Had I known two things beforehand, I might have thought twice before parting with cash to buy Bound by Flame. The first is that the trailer was cleverly cut to make the game look more fast-paced and entertaining than it actually is, and second is that the game was developed by the same team that made Mars: War Logs.
Now, I kind of liked Mars: War Logs despite its numerous flaws, and that’s exactly what Bound by Flame is: a re-skinned version of Mars: War Logs. The slow-paced combat works exactly the same way, the armour and weapon upgrading works exactly the same way, the crafting system works exactly the same way, the small maps and hub-based quests work exactly the same way, and you even get a single sidekick who you cannot control in any way, just like in Mars: War Logs.
It even has three skill trees corresponding directly to the ones in Mars: War Logs. They’re the usual fighter, rogue and mage archetypes that you get in every RPG. They’re called Combatant, Renegade and Technomancer in M:WL, and Warrior, Ranger and Pyromancer in Bound by Flame. That’s some staggering originality there. Anyway, I think I’ve made my point that Bound by Flame is basically a fantasy wallpaper pasted over its predecessor, so I’ll stop bringing it up now.
Bound by Flame is set in a fantasy world – or at least what’s left of one – that is threatened by an encroaching eternal winter that brings with it armies of walking dead led by several evil lords. It’s a bit like someone took the Night’s Watch bit out of Game of Thrones and stretched it out into a full story. You create and customise your character, picking your gender and a paltry handful of faces and hairstyles, and then name them – which is odd considering that whatever name you choose, NPCs call you Vulcan regardless. Or sometimes Volcan. Vulcan, Volcan… they can’t seem to make up their minds.
Anyway, Vulcan/Volcan is a member of a mercenary company called the Freeborn Blades, who have been hired by a group of sages to protect them while they perform a dangerous ritual upon which hinges the last hope for their dying world. But, as you might have anticipated, something goes wrong, the ritual goes haywire, and Vulcan/Volcan is somehow fused with the spirit of an irate fire demon. Long story short, the fire demon offers Vulcan/Volcan the power to defeat the undead legions – but at what cost?
The whole fire demon dilemma is one of the touted highlights of the game. All the promo material says things like “accept the demonic power or hold on to your humanity”, as if it was going to be some kind of struggle drawn out over the course of the game to walk a fine line between using the demonic power only when necessary, or giving in to it completely for a much easier time. That’s what it sounded like – but that’s not what it delivers. I reached a single decision point early on in the game, where I decided to accept the demon’s help in a certain situation – a decision which all the NPCs seemed to think might be a good idea, just this once – and boom, Vulcan/Volcan was fast-tracked to slowly evolving into a crispy-fried critter with twisty horns poking out the top of her head with no further input or decisions from me.
So, on the basis of a one-time decision to let the demon have its way, my choice was locked in. And to make matters worse, the demonic power doesn’t make the game any easier – in fact, it makes hardly any difference at all, giving you a few barely noticeable buffs that supposedly increase the effectiveness of the irredeemably pathetic Pyromancer skill tree. Sure, in the cut-scenes and choreographed action scenes, demon-enabled Vulcan/Volcan is badass, but it would have been nice to see it recognised in the gameplay too.
If you want an example of how to do this kind of thing right, look at Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, a game in which the player-character also has a barely-contained, destructive alter-ego that they could choose to unleash in combat. It was tempting, because the alter-ego was so powerful that even bosses were trivial – but the drawback was that using it too much would destroy the world and end the game. See, that’s how you do it: a genuine, strong temptation with a very real consequence.
Aside from that, Bound by Flame is rather average in other areas. In each chapter of the game, you find yourself in a new map full of enemy-filled areas that you’ll revisit over and over again as you pursue the main quest and the handful of side-quests. You’ll find new weapons and crafting items along the way which you can use to buff your character – standard stuff. The combat, slow and sticky though it is, is actually quite tactical and will pound you into the dirt if you try to simply brute force your way through.
And then there are the NPCs. There are several you can recruit over the course of the game, taking one of them on missions with you as you see fit. The developers clearly wanted to take things in a sort of Mass Effect direction here, but the game is over far too quickly for anything much to happen.
The ending is disappointing too. On the whole, I liked some things about Bound by Flame. So, is it worth checking out if you’re an avid RPG fan? Well, if you can, and are inclined to, I don’t see why not. But is it worth the eight hundred bucks I paid for it?