Bound By Flame is the new action-RPG from Mars: War Logs developer Spiders. While it delivers a tough and mature take on the fantasy genre, can it roll with the big players like Skyrim and The Witcher? Dave Cook plays the final PS4 code to find out.
”I was certainly conflicted, and I guess that’s what a good, challenging moral decision should feel like in a game. Spiders clearly doesn’t want to blatantly sign-post your morality like Mass Effect’s Paragon or Renegade meters, but I’d maybe have liked a little more clarity on the matter.”
Dave's over six hours into the PS4 version, so while these are impressions on the final code, these are purely his opinions on those first hours. As such, you can consider this article spoiler-free.
Is nothing safe from Game of Thrones? I mean, beards are back in fashion to the point that I want to lop mine off, dragons are fucking everywhere and I'm sick of people telling me to catch up with the TV show because I clearly don't know what I'm missing. Clearly.
Why bring this up? Well, watchers of HBO's fantasy show will know that the residents of Westeros have no qualms about dropping F-bombs and C-grenades at the drop of a sword, and that vibe seems to have made its way into Bound By Flame, a dark and violent RPG featuring characters who really need to get themselves a swear jar or three. At least that way they'd always have enough coin to buy new gear from the game's over-priced merchants. Gouging bastards.
Developer Spiders seems to be going for a blend of Mass Effect and The Witcher in Bound By Flame. It's set in the harrowing world of Vertiel which is being attacked by the ruthless Ice Lords, a troupe of necromancers and warriors from an ancient time who want nothing more but to see the land converted into a desolate, icy waste devoid of life. It's a grim setting that - to the studio's credit - really does feel as if it's on the brink of ruin thanks to depressed NPC anecdotes and ravaged locales, but it all looks too dated to feel tangible.
As a last-ditch effort, a group known as the Red Scribes tries to harness the power of a demon to use against the Ice Lords. It all goes tits-up, naturally, and the entity ends up bound to your hero, a Freeborn Blades mercenary called Vulcan. It's an interesting set-up, seeing as the demon is neither inherently evil nor interested in the plight of mortals, and it'll offer you god-like power along the way in exchange for your humanity. That's entirely your choice of course, but it'll affect how others see you. I'm still not sure what its motives are.
”It’s a clunky, gruelling combat mechanic that I just know some RPG fans will enjoy due to its strategic nature, but I feel others will yearn for something a tad slicker. This is an entirely personal preference.”
There's no clearly-defined 'good or evil' moral barometer in this game, so I was never quite sure where certain characters stood with me based on my actions.
As expected, they'll bitch and moan at certain narrative junction points, like when I decided to join the Elven King in battle against the Ice Lords. Some of my companions threw the rattle out because they felt the monarch would betray me once the fight was through, while others assured me I had done the right thing.
I was certainly conflicted, and I guess that's what a good, challenging moral decision should feel like in a game. Spiders clearly doesn't want to blatantly sign-post your morality like Mass Effect's Paragon or Renegade meters, but I'd maybe have liked a little more clarity on the matter, even to just put my own mind at ease. Evil or not, the demon does bestow Vulcan with fire magic that helps tip the odds in Bound By Flame's challenging combat mechanic.
This is where The Witcher comparisons come into play, as battles are played out using a variety of stances and tricks to meet certain enemy types and scenarios. Whether I was fighting a small, mindless arachnid creature or throwing down with an intelligent and ruthless pack of enemies, I was relieved every time I made it out of an encounter alive. It's seriously that hard on the upper difficulty levels, and one boss got so brutal in fact, that I had to switch from the third-hardest tier to easiest just to proceed.
It was a poorly designed encounter that suffered from having a boss that was too big in an area that was too small, to the point that his attacks were barely escapable. Even while blocking I was taking what appeared to be full damage with little feedback as to why this was happening. I suspect - because it was an ice-based enemy - that this was elemental damage, but the fact that I have to guess shows how unclear the rules are. It's a scrappy combat mechanic at best.
Vulcan's primary attack mode is sword-based, and sees him or her dishing out slow, powerful blows and using knee strikes to stagger shielded opponents. If you want to deploy faster strikes in rapid succession you can switch to a pair of daggers which also enable you to perform last-minute dodge manoeuvres, followed by a swift counter-attack. It's fine on paper and I like the idea of having you switch methods mid-fight, but in practice there are several frayed ends in the mechanics that never knot together.
