Bound by Flame is the latest RPG to hit the gaming landscape courtesy of Spiders Studios, a rather small development studio that has been able to get a few of its games on the major console platforms and PC. The game is a rather ambitious title set in the fantasy land of Vertiel, which is under attack by the evil Ice Lords and their Deadwalker army. At first glance it’s hard to not draw a connection to Game of Thrones’ Whitewalkers, who, like the Ice Lords and their army, are hellbent on destroying every race in their way en route to turning the world to a lifeless icebox.
You play as Vulcan, a young mercenary from the Freeborn Blades, the baddest ass company of sellswords for hire, who are tasked with protecting the Red Scribes while they try to summon a force that can combat the Ice Lords. During this operation all hell breaks loose and Vulcan gets possessed by the demon the Red Scribes were meddling with. Now possessed with a flame demon, Vulcan must choose to either succumb to his new guest and draw from his vast flame powers, or to quell the demon’s advances and hang on to his humanity.
Herein lies the crux of Bound by Flame, and the basis for its choice system that directly affects how your particular journey will play out. Throughout the game’s quest Vulcan will be presented with a decision to either embrace the demon, or to suppress him, and depending on which path you choose, your particular adventure can change greatly. On paper this concept sounds fantastic, and this gameplay motif has been successfully implemented in other fantasy RPG titles such as The Witcher series, but in Bound by Flame it falls flat. At times these pivotal moments aren’t entirely clear, so you’ll make a dialogue decision thinking it’s just casual conversation, but in reality you just made a major decision that will alter your playthrough drastically.
More times than not I found myself making these types of moves, which in turn blocked me from completing a plethora of the game’s side quests. This effectively limited my ability to flesh out the overarching narrative, making it even muddier than it already is. I missed out on forging personal relationships with a few of the AI companions by unknowingly making the wrong dialogue choices, essentially making each companion irrelevant to the overall adventure. This issue also bled into Vulcan’s ultimate transformation, which should either be full demon, or full human, but somehow I ended up right in the middle due to the confusing decisions. Therefore my Vulcan never turned into a horn having badass with his upper body constantly on fire, nor was he a valiant human warrior with strong enough will to thwart the demon’s advances.
These issues could easily be prevented if Spiders put in a warning system like most games that offer choices that can severely affect the outcome of the story. During these fork in the road decisions it would have been extremely beneficial to know that a particular dialogue choice could in fact alter the rest of your playthrough. The tried and true, “Are you sure you want to go this route” warning would have made the dialogue decisions more clear cut, which in turn would have allowed me to fully experience Bound by Flame’s world and characters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and as a result my first playthrough felt flat and cut short.
Bound by Flame’s story and choice system are definitely flawed, but its leveling and crafting systems are on par with other RPGs. Vulcan has three skill trees: Warrior, Ranger, and Pyromancer, which unlock various powers for Vulcan to use. Each time he levels up you get points to spend in these trees, so you can tailor the type of mercenary you want him to be. If you want to be a sword wielding tank load up the Warrior tree. If you want to be nimble and stealthy and use fast moving daggers, then the Ranger tree should be your main focus. If you want to explore Vulcan’s demon powers, then you should spend your points in the Pyromancer category. In addition to the skill trees Vulcan can also receive various buffs through a Feat system to give him passive abilities such as increased health and magic.
Vulcan can also craft nearly any item he can carry. Both armor and weapons can be enhanced with new materials, and upon doing so Vulcan’s gear will visibly change, which is a nice touch. He can also craft raw materials for use, as well as consumable items such as potions to restore health and mana, which come in handy during the game’s insanely difficult combat.
Bound by Flame’s combat system is not for the feint of heart. If you’ve played either of The Witcher games then you’ll already have an idea of how combat plays out in Bound by Flame. Each attack must be precisely implemented and timed, or you’ll be exposed to devastating counter attacks. Parrying, dodging, and riposting are must use defensive techniques to be successful against even the most basic of enemies. Button mashing is not an option, as it only leads to multiple deaths and frustration.
The lumbering pace of Vulcan’s attacks add to the difficulty, especially in the Warrior stance (Vulcan can switch between Warrior and Ranger stances), which employs very deliberate slow moving attacks. Being precise while in the Ranger stance is also a requirement due to the fact that once Vulcan starts a combo, his animation gets locked in, which can prevent you from hitting your mark and open you up for cheap attacks. The Pyromancer abilities are underwhelming and take time to pull off, so they too add to the difficulty of Bound by Flame’s combat. Strangely enough, even with the steep challenge and sometimes cheap AI, Bound by Flame’s combat is easily its best attribute, and the challenge of succeeding in each battle becomes a masochistic addiction that goes against everything your emotions are telling you.
Bound by Flame is an ambitious RPG effort from a very small development studio, and it shows at times. The story is generic and forgettable thanks to the unclear choice system that can effectively limit your interactions with companion characters, as well as closing off hours of side quest gameplay. It never feels like your choices ultimately mean anything, and with no warnings in place you’ll find yourself taking simple dialogue choices that adversely affect your playthrough, and end up making the main plot muddier than it already is. There are a few shining lights in this otherwise average RPG, such as the leveling and crafting systems, and the extremely difficult combat is somewhat addicting. With that being said Bound by Flame is still a polarizing title. If you go into it expecting a production on the same level as The Witcher, you’ll be severely disappointed, but it still offers 15-20 hours of punishing entertainment for $49.99. If you’ve been needing a RPG to play on the PS4, Bound by Flame can satiate your hunger, but don’t expect to be blown away by what it has to offer. Otherwise, you may be better off renting Bound by Flame, or waiting for it to go on sale.
Feel free to check out some Bound by Flame gameplay action after the break.
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Review Statement: The reviewer received a copy of this game for the PS4 from the publisher for the purposes of this review.