Bound by Flame (PC) review

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

Bound by Flame takes place in Vertiel, a world slowly falling to the evil of the Ice Lords.  Humankind and elfkind are both on the brink of extinction, with the last members of each race joining together to form a very rough, slipshod resistance (made up of elven royal guard, a mercenary group called the Free Blades, and a sect of mages with ulterior motives) in an attempt to fight back.  Every day, their numbers shrink and the undead armies of the Ice Lords grow.  It seems like an inexorable march towards death–that is until a member of the Free Blades named Vulcan (last name–think Shepard from the Mass Effect series) gets accidentally possessed by a flame demon in a magical ritual.  The power it gives him/her may just be enough to fight back the evil forces and save the world.

The setup is a potentially interesting one, with the last vestiges of society forced to work together in its final struggle before extinction.  Combine this with a demon possession that manages to avoid many of the typical pitfalls of such a tropey idea–silly evil voices, promises of world domination, etc–with a focus on co-existing with the demon and there is the potential for an interesting story here.  There are also a few fantastic party members you can recruit, such as a knight who only talks about himself in the third-person and an immortal spirit who hops from body to body as they decay, that give great flavor to the proceedings.  On the surface, there does seem to be some promise here.

Unfortunately, Bound by Flame doesn’t utilize these elements very well.  After a relatively strong opening and story setup, the events quickly become a little too flat and narrow.  Any sense of peril is practically nonexistent, as everyone around you is quite unfazed by the oncoming horde of undead troops ready to take over the world.  You and your party linger in one spot for much too long, which breaks the immersion a bit considering the vast inequality in the sizes of each opposing force.  Even the Ice Lords, the commanders of this vast army who are spoken about in reverent tones, barely even factor into the story: you only encounter one of them in the entire length of the game.  Because of this lack in scope and tension, I found it hard to feel any sense of dread or terror towards events that should have instead been horrifically dire.

An early action shot.  Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

An early action shot. Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

One of the few things I liked about the story was how you make the moral “choices” regarding your demon.  Just as in many RPGs of the modern era, you can either choose to be good or evil, but the nature of this choice is slightly different here.  Instead of simply having you decide to either help others or act selfishly, the moral choices all revolve around how much you are willing to allow the demon to fuse with your character.  This can have huge consequences, such as causing the death of party members who don’t agree with your decisions, but also gives you the ability to do (story-related) things you couldn’t otherwise.  It’s a unique twist on the idea–the thought of giving up one’s identity to gain power necessary for saving the world is an intriguing one–but it doesn’t ever become any less binary than these decisions in other games.

In terms of the gameplay, Bound by Flame feels much like The Witcher 2 in design.  You engage in melee combat with an (often) large number of foes; managing crowds is a huge part of the game.  There’s a block/counter system that feels rewarding to use, hacking off a huge chunk of an enemy’s life if successful.  A light stealth mechanic makes backstabs possible, but few situations give you a chance to use it well.  There’s also ranged weapons, spells, and traps that can be used from a radial menu–or bound to a few shortcuts–to better handle difficult situations.  Finally, your party members can be given basic commands, such as attack your target or use certain abilities, from that same radial menu.  It all comes together adequately, if not a bit clunkily at times, but without much variety.

Bound by Flame also emulates The Witcher 2 in the difficulty of its encounters.  Enemies are extremely resilient, come in great numbers, aren’t afraid to attack you while you are otherwise occupied, and can take you down in a matter of seconds if you aren’t careful.  Dealing with your foes necessitates frequent blocking/dodging and careful timing of when to open yourself up to push the attack.  For a time, this difficulty can be extremely rewarding.  Every fight feels like something you have to claw through, but each victory also feels that much sweeter.  Learning to be patient and expand your tactics to deal with the difficulty curve is fun at first.

