Bound By Flame review
Deliberate or otherwise, French studio Spiders’ timing is pretty sweet. The Witcher 3 – which this game definitely isn’t – has been pushed back by a whole year and the next single-player Elder Scrolls – which this game isn’t either – is still coalescing somewhere in Bethesda Softworks’ equivalent of Fort Knox.
Bound By Flames has Q2 very much to itself, so if you had just discovered video games existed and had been covering your ears to any office talk about the latest HBO fantasy series, you’d probably think this was an original and engaging action role-playing game. It’s not. So here’s a paragraph or so of synopsis for those who have been paying attention to popular entertainment media for the last decade: for the last 150 years, the world of Vertiel has been subject to the invasion of seven ‘Lords of Ice’ (Lord of the Rings) and their ‘Deadarmy’, bringing an eternal winter and a horde of undead to every conquest (Game of Thrones).
The protagonist is called Vulcan (Star Trek?) and there’s a big cult ritual where he gets possessed by a demon or something, then has some kind of persistent moral dilemma for the rest of the game, the outcome of which is decided by the choices the player makes. Bound By Flames has no sandbox or open-world gameplay. Like the Witcher 2, each self-contained chapter has a hanful of side-quests but nothing that can really distract you from the fact that you’re being channelled down a linear path that will finish with a limited set of permutations. Gameplay doesn’t stretch far beyond quests to kill monsters – or to run around a populated backwater chatting to NPC’s lifted from a nineties fantasy drama, who are stuck in a limbo that glues them to the spot until Vulcan achieves the next primary quest checkpoint and the narrative can move forward.
The story, writing and the role-playing part of the game is distinctly previous-gen play, if not older. Shouty alpha males with python-like arms that look like they’ve all been cast from the same He-Man mold are abound; one-dimensional, athletic females clad in impractical bikini-armour are everywhere. And graphically, you couldn’t set this apart from an average-looking PS3 game. But in case you began to think you had picked up a game from the second-hand section of the store, there’s swearing! The potty-mouthed population of Vertiel does enjoy punctuating its sentences with ‘shit’, ‘bollocks’ and even the odd f-word, that way you know Bound By Flames is edgy and different… except to the Witcher.
But then, it’s definitely not The Witcher, so that’s okay. To give Bound By Flame some credit, there’s a fair bit of flexibility in the crafting, skill and combat systems. At least in this, there’s an appreciable amount of the exploration and experimentation that veteran role-players crave and will otherwise find wanting here. Levelling up is relatively fast bringing in a bounty of attribute points that allow Vulcan to upgrade a trifecta of ability trees to mastering the ways of the warrior, the assassin or sorceror. We’d go so far as to say the crafting system is actually more satisfying and less arbitrary in Bound By Flame than a certain other action role-playing game (which it isn’t). We the enjoyed the combat most of all, partly because of the variety of skills that were made available to us and the judicious pace at which we were able to improve Vulcan’s abilities.
Once the fire demon is, literally, on board and the arcane part of Vulcan’s skill tree becomes available to him, a whole world of rhythmic and twitchy swordplay complemented by dramatic bursts of fire magic became the reason for navigating our way from one trite conversation with a fantasy stereotype to the next. Fortunately, there are plenty of spots where Vulcan can wade knee deep in the undead and most of them can be picked up at the player’s discretion. This isn’t enough to save Bound By Flame from mediocrity though, especially when we found ourselves tapping circle through stale dialogue to skip to the next sequence.
We’ve got a quest summary in our inventory journal that will pick up the necessary detail, plus a mini-map with a compass that will conveniently point the way to primary and secondary quest locations: why not cut the middle-man out, give Vulcan a bungee cord to drag him through all the bland corridor-running and conversation, then we can go away to make a cup of tea before the next fight. Combat and crafting was compelling enough for us to consider awarding Bound By Flames a lofty seven out of ten, but then our game crashed. Perhaps it was the way Vulcan threw a door open in the dramatic fashion he favours, camera zooming over his shoulder, one to many times.
Whatever caused it, our save was irrevocably corrupted and any chance of playing Bound By Flames beyond our review went down the pan with it. Not that this should be the death knell for your purchase decision too, you probably won’t encounter the same game-breaking problem and maybe you haven’t experienced the worlds of Westeros, Tamriel and the Northern Kingdoms. Good for you. Not only are you more likely to enjoy all the talking between every fight but there are four seasons of compelling HBO drama and several weeks of exhaustive, back to back playtime across two chart-topping video game franchises, once you’re done.