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Bound by Flame

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By Bobfish19-05-2014
StuntmanLT (editor)
MrJenssen (editor)
Bound by Flame

The Defence

Developer:
Spiders
Publisher:
Focus Home Interactive
Genre:
Action, Role Playing
Release Date:
08-05-2014

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 8800
AMD Radeon HD 4850
RAM:
2 GB
HDD:
6 GB
DirectX:
9.0c

The Case

Spiders are still decidedly on the fringe of awareness in the video game world, having had respectable success with Faery: Legends of Avalon for the last generation of consoles, a dabble in the Sherlock Holmes series that Focus continue to publish to this day. And more recently, earning some much deserved, though still generally mediocre, recognition for the flawed but extremely enjoyable Mars: War Logs. Which brings us to today, with their latest offering, a spiritual sequel to War Logs, built on the exact same engine, but adopting a fantasy rather than sci-fi setting. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bound by Flame.

The Trial

Essentially, this is a typical fantasy yarn in the fictional setting of Vertiel. The events of the game take place in the final stages of a vicious war against seven immensely powerful magic users called the Ice Lords. Capable of, as the name indicates, controlling ice as well as raising the dead as cannon fodder. The rank and file of their army, called Deadwalkers, could be loosely identified as zombies. But they are not quite as straightforward as the more commonly known pop culture varieties we see in other games. These undead retain some small degree of cognitive reasoning, as well as all of their martial prowess from their previous lives coupled with any new abilities the Ice Lord they serve has deemed necessary. This makes them a far more viable, and engaging, enemy than in most games. Definitely a good thing since they consist of about 80% of all in game encounters.

Fire at the disco! Fire at the... gates of Verteil.

Fire at the disco! Fire at the... gates of Verteil.

Gameplay itself remains, for all intents and purposes, unchanged from the previously mentioned Mars: War Logs. Flame is built using the exact same engine, tweaked and streamlined, and most definitely backed up by a significantly increased budget. But for all intents and purposes identical to what came before. Not at all a bad thing, as the engine is solidly built, allowing for superb, if not especially groundbreaking, visuals and an effective combat system.

For obvious reasons, the game has been compared almost exclusively to Dragon Age. Something which has only been compounded by the fact Inquisition is due later this year. It’s a perfectly logical comparison. It’s also entirely unjustified. The similarities between the two begin and end in the fact that both are dialogue heavy RPGs in a fantasy setting. Sadly, this state of perceived correlation will overshadow a genuinely fresh and engaging experience that should not be missed. The premise is hardly unique, and the narrative dealing with a flame spirit (convenient eh?) becoming inadvertently bound to a hapless mercenary called Vulcan doesn’t tread any new ground either. But if we were to cast out every new idea that came along simply because we’ve heard similar, we’d never have anything new.

The real strength of Flame’s narrative comes from how it is delivered, as always. Taking into account scripting, which is certainly unique and extremely colourful, and some deliciously understated voice performances. The dialogue is not only viscerally genuine, with every character being a distinct individual with their own turns of phrase and often baffling personal flair, but the delivery is something which breaks the mould completely. For those who favour the very slick, style over substance cool streamlining of a Hollywood blockbuster, this is not for you. For those like myself, who favour a far more fluid, genuine and understated performance (people who sound like people instead of characters) you’ll have a ball.

Hey, look over here!

Hey, look over here!

The general flow of the story is rather engaging too. Though it takes a while to really get rolling, it really begins to suck you in as time goes by. There is a lot, a hell of a lot, of lore thrown in to the way people speak. Not in the “council of the seven sages, from the land of Flange who ruled in the days of Maguffin” way though. The conversation is much more natural, with enough context for even the most unfamiliar aspects to make sense. You may not know the specifics of the particular topic of discussion, but you will always be given enough to know how it relates to your plight.

There’s even a loose morality system thrown in for good measure. It does fall into the twitch inducing binary dichotomy system like many others, but it makes far more sense in this instance. Rather than being a black and white choice between good and evil, right and wrong, it boils down to a much more immediate and personal decision between what you want and what your demonic passenger wants. The actual morality is far more nebulous, rarely even coming into play at all. Your reason for making your choice has nothing to do with right and wrong. It’s a choice between embracing the demon and giving up a piece of your Humanity, sure. But what that actually means is left entirely to your own interpretation.