Unfortunately, the way the difficulty curve ramps up makes the experience shift from rewarding to tedious.  Enemies, especially late-game ones, take an absurd amount of hits to go down, a trait that doesn’t extend to you and your party members.  As you progress, the number of enemies in each encounter also increase, as well as the variety of those enemies.  Some later encounters might feature a few archers that like to pelt you with slowing arrows from afar, a shielded warrior who can take a huge beating, large sword wielders who can pound you and steal your mana, and a large general with some scary area attacks.  As you can probably guess, fights quickly go from a challenge to a chore: trying to dart in and out to kill the weaker enemies, preventing you from getting hit in the back, before taking on the bigger ones.  It just loses any amount of that rewarding challenge it previously had, instead being replaced with frustrating fights that demand absolute perfection from the player.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame.  Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame. Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

On the RPG side of things, you can find and purchase a variety of gear to equip your character with.  Weaponry is nicely diverse, both in types of weapons and visual style, but there isn’t much variety in the armor.  Sadly, none of this gear feels very meaningful.  Even a few more points of attack power or a higher percentage to crit feels like it has little to no impact on the actual combat.  Your gear can also be upgraded with various materials, but these upgrades suffer from mostly the same problem: only the more noticeable changes, like more health or faster attack speed, are worth anything.  I do like how you can break down old gear and recycle materials, though, as it made me feel like I could never mess up and pick the wrong upgrades.  Finally, there are some other craftable items as well–traps, potions, crossbow bolts–but you find plenty of these items during your explanation, enough so to make this feature rather pointless on anything but the hardest difficulty.

There are also side quests, but these are as plain as they can be, sending you around the area to fetch things for various members of your camp.  All of these consist of following the waypoint until you reach the area, gathering something or killing some foes, and running all the way back to turn it in.  By the time I cleared an area in one of the game’s four acts, I was completely tired of this cyclical process.  The developers try to mix things up with quests given by your party members, reminiscent of games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but these are just as boring as the rest.  Combine this boredom with my previously stated point that new gear (as quest rewards) is mostly useless and there isn’t much reason to chase these quests down, aside from a few more experience points.

As you level up, you earn talent points and feat points.  Unlike the gear, the talent tree and feat system do have some meaningful impact on your character’s growth.  The early stages of the talent tree give you things like the ability to block from any side or a larger window to counter enemy attacks, benefits that will aid you for your entire quest.  As you move up the tree, however, these useful abilities vanish entirely; I found most of the late-game abilities to be next to useless.  One example of this is the final talent in the warrior tree, a buff that boosts your attack power and potential to interrupt, which has an absurd mana cost (I couldn’t even cast it at full mana when I first unlocked it) and a short length that barely makes it worth using.  As a result, I spread my points around each of the three trees–warrior, ranger, and mage–to try and collect all of the great early-game buffs.

The in-game map, which you can overlay.  Notice the narrow corridors.

The in-game map, which you can overlay. Notice the narrow corridors.

Feats are small perks that unlock as you perform tasks, such as killing 50 enemies or crafting 10 potions.  You can then spend your feat points on thematic rewards; using the given examples, you could then unlock more experience from foes or cheaper crafting requirements for potions.  These rewards can actually make a pretty big difference, giving you a bigger health pool or a significant damage boost, but are fairly limited in scope: odds are, you’ll have all the ones you want by the end of the game.  Overall, the leveling system gives good incentive to gain experience at first, but those incentives become meaningless as you progress.

Bound by Flame is a game I consider to be plagued with genericness.  Many of the character designs are absolutely terrible, either relying on tropes or trying something new that just doesn’t work visually with the rest of the game.  Each new zone seems large but is actually a few “larger” areas connected by ridiculously narrow “corridors” that hinder your traversal. The voice acting is low in quality and has very few stand-out moments (your spirit companion mentioned above isn’t terrible).  Most tragic is probably the soundtrack, which I just shockingly learned was done by Olivier Derivière, most famous for his excellent work on the Remember Me soundtrack.  For someone who did such a unique soundtrack, I can’t believe the bland nature of his  extremely standard and repetitive soundtrack here.  All in all, I would consider this game’s genericness to be its biggest weakness.

To your average person, Bound by Flame may just look like a bad Witcher 2 clone.  After all, it has a similar fantasy setting, isn’t afraid to (poorly) emulate that game’s tone, and features some fairly identical combat–aside from polish.  For people like me, those who played this developer’s previous game (Mars: War Logs), Bound by Flame looks like a more ambitious version of that game.  While it manages to add depth, length, and some interesting new ideas, I still find myself liking it less than Mars: War Logs.  That game managed to have its own very unique identity, one that managed to grab me even when the rest of the experience was rough around the edges.  Bound by Flame may be a better game, but I still found it too generic to enjoy my time with it.  If it can be gotten cheaply, it may be worth a quick romp.  At its current $40 price tag?  I suggest Mars: War Logs instead–or The Witcher 2, if you want a fantasy game.

This entry was posted in Reviews.

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