Once again it’s our pleasure to welcome guest contributor and CHUD veteran The Rain Dog, who’s kindly reviewed Focus Home Interactive’s new RPG Bound by Flame. Does this budget-priced RPG manage to stand up to the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age? Read on…
PLATFORM: Xbox 360, PS3, PS4,PC (Reviewed)
PRICE: $39.99 (PC, Xbox 360, PS3), $49.99 (PS4)
ESRB RATING: M
PUBLISHER: Focus Home Interactive
BUY IT FROM STEAM: Here!
BUY IT FROM AMAZON: Here!
What’s more egregious in your mind as a gamer and lover of pop culture in general: to have lofty aspirations but lack either the talent, time or money to accomplish them, or to see a cynical exploitation of well worn genre tropes to achieve a shoddy facsimile of more accomplished artistic and commercial successes? How you feel about the issue may go a long way shaping your opinion of the new third person action RPG Bound by Flame.
With their previous two RPG releases, 2012’s Of Orcs and Men and last year’s Mars: War Logs, French developer Spiders have been attempting to stake a claim on the territory straddled by the likes of Bioware, Bethesda and CD Projekt Red, and while each release had its charms there was a constant sense of ambition outstripping money or talent (Or both). Bound by Flame is the next step on this road. While at first it seems a much more polished, almost triple-A polished, outing, cracks soon appear in its facade, cracks that soon become tedious chasms of boredom, drudgery and in places, downright hilarious awfulness, punctuated by small pockets of enjoyment where the game actually comes close to achieving its lofty ambitions, like small oases in the Sahara.
The game begins with a truly spartan level of character customization. there are a very basic series of racial and gender templates to pick for your hero, and the ability to customize his or name. Sort of. You’d better like the name ‘Vulcan’ because regardless of the moniker you give your hero, that’s what every NPC and companion will be referring to them as throughout. The whole ‘Name Your Character, Not That We Care’ conceit is the first of many head-scratching decisions Spiders seem to have made with this title.
The game is divided into three separate hub areas that reflect the three acts of the game’s plot: a swampy jungle, an icy mountain, and some icy ruins (with occasional trips to sewers and caves in the odd side quest. The art direction is pretty, though will feel like deja vu for anyone who’s spent time in Bioware or CD Projekt’s fantasy worlds, and the hubs are downright labyrinthine in some places. you’ll find yourself getting regularly lost as you trudge back and forth through the same corridors for the twentieth time on yet another fetch quest.
The main conceit is that early in the game, Vulcan becomes possessed by a flame demon and must choose throughout how much he lets the demon take over at any one time. The game nudges at a moral component to this, with moral choices coming up as you play, but with the plot and characters giving you little to care about this dimension of the game becomes rather moot.
Where this flame demon and its powers do come into play is in the combat system. there are three different combat options and tech trees to spend experience points in upon levelling up in Bound by Flame: The Warrior stance, the Ranger stance and Pyromancy. The game strives for third person combat reminiscent of Witcher 2 or Dark Souls, with two battle stances able to be switched at the press of a button, the idea being to give the player the option of switching up battle styles mid-fight depending on the type of enemy being faced. Sadly, Warrior stance is an utter bore, its stilted, stationary style of block-block-hit-block leaving the player open to getting mobbed by multiple enemies at once. This makes for extended periods where you simply have to stand holding block as attacks pummel down upon you, with no tactical options available other than ‘survive long enough to try and hit someone back’.
Ranger stance offers a lot more maneuverability and fluidity to the combat, swapping out the block for a dodge move and swapping from sword and shield to dual wielding daggers, while Pyromancy adds a series of flame-based magical options to the mix. There’s also an anemic list of ‘feats’ (i.e. perks) consisting of some incredibly basic buffs such as ‘finding more treasure’ or simply being ‘tough’ which amounts to ‘more health/take less damage’. There’s also a decently distracting crafting system that gives you a chance to use the myriad materials and components you’ll discover throughout, to buff the the relatively large and impressive selection of arms and armour you’ll be able to find and buy, adding some much needed depth to the player’s options in combat.
