Wot I Think: Bound By Flame

By Richard Cobbett on May 23rd, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle, that's the meal you probably ate last. Pop goes the evil...

Bound By Flame is a game written by spiders, which is goddamn terrifying. They’ve learned to use technology! They have our internet! They know our secr- Oh, wait. It’s just Spiders, the French developers that last brought us Mars: War Logs. It’s an RPG that came out of nowhere, but its fans do seem oddly rabid about it. Is it worth your time though? Here’s Wot I Think…

Bound By Flame is the kind of game that always lights a spark of hope in even the most cynical reviewer – the kind that, while visibly running on a low budget and very unlikely to seriously threaten the big guns in its chosen genre, has the potential to surprise. To excite. To come out of nowhere and stick in the mind more effectively than something more polished and heralded could do with a thousand expensive advertising campaigns.

Now, sadly this one specifically doesn’t do that, but you probably guessed that already. It is at least interesting though, partly because of itself and partly despite. Imagine your fourteen-year old self writing something like The Witcher 2, and you’ll likely have a feel for how it all plays out, from a soldier main character far more devoted to snark than world saving, and NPC companions like The Knight Who Talks In The Third Person and Boobs the Witch. Those aren’t their real names of course, but you get the idea – a couple of fairly transparent not-as-clever-as-people-often-think excuses to poke fun at the genre by having the other characters constantly call her out for spilling from her dress and him out for his inability to talk proper like what they does, while still secretly revelling in the ability to put both in the game. Having their cheesecake and eating it, Richard might say.

And with a lot of gratuitous swearing thrown in too. If you ask me, it’s fucking disgraceful.

Dear GOD, woman, even your PRISON is stripperific...

As juvenile as it all is, there’s a raw enthusiasm to it too. It’s trying to be a bit different, and I’d rather have that than yet another endlessly stuck up bit of high-fantasy claptrap that thinks putting elves and dwarves into a slightly different field is enough to create an original setting. Occasionally, it’s even funny. Mostly though, the attempts to be a bit edgy don’t work out at all, with by far the worst part being the main character – Vulcan – trying too hard to be above everything. It’s a wonder Act 2 isn’t spent just slumped in front of a TV with one hand down his/her pants. So much player dialogue is given over to lines like “Hey, did anybody see what I just did to that huge fucking monster? I mean, seriously? I fried that thing! I saved our asses, and you’re all just, ‘Hey, what’s for lunch?’” These are actual words said by our hero, a veteran soldier in the middle of a brutal war against the living dead. And worse comes from those lips too; lines bouncing between petulance and sarcasm on what can only be described as a quest to unlock the character class “Shitbag.”

Now, yes, this could work, but not with these voices; characters constantly delivering ‘funny’ lines without half the vocal charisma needed to sell them. To be fair, very, very occasionally there is an exception to that, like in the first boss fight where Boobs the Witch (actual name: Edwen) is trapped in a cage and demanding to be set free before the monster inevitably tears Vulcan’s brain out through his/her anus. There’s not many though, and the snark soon gets tiring. Bland as many RPG heroes are, there’s a reason the comedy relief duties tend to be go to one or two NPCs. Here, just about everyone wants to sing from the same snarky song sheet, aiming to be funny and quirky, but almost invariably coming across as mean-spirited, idiots, or just in need of a good head-boxing, with the script often being oddly fragmented and prone to “Wait a minute…” continuity issues. A scene in which Edwen outright murders Vulcan’s employer while practically cackling especially stands out, not so much for her doing it, but the resolution being her casually joining up with the team, instead of, say, being repeatedly stabbed through the chest-window until a strike finds her wizened heart.

I'm going to miss this level of service when the Ice Lords privatise the NHS.

On a more positive side, Bound By Flame’s central gimmick both works and is really fun. Near the start, Vulcan is accidentally bound to a fire demon (who speaks like a refugee from the Ultima series, with lines like “All doth fall to ruin about you, yet you still bewail your loose bowels and vomitings…”), giving them incredible powers at the cost of having a clearly evil room-mate living in their head. The demon is arrogant, destructive, but also suitably compelling, with the running theme throughout the game being how much of its help you accept and the obvious cost of yourself. Like all drug dealers, it begins slow, with a couple of basic fire powers you come to rely on. Then, before a big fight, it’ll pop up to point out how much its power could help, if you accepted just a tiny little bit more of it, with Vulcan becoming more demonic each time. First, it’s flaming red eyes. Then, it’s full on demon-skin and the start of horns, which somewhat amusingly nobody else seems to notice just sprouting in the middle of the walk to Act 2. But hey. Maybe they’re just being polite.

