Chris Capel has been called "flaming" on more than one occasion. Now he knows why
I wrote an article recently calling 2014 "the year of the RPG", detailing all the fantastic RPGs that are coming out this year, but the one type that was lacking was good-looking next-gen action RPGs. The Witcher 3 is now 2015, Dragon Age: Inquisition is partly tactical, so that leaves Dark Souls II and a little upstart called Bound By Flame. Made by the team at Spiders (Mars: War Logs, Of Orcs And Men), Bound By Flame is their attempt at the big leagues. Up until now their games have been "good but not great". Hopefully this game will at least break into "pretty damn good actually" territory.
Of course the goodness doesn't start with the character creator, which is so bad I'm actually going to spend a whole paragraph talking about it. You can be a man or a woman, choose from a small handful of hair types, choose your name, and that's basically it. Why bother? Then just to add insult to apathy, no matter what name you type in everyone just calls you by the default name "Vulcan" anyway. What. Was. The point. If you're not going to give us any choice Spiders then don't offer it in the first place - it didn't do The Witcher any harm, so do it properly and don't half-ass things or just give us a well-designed main character, otherwise the player will start the game with a sour taste in their mouth already.
Well, I'm f***ed
Fortunately things get better, even if certain elements of the story will be familiar. You play Vulcan, a member of mercenary outfit the Freeborn Blades who have been hired to protect a group of magicians called the Red Scribes as they attempt a dangerous ritual. The Deadwalker Army, commanded by the Ice Lords of the North, is conquering or destroying all in their path. This ritual was hoped to stop them, but instead it summons a Fire Demon that binds itself to Vulcan. While it gives him unique powers that may help turn the tide of the war it may prove to be a curse more than a blessing. Dun dun DUNNN.
I'll give Spiders their due, the story of Bound By Flame is actually pretty cool. Despite a few blatant "influences" (an ice-based army of the dead? I'm surprised no one says "Winter Is Coming" at all) and some odd spelling and translation issues I got into the plot in a big way. It gets really bleak, and the regular choices you have to make such as hastening the war's end or saving your friends add to the experience. It's no Witcher and most of them peter out but I appreciate having some all the same, and you can even end up with some of your companions actively trying to kill you. Those companions veer between likeable (Mathras the Posh English Zombie), dull (most of the others), and Morrigan from Dragon Age with less clothes on (Edwen, even her voice sounds the same). The biggest choice-consequence thing incidentally you don't find out about until it's too late, which is if you keep using your demonic powers you become more and more demonic in appearance. This is a bit of pain really since I wish the game told me that before I grew horns out of my head and was left unable to use helmets. Plus those demon fire powers are really hard to resist.
To say why I have to talk about Bound By Flame's combat. Definitely similar to The Witcher 2 and Dark Souls, although in reality it's actually a more evolved version of the system Spiders made for Mars: War Logs. It's in real-time, although you can pause the action by hitting the Tactical Menu key (default Tab) to activate powers, use health or mana potions, or even give general orders to companions (just use ranged attacks, keep you healed, play defensively, that kind of thing). You can assign four of these commands to numbers 1-4 if you don't want to pause the game every time you want to throw a fireball or fire a crossbow bolt. There are two combat stances as well - Warrior (two-handed weapons, more powerful but can't dodge) and Ranger (two daggers, quicker and can dodge and riposte) that you'll have to choose between.
Edwen, the witch of the, er, wilds. And yes, you can see her nipples. At least you can ask "aren't you cold?"
The combat in general is pretty good. I compered it to Witcher 2 and Dark Souls which basically means you have to take your time with enemies and don't just wade in there and start slashing. You have to think tactically, overcome their defences and block their attacks. Patience is definitely a virtue, and so it's a big bugger if you can't use your Pyromancer powers to give you an edge. I basically said "f**k it" and used them all the time, and my Vulcan ended up looking like the bastard offspring of Sauron and the Balrog. And yet I still barely beat the game. It's certainly difficult even on Normal, not quite Dark Souls level of punishing but certainly challenging in places.
And that's mostly down to the one thing Spiders forgot to take from Witcher 2 and Dark Souls: a dodge-roll move. Without it there's no easy way to avoid powerful attacks, and in the second half of the game I ditched the Warrior stance entirely because at least Ranger stance has a backwards jump-dodge move that proved utterly essential. Otherwise if you get knocked down it's guaranteed that an enemy will take off most of your health or kill you before you can get up. There's one particular scream-inducing duel against the knight Randval (who talks about himself in the third person) where this happens a lot, and even though it's a friendly duel between friends you can still die. Spiders obviously forgot to program "failure without death" into the game.
Bound By Flame looks fairly nice, although not spectacularly next gen. Voice acting similarly is good but not great, but it's miles better than the usual Focus Interactive RPG standard of "terrible" as seen in Game of Thrones: The Game. Music is a highlight, with some lovely otherworldly tunes. I also usually hate item crafting in RPGs but it's pretty essential here, and fortunately is kept simple to the point where I actually was actively and addictively recycling armour rather than selling it. The menus are also pretty clear and unobtrusive, although I wish you could see the entire map rather than just the immediate area. Right, now I've gone through my reviewer's checklist of little things to mention I can talk about the biggest problem with Bound By Flame.
Some of the enemy design is actually pretty good
To put no fine a point on it, Bound By Flame is cheap. Not in a "cheap deaths" way, as apart from a couple of points it's usually tricky but fair once you get used to it. I mean cheap in that there hasn't been a corner left uncut in this game. Yes it's slightly less expensive to buy new than most third-person action RPGs (£29.99/$39.99 on Steam), but there's a massive gulf between this and even Game of Thrones. I've mentioned the pointless character creator, but for my main example every single location in the game is just a series of narrow corridors with a few slightly-more-open areas to fight people in. Want more? At one point you're told you're meeting up with a giant army of elves and men and it turns out to be three blokes huddled around a campfire. There are five Ice Lords in the game's lore, but guess how many you face? One, who coincidentally enough is the guy who's supposed to have the smallest army. Finally the ending is a slow pan across the area you faced the final boss in followed by a fade to black, and most of your companions don't show up for it. Spiders didn't even bother to put in an animated cutscene, you're just left to assume your actions had some consequences. The huge war against the Deadwalkers is all told, never shown. Mars: War Logs was at least honest about trying to be a cut-price RPG, but Bound By Flame is much the same, more expensive to buy, and is only a little improved. I haven't even mentioned how you're only allowed one companion at a time and they frequently get caught on scenery.
BOUND BY FLAME VERDICT
Spiders wanted Bound By Flame to be their big breakout hit but penny-pinching on theirs or their publisher’s side will hold them back. The combat system works pretty well once you get over the lack of a roll button and it actually gets very satisfying as soon as you get used to it, as well as level up a bit. Despite the lack of a real resolution the story is pretty intriguing and compellingly bleak, although I wish there were more actual choices rather than “you’ve used magic too much, now you can’t wear helmets and your voice has broke”. The game looks pretty good and despite some dodgy translation issues the dialogue is written and spoken well too. None of this matters though because the entire game consists of running up and down corridors for 15 hours followed by an abrupt close-up of a tree! The entire war never appears and most consequences are forgotten. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, then don’t get it. Yes it did satisfy that a-bit-less-hard-than-Dark Souls-please RPG itch while I played it, but Bound By Flame is not a game I’ll be returning to. Shame. Make the corridors a bit wider next time please.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Mathras the zombie, with his posh English accent, cane, and powerful magic spells. Walk around camp with him and listen to the cries of “aah! Deadwalker! Kill it!”.