The problem is, the game very much hangs its hat on the combat system, but its execution simply doesn’t work the way it aspires to until it becomes interminably frustrating to the point of rage. Yea, like a Witcher 2 or Dark Souls you will die a lot, but unlike those games with their firm-but-fair systems, death in Bound by Flame can seem almost random and incredibly unfair. Random difficulty spikes occur throughout the game, meaning that it’s very easy to get bogged down early fighting creatures that are far too difficult, only to come across an area almost insultingly easy, only to stumble into an area that’s ridiculously difficult again, with creatures with such herculean amounts of health they feel like mini boss fights.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the game’s mechanics and level design itself didn’t get in the way of the combat as well. Invisible walls abound throughout the land, and it’s very easy to find yourself accidentally backed up against one with no indication it was there, while staring down a number of enemies who suddenly have you cornered – an all too familiar death knell in this game. Similarly, the camera often finds itself swinging behind a poorly placed tree branch, wall or rock formation, leaving you blind, usually at a critical moment in battle and the cause of more than one profane rant at my television screen during my time with the game.
When the combat does come together the way Spiders obviously wanted it to, there’s some serious fun to be found. The problem is, for every one thing that goes right, at least one thing will go wrong soon enough that it’ll wash any nice taste you may have had five minutes earlier, and put you back to grinding and swearing.
If there was at least something to go on between the combat missions, there could be a reason to be invested at least. However, the game’s story is utterly derivative of the last twenty years or so of high fantasy fiction. there are seven evil ice lord necromancer type baddies who have mastered a secret power and used an army of medieval zombies to wage war on the land of Vertiel, plunging it into a time of darkness. You play as Vulcan, member of a mercenary band protecting a group of magical healers on their journey to the Elven kingdoms.
Essentially Spiders seem to have played through The Witcher 2 and Dragon Age: Origins and said, “Let’s aspire to that”. Unfortunately, what we get is a weak facsimile of both and a story with no identity of its own. What we do get is shoddy writing that confuses dialogue randomly sprinkled with profanity with ‘edginess’, utterly bland if not downright derivative characters, and poor cinematics with shaky character models and badly lip-synched and matched voice acting. The writing ranges from hilariously awful to downright offensive, as in the case of a particular NPC happily talking about trying to sleep with his wife in a zombified coma. The voice acting isn’t much better, being either terrible for some characters – the male voice for Vulcan, for example, sounds like an L.A. frat boy – to downright odd, as in the case of one obviously Asian character with a Southern, almost hillbilly accent. Accents are, in fact, uniformly all over the place, and while there is a Dragon Age-style companion system the characters are either cookie-cutter or, ahem, ‘heavily inspired’ by other franchises.
One character in particular, a fiesty, possibly evil female mage with a deep, smoky English accent dressed in what basically amounts to fetish gear, goes by the name Edwen but I just found myself calling ‘Not-Morrigan’ due to her unavoidable similarity to the Dragon Age fan-favourite. The characterization doesn’t get better from there, and by the game’s conclusion it’s hard to feel any weight in the Witcher-esque plot decisions as it’s a struggle to find a single character or side to care about.
All in all, Bound by Flame comes across almost like a little kid playing dressup and thinking they’re an adult. Spiders want to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Poland’s CD Projekt Red, another small European team who have taken on the world with their RPG achievements, but what they have proven is how hard that can be. It’s certainly a step in the right direction for them following their previous games, but Bound by Flame again sees them overstretch, creating a game that so badly wants to be a new Witcher or Dragon Age, yet essentially fails to capture what made those games such artistic successes to the point where it simply comes off as a poor man’s knock-off of both.
Spiders are trying. Really, really trying. Unfortunately, so is Bound by Flame.
THE RAIN DOG
Out of a Possible 5 Stars