To be sure, this isn’t the only time we’ve seen this kind of story in an RPG (hello, Beyond Divinity), but Bound By Flame handles it well. The only real irritation is that after the first couple of sequences involving it, Bound By Flame drops all pretense that you’re not dealing with a good/evil path here, removing any sense of mystery or actual need to sacrifice humanity for any reason other than because it looks more fun to ultimately have amazing fire powers. It would have been good to see something more in-depth than that, like scenes that genuinely challenge you to hold onto humanity instead of signing another Faustian pact. Still, it’s a neat concept I enjoyed watching unfold.

GRAAARH! WOW, ARE YOU GOING TO BE DISAPPOINTED WHEN YOU FIGHT ME AND THEN GO BACK TO BEATING UP ZOMBIES AND SPIDER THINGS FOR THE REST OF THIS ACT!

Keeping on the positive side, the combat system is surprisingly effective. It’s action driven and in terms of difficulty (minus the occasional boss), when set to normal it feels like it’s trying to be Dark Souls without the psychopathery, but is actually The Witcher 2 without the signs. Either way, it’s a solid and well implemented system. You have three basic skill paths: Warrior, Ranger and Pyromancy – the first two can be toggled between both in and out of combat, and magic boosts both of them with support spells like setting your weapon on fire for extra damage. On top of that, you also get a crossbow which is situationally useful, and mines that were a waste of time even coding.

In Warrior mode, you tank enemies, wield heavy weapons, soak up attacks by blocking (which the enemies can break with a kick, just as you can when they do it) and deal heavy damage in big sweeping attacks. Ranger mode uses fast daggers and relies on getting in and out without taking too much damage in return. Both of them feel like they could do with an extra solid dive-roll for dodging, no matter how ridiculous Geralt looked while fighting in The Witcher, but the modes complement each other well even if you focus on one tree and only reach for the other occasionally. (I spent most of the game in Warrior mode, with occasional backstabs.)

Wait, just to check, we're not literally talking about chasing the enemies with poo on our fingers and hoping they run away? Because if so, I think that actually counts as a weapon upgrade.

Both are heavily reliant on timing, not simply for avoiding blows, but delivering counter-attacks. Health potions are expensive, and their ingredients not in plentiful supply, and even regular enemies can do serious damage if not handled with at least some care. There are definite frustrations, like it taking forever to get up after being knocked down, and boss fights that end their intro cutscene practically giving the boss the first punch, but it nails the most important part of this style of combat – making a successful fight feel like a satisfying ballet, even when wielding a big two-handed sword. (To judge from both the oomph of its impact and the effect on enemy health bars, it is made of rubber, but thankfully lighting it on fire is easy even in battle, and cheap in terms of mana.)

It’s not a deep system, but aside from a few very frustrating boss fights and cheap-shotting enemies, a better one than most mid-tier action RPGs usually offer. Like The Witcher though, it suffers from a character building system that doesn’t so much make your character better as less crap, and by mid-way through the first Act, you should have the majority of the combat down pat. It’s not like there’s that much to do against the enemies except choose whether to stealth attack for bonus damage, specialise in daggers or swords, and occasionally take a shot with a crossbow. You do get to pick your NPC partner, with Edwen specialising in dark magic, her more conservatively dressed counterpart Sybil handling the lighter flavour, and others filling rolls like tank and ranged support. Their AI is unimpressive, but they can at least be left alone to help even the odds and soak up hits a little, as long as you don’t expect them to do anything specific that you might need.

As the game goes on, even the combat starts to pale. The upgrade system is largely built around passive bonuses rather than new ways to fight, and once you’ve got the rhythm of combat down against individual and groups of enemies, there really isn’t much Bound By Flame can do except make the fights longer and longer and hope you make a mistake. By Act 2, it feels okay but increasingly rote, and it’s not long after that before it officially becomes a chore. As this is by far the most accomplished and largest part of the game, that’s a bit of an issue – though carving through bland enemies does beat dealing with the more annoying bosses. Impossible, they’re not, but they do deserve a deep, throaty “Grrr…” of displeasure and occasional controller whack. And yes, I do recommend a controller for this one. It’s console style combat. May as well embrace it.

NEW PRIMARY QUEST: Find Wig That Fits

The key problem Bound By Flame has is that a few good ideas doth not a classic RPG make. Again, in terms of story and combat engine, it’s surprisingly respectable. The limits of its production are constantly on display though, from plot choices that don’t actually mean a great deal, to the relentless blandness of the environments – claustrophobic, boring, ugly places full of barely disguised canyons and the same repeating monsters to trudge through again and again.