Unfortunately, these key moments have absolutely no bearing over the ending... almost. The actual climax, no matter what you do, culminates in a showdown with the very essence of life. A being called the Worldheart, which is where both your demon and the powers of the Ice Lords comes from. This actually, in an odd way, works in the games favour. It reinforces the fact that morality really is irrelevant. It makes absolutely no difference why you do something as only the end result is what people see. A very subtle and extremely intelligent theme that will be lost on many, but a damn good one nonetheless.

Run! To! The! Hills!

Run! To! The! Hills!

The final fight itself... urgh. Calling the Worldheart a cheapass bitch would be a severe understatement. Unfortunately, this is further compounded by the game’s combat engine being built in such a way that you can be just as cheap to even the score. It’s good in a way, sure, it makes things a lot less rage inducing. But it also cheapens the experience a great deal. Turning into a battle of the cheap tricks rather than the epic, gruelling showdown it should have been. *Pro-tip, craft a whole bunch of health potions and as many crossbow quarrels as you can.*

The rest of the combat is actually really engaging. Much slower and far more precise than most games on the market now, it relies heavily on timing and intelligent use of your skills which, with three skill trees to choose from, are most decidedly varied. Aside from your demonic fire abilities, which are as fiery and demonic as you would expect, you also have two distinct and complimentary martial styles to choose from. The slow, heavy hitting and brutal Warrior stance and the fast, twin dagger Ranger stance.

The former suited my personal playstyle far better. I’ve always been a fan of the two handed, surgical strike approach to combat. It also just felt more natural in a game that was built to be just this side of cumbersome. There were also more weapon varieties to choose from, which added extra levels of diversity as, for example, swords are slower than axes, whilst hammers are extremely slow but do massive damage. Balancing out damage versus speed made for a more tactical approach to each fight as you had to be more careful with how many blows you would attempt before blocking, as well as the precise timing for countering an enemy attack. Ranger stance, being inherently faster, relied more on rapidly doing small amounts of damage then jumping away from your enemy, or sneaking up on them and stabbing them in the buttocks. Finally, the demon’s fire skills complimented both styles by adding fireball, shield and flame buffs. Making both styles fully viable, decided solely by taste.

Because recycled sentences are the best.

Because recycled sentences are the best.

Visually the game... well, as previously said, it is not the next graphical benchmark. Honestly, it doesn’t stand up, from a purely technical perspective, as anything more than adequate. Art design on the other hand... now that’s a very different story. The poly budget is nothing to brag about, but the use of lighting, colour and varied textures make the game a visual treat to look at. Each new location has its own personal style, with areas flowing seamlessly and organically into one another. Better yet, the system requirements and general optimisation make it an easy game to max out, so a very wide swathe of players will see everything at its best.

The music... dear Gods, where do I even start? The music is incredible. Undeniably the best video game music I’ve heard in years. Each area, again, has a distinct flavour to it. Some being haunting, crooning dream ballads, whilst others are ugly and oppressive. Honestly, not since the days of the Legacy of Kain have I found myself so absorbed in just sitting back to listen. There were times I didn’t even want to start the game because the music at the title screen is a work of true artistic beauty. Whilst some of the locations in games were accompanied by such emotional melodies I often lingered just to listen for a few minutes more.

The Verdict

The long and the short of it folks, is that Bound by Flame is a spectacular game. It came along with a few minor bugs, none of which were gamebreaking, and all are easily rectified by making minor changes in the config file. The issues that kept Spiders’ previous offering from true greatness are (almost) entirely fixed and absolutely everything has been improved. There’s still a ways to go, and a larger budget is still clearly needed for Spiders to hit their full potential, but it really is just a matter of time.

