Review: Bound by Flame

Bound by Flame is a game that aspires for AAA CRPG greatness in the vein of Skyrim or Dragon Age: Origins, and falls short of the mark.  It's fun for a single play, without much replay value, so at 40$, it's one to get on a sale.

Review: Bound by Flame
Date published: Jun 24, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Bound by Flame is a traditional western CRPG developed by Spiders (that's the company, not the arachnids) and published by Focus Home Interactive.  It's a game I'm really of two minds on, because while it's laudable to see a smaller company attempt to create the kind of AAA experience we have in the likes of the comparable Dragon's Age or Skyrim, it falls short of that mark out of a lack of those kinds of resources, and there's something of a lack of experience in display in the game design on display.

Each of the things that I enjoyed about Bound by Flame was
given a counterpart in something related which I didn't

The world of Varatiel where the game is set is probably the first example of this.  It seems a genuinely interesting world with some different takes on the standard tropes (and some standard one) with a lore that you can discover a very small amount of through dialogue, but you never get to see too much of it, and that throws tire spikes on both lanes of the proverbial game roadway: first of all, it makes it difficult to feel very invested in the world, because you're just thrown in the middle of that conflict without much context other than the fact that the big bads are curbstomping everything, and secondly, it makes the locations in which the game is set feel all the blander for it, since they aren't all that fleshed out.

In general most of the companions are quite passable, though not extraordinary.  There was a knight character who spoke in the third person who was an interesting twist on the archetype, and an undead fellow who was quite pleasant.  The obvious Morrigan-expy in the witch companion was at least well-voice acted if not particularly inventive, though the healer character just completely fell flat for me, coming off as whiny and histrionic in a way that came from bad character writing more than an intention to be so.  You're meant to care about her and want to protect her, but I just ended up ignoring her entirely in favour of other companions.

Speaking of the voice acting, the worst I came across in the game was actually the female playable character, but of all the things to have poor voice acting, that was certainly a bad choice.  It's kind of flummoxing, because the female character has just as much customisation options as the male and there is a fair bit of additional varied content based on the female character, so there was obvious care and intent there to give that attention to a female character, and then the female voice actor is just .. it doesn't work.  The voice actress seems to be working out of her range more than anything, because the game paints the player character as a deadpan snarker more than anything, which she falls flat with, but the times when the player character is showing anger or other emotions seem much better in general.  So a strange casting choice more than any actual lack of talent, I suppose.

The map design of the game is very linear and tends to
be rather confusing and maze-like

Exploring the world and it's characters became all the more frustrating to me trying to do the handful of side-quests only to get constantly turned around and backtracking unintentionally.  The game world is very linear - essentially a corridor start to finish - and while there's nothing inherently wrong with linearity in games, when you're spending as much time trying to figure out where you are and how to get from point A to point B as you are actually fighting or listening to the exposition dump d'jour (the game loves to give you minutes of exposition at a time), then that's problematic.  The levels themselves tend to be actually quite nice looking with different themes and very functional texture quality.

The graphics and overall look of the game are actually quite well-executed, on that note: the visuals aren't the absolute bleeding-edge but they are nice nonetheless, and the effects on display here are certainly a welcome departure from Dragon Age's hairstyles which appeared to be varnished wood.  Other than some misaligned textures and the occasional bit of jankiness in the animations, the look and feel of the game, from UI to the game itself is well-realised, and it looks like that's where a great deal of the production time went, for better or for worse.

One of the things I really liked about the matter with the Demon was the actual character of the demon, which I found interesting, but moreover how they would slowly manifest the demon in the appearance of the character the more you gave into the demon, which I thought was both a really nice visual shorthand for that, and also just something that looked really neat.  There was some good visual design at work here and while it's kind of archetypal demon material, it is well-executed, and looks pretty neat, including even the fact that if you manifest the horns you can't wear helmets, and interesting little attention to detail like that.  In general there is a lot of that kind of attention to detail in the visual design that is hard not to appreciate.

Another such detail is how the upgrades you apply to weapons and armour along the course of the game are actually visually represented in the game, another nice attention to details that both gives a visual shorthand of what effects your gear has and something that looks quite neat.  For an example, you can see between the screenshots in the two boxouts above the addition of the armour plating on the legs in the second, which is an upgrade given to the armour to improve its effectiveness.  The various upgrades offered are all helpful in different ways, though some moreso than others, and there's a good variety of them that accommodate different play styles.

Combat is very, very janky, and difficult in a way that
is caused by a lack of control rather than actual difficulty

Combat in the game is an extension of the standard light attack/heavy attack system used by most character action games.  Light attacks are less damaging but can't be interrupted and heavy attacks are much more damaging and in the "Warrior" stance hit a group, but can be interrupted.  And as such, you are likely never going to use the heavy attack ever, because even on the easiest difficulty, enemies will interrupt and even worse, knock you down, repeatedly, with ease and impunity.  This really is where the combat turns into a chore, because even very pedestrian enemies that are supposed to be easier to defeat will interrupt you repeatedly.  Meanwhile, you have to have every available point into being able to interrupt enemies to be able to do the same yourself with any frequency.  The frustration of those knock downs and being bashed about wasn't helped by the fact that your character wouldn't drink a potion when told to if they were in the middle of an animation.  Many, many deaths were a result of that.

The combat system has two different modes, three if you include the magic, but it misleads you into thinking that you have choice here.  I almost completely panned Bound By Flame after my first playthrough, because I tried it with the two-weapon "Ranger" style that's supposed to be a more fast and fluid combat style much more to my speed than the more ponderous two-handed "Warrior" stance, but even on the casual difficulty I just could not get far into the game with it, no matter how much I used the stealth system to carefully position myself, how much I grinded myself retarded for the best weapons for that class, and the like.  It's at best a supporting skill used to stealth up and backstab a powerful enemy.  It's not viable on it's own.  And neither is the mage "pyromancer" skill, which both forces you to assume the demon choices and form to be effective at all, and uses far too much mana to be a stand-alone skillset.  (Indeed, in his review, TotalBiscuit got very, very frustrated with the combat because he had made a mage primary.)  The two-handed sword "Warrior" stance is the only one that seemed viable, and even that one had its problems, with the heavy attack so easily interrupted.  The crafting system of the game is pretty much there so you can make the many health and mana potions you'll need through the game as regardless of skills you have, you'll be taking a lot of damage, but on the higher difficulties the resources for those are very scarce at best.  There's a very token ranged system via a crossbow that's not bad, but not really worth using and difficult to properly target when you have more than one enemy.

Bound by Flame is a game that aspires for AAA CRPG greatness in the vein of Skyrim or Dragon Age: Origins, and falls short of the mark.  It's fun for a single play, without much replay value, so at 40$, it's one to get on a sale.</p>