resulting from the natural flow of combat (where you’d think being hit by a sword would cause an enemy to stagger). What this means is that you can hack away at an enemy without them so much as flinching, and they always seem to use your attacks as an opportunity to hit you when you’re vulnerable because of this.
The quirky dodge/parry
All of that is slightly alleviated by your ability to dodge/parry (depending on which weapon set you’re using) and automatically counter-attack, but succeeding at this requires hitting a certain button/key in the split-second moment before your enemy hits you, and this can be incredibly difficult for some enemies because their attacks don’t seem to register when their weapon is actually near you. Instead, attacks seem to hit during a specific frame in their attack animation. I suppose that learning where this one frame is for each enemy type could make swordplay slightly more viable, but for most of us, long-range magic is the only realistic way of getting through the game’s combat.
The quest system doesn’t help
Bound By Flame has awful sidequests that rarely amount to more than “beat X in a fight, or find Y amount of resource Z.” To be honest, most games do this, so I can’t really hold bad sidequest design against this game. However, even many of the main quests suffer from this. This happened to me: everything started to pick up in the game and become enjoyable, and even the combat had become fairly bearable, but right as I started to become comfortable, the main quest turned into a hunt for X amount of crystals that were all found in in a labyrinthine castle. This castle, it seems, was designed by whoever came up with the idea for those mazes scientists force mice to run through, because it twists and turns all around and only breaks up your constant running with respawning enemy encounters. Needless to say, my enjoyment of the game hit a brick wall, and it wasn’t the first time this had happened. The quests in this game are sometimes interesting, but every interesting quest is quickly followed by something unbearably repetitive. The entire game is made so much worse for this.
Lots of questions toward the end
Another problem I had with the game is how vague is can be about many things. For one, I gave in to the demon at every opportunity until the line was blurred between it and Vulcan, but both seemed to be present at different times, making dialogue unnecessarily confusing toward the end. During many conversations, I simply couldn’t tell who was actually speaking, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the mechanics behind how you save (or condemn) the world are never sufficiently explained over the course of the main quest. Perhaps more information exists in one of the side quests or hidden away inside the dialogue with an NPC I didn’t use, but that’s no excuse for leaving me clueless about what I’m doing at the end of the game. Things just start happening for no obvious reason, and when I was told that I saved the world, I had to take the game’s word for it without knowing how I had actually managed to do so.
It’s an RPG
While your options when creating your character are limited by a small number of presets, you’re able to upgrade many of the weapons and much of the armor you find/buy. Of course, the game’s tendency to knock you down and use cheap tactics against you means that you’re best off keeping your distance and fighting with magic, so a lot of this customization is rendered pointless. You’re also given the ability to craft health and mana potions, which are often crucial to succeeding in combat, and while there never seem to be enough ingredients to craft as many as you need, you can also buy them with the large sum of money you’ll inevitably save up by ignoring close-range weapons entirely.
You also level up, and while you have three separate skill trees that you can spend points in to improve your character, the magic tree is the only one that matters because of how bad the swordplay is in the game. Yet again, an opportunity for replay value and RPG depth is ruined by the game’s atrocious combat system.
It feels incomplete
Many of the evil sorcerers are mentioned, but never actually seen. In actuality, you only face a single one in the game, with the rest being indirectly weakened/destroyed based on your actions. This feels incredibly cheap, as though a huge part of the game got planned out and then suddenly cut from the game at the last second. Things just seem to end far too quickly and neatly for how hopeless your cause is portrayed in the beginning, and in addition to the end coming across as abrupt, this also makes the game feel quite short for an RPG (I’d estimate it lasted me around 8-10 hours).
Some scenes in the game look absolutely gorgeous, with detailed textures and a great art style. Randval is a great example of the game succeeding graphically, with his hair and beard in particular looking quite good; despite being made up of simple textures rather than actual strands of hair, they nevertheless have a smooth, almost painterly appearance that’s incredibly pleasing. Character models like Edwen, on the other hand, have hair that tries to be more detailed and fails horribly. To say that Edwen’s hair looks like the aftermath of a paper shredder would be doing a major disservice to paper shredders. This is really the tightrope between great and awful graphics that Bound By Flame is constantly walking; while the main character looks great in many scenes, many enemies and environments have low-quality textures that stand out even more because of how detailed he is in comparison.
Some really good music, though
Matching the game’s cold aesthetic is the music, which is largely ambient and often sounds like a mix between the first Mass Effect game and Metroid Prime. I wouldn’t call it very memorable, though there’s one track that definitely stuck with me. Fortunately, this track seems to be the “main” theme, repeating during several sections of the game and tying everything together. I especially enjoyed how unexpected and haunting it becomes around 44 seconds in:
Here’s what you should do: