Bound by Flame is the new morally-charged RPG from Mars: War Logs studio Spiders. Dave Cook talks with project manager Walid Miled about how the thirst for power can irreparably corrupt even the noblest of warriors.
”The moral slant is made more intriguing given that the player’s demonic partner isn’t actually evil. Its motivation is a mystery. The team were keen to avoid making this a choice between good and evil, but to keep things more ambiguous so that vital decisions would be less clear-cut.”
There are a lot of games that offer a degree of moral freedom. In the road to launch, we often hear a lot of hollow promises that players will face excruciating choices with far-reaching, profound ramifications, but in reality the bulk of these titles offer binary decisions with clear-cut outcomes.
It's challenging to write and then develop a game that really nails the crushing duress that comes with a genuinely taxing conundrum, or those that reward moral inclination with tangible change within the world-state.
Fallout, The Walking Dead and Mass Effect are just a few series that go above and beyond the glut of transparent 'good choice, bad choice' games out there, but the point is that developers are certainly getting better at putting us on the spot, kicking us out of our comfort zones and watching us squirm as we stare down narrative junction points with no visible result in sight. We often make a call and soldier onward in the hope that our choice won't come back to bite us further on into the tale.
That's powerful from a story-telling perspective. Creators have recognised this and over the last ten years have become quite fiendish in the way they work morality into their games, and are now designing titles to give gamers a heightened degree of plot ownership. More than ever before we, the players, are the story-creators in essence, and that is a level of interaction and immersion other mediums simply cannot deliver. There are more developers using the interactivity of games in such a manner, and Bound by Flame team Spiders Studio is one of them.
Launching May 9, Bound by Flame is a new action-RPG set in the land of Vertiel; a dark realm that is being smothered by a wave of misery and death caused by the murderous Lords of Ice. After an ancient ritual goes horribly wrong, your hero becomes bound to a demonic spirit that tempts the player with god-like abilities at every juncture. While this power may help bring a degree of peace to the decaying world, the true price is your humanity. Just how far are you willing to sacrifice your very being? That's the question Spiders want you to pain yourself over while playing.
”Similar to BioWare’s morally-charged Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, Spiders is working romance options into its RPG. The story itself will be both dark and mature in keeping with its harrowing setting.”
As you submit yourself to the entity your human appearance will give way to a monstrous veneer, and that's when people around Vertiel and your companions will start to question who you are.
While speaking with project manager Walid Miled over Skype I was told that your fellow adventurers can leave at various points in the quest if they feel they can no longer trust you, and there's also the risk of locking out sections of the plot altogether depending on your inclination. It sounds like a deeper format than your average binary experience.
"It was part of the core at the start," Miled says of the moral system," different endings, companions... how they react, how the quests lock and how other quests open. We had to go through all of this and make sure that the player gets a different feeling depending on the choices in the story, gameplay-wise, and so that the character really evolves visually. This has a real impact on the gameplay, so yeah it was really a core part of the game."
The moral slant is made more intriguing given that the player's demonic partner isn't actually evil. Its motivation is a mystery. Miled and his team were keen to avoid making this a choice between good and evil, but to keep things more ambiguous so that vital decisions would be less clear-cut. Short-term advantages such as unlocking new combat options across the game's three XP-based skill trees may sound tempting, but refusing to submit to the entity will have its own benefits as well. In the end you will end on one of three endings denoting human, demonic and neutral leanings.
"We encourage repeat play in many different ways, " Miled goes on. "There's the gameplay first, because you can really specialise your character's... I could say class, but there are no classes in the game. It's more about your skill tree because you have two fighting styles, so we encourage repeat play in the gameplay and fighting, but also choosing demon or human will make some characters stay and others leave, then there's all those different endings. When the player starts over they can have a totally renewed experience."
”I wouldn’t say it’s a hack-and-slash; we’re not Devil May Cry or God of War. We really tried to keep apart from these references because you do die quite easily, and you really have to think about your strategy before entering a fight. You can’t just go waving your weapon around.”
