Playing with fire

With the popularity of games like Skyrim and TV shows like Game of Thrones, it’s no surprise to see other media creators wanting to strike while the high-fantasy iron is hot. It’s going to take a lot more than just knights clanging swords together or wizards weaving random spells to break through in this suddenly crowded category, however.

The latest property looking for its slice of the high-fantasy pie is the action-RPG Bound by Flame. Here, seven necromantic magicians known as the Ice Lords are trying to conquer the world of Vertiel with their undead army, which has yet to meet defeat in a single battle after 10 years of conflict. All is not lost, though. You play as a mercenary nicknamed “Vulcan” who’s tasked with protecting the Red Scribes, an order of magicians performing one last desperate act to possibly sway the tide of war back in the favor of humanity. When the summoning ceremony is interrupted, the spirit the Scribes call forth possesses Vulcan, bequeathing him with unfathomable power and possibly the last chance to overthrow the Ice Lords.

Bound by Flame is a perfect example of wasted potential. It does things I wish big-budget games with long-lasting pedigrees would do, but it can’t get the very basics of the genre right. This dichotomy caused me to love the game one moment and hate it the very next.

One thing Bound by Flame nails is the crafting and upgrades. RPG players will be familiar with the clutter of screens on the menu they’ll have to sort through, but once they do, they’ll find a simple system that, from the very beginning of the game, allows crafting of traps, health potions, crossbow bolts, and even the ability to make better materials out of existing ones, such as tempered steel out of three pieces of raw steel. Players can even craft and customize specific parts of their weapons. Adding a new hilt to a sword could up its critical-hit chance, while a new pommel could increase its total damage output. The system is completely straightforward, and as long as you have the parts, you can pause at any time to instantly make your desired item.

Another aspect that I thoroughly enjoyed—and was quite shocked by—was the shades of gray each choice the game introduced. Many titles, including Mass Effect, Fable, and inFAMOUS, have a moral system of some sort, and Bound by Flame is no different. In those games, though, I always found myself easily making the “right” choice, the decision that led me to unlocking the “good guy” branch of an upgrade tree or ensuring that all the people of these virtual worlds would love me. Bound by Flame actually had me thinking about these decisions, and for the first time ever, I found myself playing the bad guy on my first playthrough. Never before has the “good” decision been this difficult. No matter what I did, I’d be sacrificing something, and in the end, I typically chose the “worse” moral option. And, like in many of those other games, the world, my character, and the story changed accordingly to follow my choices.

Since Bound by Flame is able to do things like this, however, it only makes the game’s shortcomings even more painful. While the story is rather bland in and of itself, following your typical high-fantasy fare of medieval themes punctuated with wizards and magic and a world in peril, it in no way compares to how boring the game’s world looks. Five of the most generic environments you’ll ever see comprise the entirety of Bound by Flame—it seems as if the world designer was using a color-by-numbers chart instead of real artistic flair when concocting Vertiel.

A bland environment can be overlooked, though, if you’re neck deep in engaging combat. Unfortunately, this is Bound by Flame’s fatal flaw. Even after leveling up and getting better weapons and upgrades, you’ll still spend most of your time having to resort to hit-and-run tactics where you get close to an enemy, slash a few times, and then run away and let your health and magic refill. Then, you just rinse and repeat until your undead foes fall. The worst part of all this? Many enemies, even the weakest skeletons, take dozens of hits, turning each encounter into a marathon that had me just running straight toward my objectives and ignoring every enemy I could by the end of the game.

And what makes matters even worse is your friendly AI. You can take one of the four characters that join your party throughout the game with you when you go adventuring. They’re all worthless, though, except as distractions to split the attention of larger forces up. Whether it’s Sybil the healer, Edwen the dark mage, Randval the warrior, or Rhengar the ranger, each one is no better than fodder for your enemies. You’ll run around in circles, hacking and slashing and hoping you take out the group of enemies by yourself so that you can quicksave again and not have to redo any section of combat. Between your brain-dead AI allies and the tactics you’re forced to resort to, this is easily some of the most horribly balanced combat I’ve ever seen in an RPG.

It feels like Bound by Flame couldn’t get out of its own way. By trying to institute some interesting systems and provide some difficulty when making your decisions, developer Spiders forgot to focus on the basics. Without that foundation, the game simply can’t stand on its own. Even though I don’t regret playing Bound by Flame, I can’t really recommend it, either, unless you so desperately need a fantasy fix that you’d rather power through the problems than risk having missed it. You can’t say I didn’t warn you, though, when you get burned.

Developer: Spiders • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.09.14
For every great thing Bound by Flame does, it messes up critical gameplay components like the combat. There’s this sense that the game can’t get out of its own way, and only die-hard high-fantasy fans that aren’t afraid of getting torched by a budget title should check this one out.
The Good An easy-to-use, streamlined crafting and upgrades system.
The Bad Combat is cumbersome and friendly AI is useless.
The Ugly The world might’ve been designed with a paint-by-numbers program.
Bound by Flame is available on PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.