For example; the window between enemy attacks is so small that I couldn't safely land a hit between blows using the slow, heavy sword. Parrying then countering doesn't help either, so I found myself having to switch to my daggers just to get a few hits in, except they do so little damage that battles often became long, drawn-out affairs. While each victory feels hard-earned through sheer perseverance and anger, it's not exactly what I'd call gratification, and the problem is multiplied when you have a gang of enemies forcing you into a corner.
”The male Vulcan sounds quite stoic at times, but all too often he comes out with cringe-worthy dialogue and reams of expletives. It’s all ‘fuck’ this and ‘we’re up to our asses in that,’ and this really does dent the credibility of what the cast are saying.”
The demon's flame spells and crossbow bolts offer ranged attacks to help give you breathing room, but they also do little damage to begin with and feel redundant as a result. If you're smart about it you can spring surprise dagger attacks using the fairly basic stealth mechanic, which can be useful for knocking a huge chunk of an enemy's health away before the fight even begins, although this does alert all nearby enemies in the surrounding area to your whereabouts, rendering it near-useless.
It's a clunky, gruelling combat mechanic that I just know certain RPG fans will enjoy, but I feel others will yearn for something much, much slicker. This is an entirely personal preference, yet I do like the fact that you can issue behavioural commands to your AI companions on top of this, such as relaying a heal order, having them block more often, or calling for full-on aggression.
This, along with being able to set traps in the environment, and all the mechanics mentioned previously makes for something that could have been a dense combat experience, but it just feels sloppy, like a pub brawl where everyone's too sloshed to properly wield their swords. It's not a hack-and-slash game by any means, and again I feel some people will actually like that fact.
While combat is a subjective issue, one glimmering positive is the crafting mechanic that - while hardly deep or inventive - does enable players to tailor weapons and gear with new properties. Adding poison resistance to a helm or increasing the critical chance of your blade is as simple as applying the correct materials into a crafting slot, and these buffs can be swapped out for others to help you meet certain challenges. It's possible to remove ice resistance from your gear and swap it for flame defence when faced with a fire-spewing monster, for example. Best of all, you don't need a crafting bench to make such changes.
I also liked the fact that you level up quite fast, thanks to generous XP rewards and an abundance of side-quests dotted around each area. If anything it makes you feel like you're always being rewarded with new skill points and abilities for your actions, but most of these side tasks are menial, such as delivering a message or donating supplies to an ill-equipped doctor.
Others come with their own mid-bosses and stories that give more weight to the overarching world, but they never hit Fallout: New Vegas levels of relevance, imagination or excitement. It's apparent that a lot of work has gone into fleshing out Vertiel's lore, but it's largely wasted thanks to the rote questing, dire acting and crummy dialogue.
The male Vulcan sounds quite stoic at times, but all too often he comes out with cringe-worthy dialogue and reams of expletives. It's all 'fuck' this and 'we're up to our asses in that,' and this really does dent the credibility of what the cast are saying. The female avatar suffers from far worse acting than her peer, and in a game that's aiming to place narrative immersion and serious consequence at the fore, that's an unfortunate error.
”I’d like to see more from this team, given the effort that’s gone into the world, the thoughtful – if not clumsy – combat system, and the interesting dynamic between Vulcan and his demonic partner.”
My partner also started her own campaign as the female Vulcan, and was quite puzzled and dismayed when all of the world's NPCs and companions kept on referring to her character as male. This suggests that the addition of a female character option was more of an after-thought than an embedded feature. It's a let-down that really shouldn't fly these days.
Bound By Flame comes at that annual time where the big releases are starting to slow - save for Watch Dogs and a few other titles of course - and gamers will find themselves looking for something 'off-beat' to fill the gap. As its first big, expansive release, Spiders could have done much worse as a smaller studio, and while it's clear this was never going to match juggernauts like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, it misses the mark on several common sense occasions.
I know the studio has several games under it belt already, but certainly nothing of this size, and that was in the back of my mind whenever I felt irritated by the combat or difficulty. Perhaps it bit off more than it could chew here, but I'd still like to see more from this team, should it ever be given a larger budget and better tools to work with.
I'm keen to press on and see where Vulcan and the demon's inner conflict leads, and whether or not the entity truly is evil, so to that end I guess Bound By Flame has me invested, but it's a rapidly diminishing interest.
Based on what I've said here, I hope that you'll have a fairer idea of how you'll approach it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go swear at a fucking mage or something.
Disclosure: to assist in writing this article, Koch Media send Dave a PS4 copy of Bound By Flame.