Similar to BioWare's morally-charged Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, Spiders is working romance options into its RPG. The story itself will be both dark and mature in keeping with its harrowing setting. "Since Of Orcs and Men our games have always been quite adult, in the way the story is told and how the characters speak," Walid explains. "[Bound by Flame] is quite violent, we don't mean our games for kids for sure, and we really try to tell a story we want to tell. We don't compromise for story.
"Romances were a difficult part of the game, but I'd say it was my favourite part of the story. We tried to do them as best as we could, and they could be cheesy [laughs], as it is a romance after all. But we tried to follow [BioWare's] move on this; you can choose to be a man or a female at the beginning of the game, so you have romance with the male or female characters. This, we believe, also increases the replayability of the game, so you can try all of the romance choices."
Bound by Flame is both dark and violent, and also comes with a combat system that is both tough and real-time. This makes the demon spirit's offer of powerful new spells or melee attacks hard to resist, but seasoned players may relish the challenge that comes with paring back their own skill-set and taking the game's bestiary of dark, savage beasts head-on. Parries, stuns, blocking and counters are all at your disposal, and I was assured by Miled that players will need them to perform well in battle.
Standard attacks follow the two-handed Martial Techniques skill tree, while dual-wielding with daggers and sneaky abilities are defined by the Way of the Shadow. Everything else is governed by the entity's Fire Magic options which, as you can imagine, largely consist of big, damaging, explosive spells capable of tearing through foes with a degree of ease. Though the latter may sound like a no-brainer - loss of humanity or not - Spiders wants to ensure that battles will always be hard-fought, considered and never falling into mindless hack-and-slash territory.
”As your hero and their demon talk throughout the plot, they’ll come to understand each other better, and this can only lead to further doubt when staring down a particularly tough conundrum that could ultimately define your quest.”
"Bound by Flame combat is quite hard, "Walid stresses. "We give the player so many ways to enter a fight; you can come in stealthy, trap the whole place, then you have two fighting styles and your fire power. You have a powerful character, so we thought, 'with all this power, we don't the player to get bored,' so enemies are difficult, they're resilient and do lots of damage. You can't just go guns blazing into a fight. You really have to think it through.
"I wouldn't say it's a hack-and-slash; we're not Devil May Cry or God of War. We really tried to keep apart from these references because you do die quite easily, and you really have to think about your strategy before entering a fight. You can't just go waving your weapon around. I wouldn't say we're Dark Souls hard either, as we want to keep it accessible, but we're in between there somewhere. We're not a hack-and-slash [laughs]."
While three skill trees may sound small to those akin to sprawling hardcore RPG experiences, Walid assures me that they are quite large to the point that players will not be able to unlock every ability on a single play-through. There are also Feats which were derived from Spiders' sci-fi RPG Mars: War Logs. He explains that Feat Points are earned with each level, along with two skill points. However, feat abilities can only be purchased after players complete the corresponding task. For example, you can kill 15 enemies to unlock a slight XP boost, which can then be bought if you have enough Feat Points saved up.
This means that progression isn't just about grinding kills and quests, but using your own skills to meet specific objectives. Combat performance is improved by these systems, and are bolstered further by your group of companions in battle, which include burly tank characters, sneaky rogues and protective healers. Losing your favourite ally after an ill-advised submission to the demon inside you or a poor moral choice could prove painful, not to mention ruinous to your budding romances. This negative outcome is entirely possible, I'm told, and the threat of abandonment could sway your decisions for selfish reasons.
I'm already very intrigued to see just how profoundly these moral variables will shape Bound by Flame's malleable tale. As your hero and their demon talk throughout the plot, they'll come to understand each other better, and this can only lead to further doubt when staring down a particularly tough conundrum that could ultimately define your quest. An example given could see players torn between saving a person they're fond of, or a group of individuals they have no attachment to. Will the greater good win here? That's the point.
Bound by Flame already sounds like it will go further than simple 'good and bad' moral mechanics, but we've been burned by such promises before. Based on the above I'm inclined to believe that Spiders is on to a winner here, but a full play-test will serve as proof. Stay tuned for our final impressions in May.