It’s not a long game by RPG standards – expect about 12-15 hours depending on how many of the largely pointless sub quests you can be bothered with – but those hours feel like a will-sapping eternity. It’s hard to get into the plot when even the main character rarely seems to give much of a crap, about anything from being part-possessed by a demon (which worries everyone for almost an entire cut-scene in Act 1 before being shrugged off) to the threat of the Ice Lord and his latest scheme to kidnap Princess Bubblegum friends’ necromantic plans. Like so much of the game, it dreams of being epic, but ends up just feeling slight – RPG action that would love to be in the same company as The Witcher and Dragon Age, but instead has to sit with the likes of Game of Thrones: The Game in the pile of adventures that are better than they feel they have any real right to be, past their terrible openings at least, but which offer little reason to burn money or the midnight oil on.

Like a candle ill-advisedly placed in a draughty corridor, Bound By Flame is out now.

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48 Comments »

  1. frightlever says:

    That’s a far more positive review than some I’ve seen. Sounds like I’ll pick it up when the price drops a bit.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s one of those games that you kinda have to go in knowing what it is and be willing to accept that. It’s never going to be The Witcher 2, but it’s at least trying, and has some fun ideas. Having endured endless RPGs that are just brain-numbing boredom stretched out for a million hours, I’ll often give more time to ‘quirky but flawed’ even if the game is locked in a failed attempt to punch far, far above its weight.

      • frightlever says:

        Pretty much any RPG that at least tries to make a better combat model has to worth something. Even if that something is only once it hits 75% off in a Steam sale.

      • nrvsNRG says:

        Coming from someone who’s also played thru the entire game, I think this is the best and most accurate review Ive seen.
        I always enjoy reading your reviews tho.

  2. Shooop says:

    This seems like the Insert Adjective Here Movie equivalent of a RPG. In other words, lazy to the point of simply putting something on screen and pretending the fact that it’s there makes it funny.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Nah, it’s actively trying to have a different vibe to the usual highfaluting RPG dialogue. It’s just not very good at it, so it ends up being obnoxious rather than funny. With better handling, it could have worked.

      • Shooop says:

        So it’s like a Seth McFarlane show?

        • frightlever says:

          Or, to put that another way, one may’s obnoxious is another man’s hilarity. Depending on my mood Dads is either hilarious or dreadful.

        • Bradamantium says:

          God, no. I don’t think anything can be quite as bad as a Seth MacFarlane show except for a new Seth MacFarlane show that’s just the same as the old one.

  3. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    So, how long will i get out of the combat, then? I couldnt quite tell from what i read.
    Is it like 2 hours, or 4 or the 15 you mentioned? Roughly, when does the chore time kick in?

    Also, Dark Messiah had a demon planted in your head.

  4. iyokus says:

    One for the ’75% off Platinum Edition’ in the Steam Summer Sale 2015, then!

  5. Bob says:

    Oh lord. It sounds as though we get to play a character I might like less than Jason in Far Cry 3, though I enjoyed the game just the same. I might wait for a sale to pick this one up.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Ha! I thought i was the only person to despise Jason. Hated him to the point where i created an alternate reality n my head in which he realized how despicable he really was and his subconscious guilt drove him to create a dream in which he became brave and useful for a change.

      Please tell me this game features a protagonist at least more likeable than Jason from FC3.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Rob Schneider playing the lead role in The Gilbert Gottfried Story would be a more likeable protag than Jason.

      • KDR_11k says:

        The Far Cry 3 writer claimed that that was what the game was actually about. Everybody else replied with “then you failed to get it across”. Then he went on to write the dialogue for Child of Light and everybody went “this writing is godawful”.

    • Jexiah8bit says:

      I don’t think Jason was supposed to be likable – he was a rich snob who played on Dad’s money. Unless your into that sort of crap.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Jason was a great demonstration that in the right situation anybody, even an incredibly fit extreme sports enthusiast, can become a badass.

        • AyeBraine says:

          And badass does not equal likeable or relatable. Especially if badass activities are concerned with serial killing for a half-understood cultist ideology. I loved Jason exactly because of that: you don’t have to completely understand your place in a story to be thrown in it, and to climb, screaming and cursing and hurting people, out of it. Was that Japanese sergeant, who stuck on an archipelago and killed random people for 20 years thinking the war isn’t over, likeable? Not really. But he was badass.