Case Review

  • Characters: Everyone, from the vital main cast to the most underexposed NPC, is an individual.
  • Environments: Spiders understand that art design is crucial, but great music still improves perfection.
  • Music: It simply cannot be overstated just how spectacular the score for this game is. Breathtaking.
  • Bugs: Some very minor quibbles that won’t even register for most players.
  • Final Battle: Cheap. Just cheap.
4
Score: 4/5
A beautiful work of art.

Appeal

Bound by Flame certainly satisfies the action RPG craving though it’s not perfect. First, the bad: the dialogue made me wince on more than one more occasion (one of the NPCs referring to a group of individuals as a ‘bunch of scrotums’ made me gigglesnort) and voice performances, whilst not wholly terrible, are definitely lacklustre. Aesthetically, this game is quite bland, with its colour palettes rarely straying from muted, dark tones. I also experienced glitchy HUD icons that, whilst they never seriously interfered with playing the game, were a little distracting at times.

That said, Bound by Flame is otherwise very well visually optimised for lower end machines (such as my trusty laptop) and ran smoothly consistently. Its hack-and-slash gameplay is a lot of fun and has just the right amount of complexity once you’ve found the fighting stance that suits you best. You’ve got two to choose from, each with their own associated skill tree: the warrior stance (heavy hitting but slow) and the ranger stance (nimble, quick, but doesn’t pack quite as big a punch). You’re introduced to the warrior stance first and I died about three times alone in that portion of the tutorial. Even on the easier difficulty settings, death was frequent for me. Thankfully, the game’s checkpoint and saving system was much more forgiving (and created saves just as frequently). You’re likely to die a lot but because of the save system you can dust yourself off and get right back to it with minimal fuss. It’s worth noting that your health slowly regenerates over time too so, if things are threatening to take a dire turn during combat, you can easily run and find a place to hide for a bit before getting back to it (the game’s enemies seemed oddly slow and reluctant to pursue me the few times I did this).

Bound by Flame has tons of swagger and only stumbles a little in the process. Combat is competent and enjoyable though presentation leaves a bit to be desired here and there. Also, having flame demon powers is awesome and having the choice of playing as a flame demon possessed lady is one I certainly appreciated being offered.

3
Score: 3/5

Appeal

It's been a long time since a major studio came along and made a solid dark fantasy RPG, and Bound by Flame provides exactly that, but there are a few issues. The first is that Bound by Flame is only a snack to hold your appetite, not a meal like Dragon Age or Dragon's Dogma, and at $40 for only ten or so hours of gameplay for a full playthrough it's a pretty expensive snack too. That being said, Bound by Flame nails the basics of the classic DA gameplay formula with its rewarding leveling, character customization, replay value, and even improves some aspects like interactivity, but the big problem lies with the characters and story.

The two things that a good RPG does is gameplay and characters, and while Bound by Flame is great with gameplay, most the characters are just boring. You have all the necessary support characters; you have the fighter, the wizard, the healer, the archer, but the characters feel like they're just those roles instead of people you care about. This makes the story harder to enjoy too since you're not getting that feeling of fighting alongside your allies in this war, instead you feel like you're fighting alone while your tag-along NPC follows you and manages to aggro an enemy if you're lucky. One of the many examples of the lackluster characters is found pretty early on when you're tasked with killing some zombified soldiers who were wrecking the town. That's fine, typical fantasy story but the problem comes in after you killed those soldiers and the captain, who was probably good friends with those soldiers, comes in and jokingly says "This whole business is s***" with a completely straight face as if it was a day-to-day task, and then gives you your next quest before completely disappearing as soon as you regain control of your character. Characters just aren't flushed out or interesting enough to make the player care about them, which is unfortunate because it has a plot that could have provided for some really touching scenes and an engrossing story if only you cared more about the characters.

Bound by Flame is great from a gameplay perspective, especially for the western RPG starved of us out there, but if your craving anything more than combat and good looking equipment, then your money will probably be better off saving for Dragon Age: Inquisition later this year.

3.5
Score: 3.5/5
Comments (1)
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Posts: 3290

Jess, were we playing the same game? o.O

As I'm sure you can see from ym peekchurz, there's certainly a lot of colour to be found. Makes me wonder if you missed most of it because of playing at lower spec maybe?