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Wot I Think: Bound By Flame

Mana to burn

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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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