  6. gabrielonuris says:

    That was the best Bound by Flame review I’ve read so far; that’s the kind of review I like to read: fair and objective. I was thinking about buying this game just because of its wonderful crafting system, I thought it to be rather original by itself; but after this review I see that this game has a lot more to offer.

  7. Laurentius says:

    What a great review. Honest and without any smug or reproachfulness. Even makes a bit interested in this game.

  8. jonahcutter says:

    Well done review. There’s been an air of superiority and disdain about this game in a lot of other reviews. At times ill-informed disdain.

    It’s a fun b-game, with some hidden gems and cleverness (and its share of rough edges). One of my favorite little bits was the elven artist forced to take up work as a blacksmith, and to get him to cooperate you can not just threaten or cajole, but appeal to his artistic sensibilities.

    Combat is solid, if shy of being consistently satisfying.

    It’ll be a good deal at $20-25 unless you’re really jonesing for an RPG-lite experience right now.

    One place I vehemently disagree with your review is the call for more dive-rolling. The game could definitely use more combat-based maneuverability at times. But dive-rolling is one of the most absurd video game tropes there is. People look like ridiculous, spastic monkeys rolling around in games from Dark Souls to Mars War Logs.

    This is at least one spot where Bound By Flame is superior to many other action-RPGs. It doesn’t indulge in the silly dive-rolling trope.

    I want combat animations that look like actual melee footwork. Not cartoonish dive-rolling in heavy armor and long cloaks, while holding razor sharp swords and spears.

    Less dive-roll animations! More footwork animations!

    • nrvsNRG says:

      I think a lot of the criticism for this game is based on the fact that ppl couldn’t get to grips with the games combat minus diving/rolling. So instead of learning to block and counter and make good use of kick/interrupt they start making exaggerated claims instead (also switching stances to ranger, and you also get jump-back, which makes you almost invulnerable to damage). Others, stuck all their first few levels of points into pyromancy, which is more just a support skill rather then a specialty, and gimped themselves.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        The combat is pretty easy most of the time, with deaths mostly coming from the fact that it’s also really unforgiving of mistakes you DO make. You can parry much more than normal (there are some exceptions, especially in boss fights), and while enemies can break that, they generally either don’t or don’t do it often enough that it’s a problem to recover and put a guard back up. Your main issue is that health potions are crazy-expensive, so you can’t afford to make that many mistakes during a fight. Once it’s over though, let it regenerate and you’re fine.

        The dive-roll is more an issue with some of the bosses where you need to move *now* and can’t just soak up the attack. The second one, the werewolf, was particularly annoying for that when he breaks out the AOE attacks and it can be a bit clumsy running out of the way even as Ranger.

        The only Pyromancy skill I used for much of the time was setting the sword on fire, which I used constantly because otherwise you don’t do much damage at all even with an upgraded two-handed sword. I think I tried using fireball (fire orb) early on, saw how much mana it used vs. damage and was just “Nope!”

  9. Michael Fogg says:

    Yeah, interesting perspective from Richard, I watched totalbiscuit’s video on this and he complained to no end about how the combat doesn’t work and generally panned it. I suspected then that he was just rather shit at it.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The combat works fine. It’s not very interesting, but it’s mechanically consistent and responsive. Its main issue is that you’re more defensively capable than usual in these things and REALLY have to take advantage of that, because otherwise a group of even regular mooks will crush your health-bar in no time flat. And as someone said up top, if you mistake Pyromancy for a combat tree rather than a support one, you’ll gimp yourself badly. I didn’t have a problem with that personally because I caught on pretty early, but it’s not very well explained that you should be beating up rather than frying enemies.

      (briefly watches the Totalbiscuit review, where it shows his build)

      Yeah, he screwed up bad with that build. He’s misunderstood how the system works too with the interruption system, and he’s getting beaten up because he’s not fighting right. Kicking is a situational thing, to break a raised shield. That’s it. The rest of the system is bounced between parries (which can be upgraded to soak attacks from all sides really early on) and the counter-attacks that are purely timing based and should be used a LOT.

      If you play the game as it tells you do, it works fine. Though I think it should have made it far clearer, as said, that Pyromancy is support rather than offence.

    • Sleeping_Wolf says:

      Well, TBH totalbiscuit is rather rubbish at a lot of games. I’ve watched a number of his impressions and first looks, and especially with puzzle/platformers, I get frustrated at his ineptness andI feel the need to take the control implement away from him and show how it should be done.

      • MellowKrogoth says:

        Don’t forget to show us how it’s done while making high-quality non-stop commentary at the same time. Then we’ll see how good you are at puzzle-platforming.

        • CookPassBabtridge says:

          No need to be defensive. He has admitted it himself in the past that he rags on games that he has failed to understand properly and has even gone back and had another stab at them when commenters mentioned what he was doing wrong.

          People rely on reviews to give them an idea of whether this game vs that game is worth buying. Though you can supplement with other reviews or lets plays, someone with TB’s clout will have a larger influence on his regular, and many, followers – so if he does a patented TB Rant on a game because he was unable to commentate AND play, then that is deserving of criticism.

      • KDR_11k says:

        He has a mental disability that makes it hard for him to keep track of multiple things at once. That might hurt his puzzle ability even more. OTOH the Giant Bomb people often miss things that are far more obvious and they only have color blindness.

        Brawler combat is usually his forte so it was likely the build that screwed him if anything (he did complain about the inability to induce stagger, that looks like a stat-based thing).

    • Jason Moyer says:

      Was he playing it with a mouse and keyboard? He seems to do that a lot with games that are obviously going to be better on a gamepad.

      • jonahcutter says:

        I’ve had no problem with a m/kb in this game. As with Dark Souls and a lot of other third-person action games, I find the claim that a controller is inherently better is a bit overblown.

        If someone prefers m/kb, they won’t be at any disadvantage in this game because of it.

        • montorsi says:

          Curious. Dark Souls is so bad without a controller that the developer tells it’s customers they ought to have a gamepad on the store front page, yet the complaints are overblown.

          • Wulfram says:

            Well, I found Dark Souls basically fine with M/Kb, with a mod. Aside from all the onscreen prompts being wrong that made the initial learning curve kind of horrible

    • Ultra Superior says:

      Both RC and TB are right. RC is right on defense, you can easily survive any fights (unless you’re stuck into corner), but TB is correct too – the combat is shit.

      The only thing I missed in RC’s review is proper bashing of the laughable ineffectiveness of your weapons. You get the best, hugest sword, set it on fire, and you still have to slash a pint-sized critter at least 5 – 7 times.

  10. Skofnung says:

    The Game of Thrones: RPG was excellent. Stop besmirching it!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It was not excellent, by any stretch or in any universe. It was savagely awful until it became quirkily interesting after arriving in King’s Landing, and from then advanced to the dizzy highs of “surprisingly okay, considering.”

  11. Alistair says:

    Yes, I pretty much agree with this, although I don’t think the writing was poor. The quoted line strikes me as better than anything in Skyrim say.

    • Imbecile says:

      I dunno, skyrims dialogue is bad, but in a kind of absurdly bland kind of way. This seems just as bad, but in a way that is more interesting, but also more intrusive. I’d probably favour Skyrims brand of bad writing.

      Its easier to ignore.

  12. Maruk says:

    I decided to try this game before reading any reviews, so I could experience it unbiased. I am glad I did, because I like this game, a lot. I find the snarkiness refreshing and way better than the too-serious-for-its-own-good trope dialogue spewed off in most other games. In some ways the game reminds me of The Bard’s Tale, but more like The Witcher 2 and Reckoning mashed into one. People keep talking about low-budget, but it looks and sounds great to me. It’s game that’s taking the piss on the fantasy genre, and I find it succeeds remarkably.

    The combat gets high marks from me because it is responsive and reliable. Endless attack variety is not something to expect from good fighting games anyway. Rather, one should have to use learned skills in a more effective manner as the game progresses.

    Most different enemies are upgraded versions of earlier enemies, apart from some really cool bosses. Yet, that also holds for almost all other games. Almost no game will throw new enemies at you constantly. It simply does not happen. Witcher series, Mass Effect, Dark Souls, Dragon Age, etc. They all reuse assets aplenty.

    I guess this game just hits a nerve with some people. This is fine. However, for anyone who has been dying for something to sink their teeth into while waiting for the next Witcher or (non online) Elder Scrolls to come out, it’s a game worth trying for sure.

    This game is the reason why I have made a decision to try more games without reading the reviews in advance, because it seems most vocal reviewers are not aligned with my taste in games :)

  13. mathead says:

    You can clearly tell it’s a french product when the main characters feature 80′s style new wave/cyberpunk looks like they sprung out of a Luc Besson movie.

  14. Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

    My first impression after just looking at the top picture, was “hmm, Skyrim that’s been infested with Dead Space’s radio virus”
    Let’s check how close the assumption got.

  15. Scumbag says:

    Richard Cobbett review? Lets check.
    Yep, alt-text on each shot present and correct.