Bound by Flame has had my attention for some time during its development and road to release. It is the second game by developer, Spiders Game Studio, the first being the ambitious but rubbish XBLA title Mars War Logs. That game suffered from trying to be bigger than the budget and capability of the studio allowed and ended up being a messy poor gaming experience but did feel that with a bigger team and budget it could have been much better. Could the developer get it right with a big AAA title in ‘Bound by Flame’?
Well the short answer is, no. The same problem that plagued ‘Mars War Logs’ for this developer sadly makes a return for ‘Bound for Flame’. The story is set in the fantasy world of Vertiel which has been taken over by Seven Ice Lords and their armies. Their power has swept across the land leaving on the Red Scribes still fighting for the people and its people. The Scribes are searching to even the odds by performing a ritual that could return an old and ancient power capable of taking the fight back to the Ice Lords. The game places you in the role of ‘Vulcan’, a mercenary working to protect the Red Scribes.
The main character can be customised before the game begins but limited to choosing the preset hair styles and faces provided to shape your hero. You can choose to have a female hero however the dialogue in the game fails to take this into account with game characters still referring to you as a male even if you have picked a female player model. The Customisation is not very inspiring, especially in the very limited options if you want a female character, but does allow you to make your own hero for the story.
Spiders Game Studio often falls in the trap of trying to emulate the elements of other more successful games in the same genre of the title they are working on. In the case of Bound for Flame, being a fantasy game with swords, magic and monsters, Spiders has clearly looked to the more successful ‘Witcher’ series in the same way that ‘Mars War Logs’ took inspiration from ‘Mass Effect’. The game uses the Witcher 2 style of putting the story in a location, having the player run around exploring this area completing various side and main story missions before the story and game moves on to the next location and repeats the process. At the beginning of the game this is a nice way to get Vulcan levelled up and for the various tutorial elements to run their course such as learning how the combat will work for Bound for Flame. As the game continues, the sheer lack of effort in making the side quests interesting really starts to drag the pace of both the story and the gameplay down to a crawl. Being forced to revisit the same areas of the current location in order to complete various side quests, serves as nothing more than a forced grinding session to level up. As your character levels up so do the enemies you encounter which makes early combat in the game a chore at times.
The combat gives the player three different styles in which to use. The fighter stance is the basic style of using a broadsword for sweeping attacks and the option to break an enemy’s position by using B to kick them. The second stance is “Ranger” which sees Vulcan switch from broadsword to two short swords allowing for quick flurry attacks head on and a more stealth option to sneak up on enemies to deliver a quick attack from the shadows and the ability to dodge backwards which replaces the ability to kick. The third option of Pyromancer uses the powers of the demon within you, augmenting your attacks with fire. Each stance can be switched between on the fly giving you options to change tactics during battle depending on what is needed. It is a combat system I enjoyed but it has its flaws. The camera can be locked onto a specific enemy but you have the ability to move in a 360 degree range, so during a flurry of attacks if not careful you can find yourself changing the direction to face ending the run of attacks.
As you level up you can enhance each fighting style to make them more powerful which will then unlock more abilities. Weapons and armour can be upgraded with the raw materials you find as you explore the world and can be done on the more or purchased via black smiths and general merchants. Both weapons and armour can be upgraded to give them aspects that will augment your ability such as stronger attacking power, more chance to interrupt the attack or an enemy or resistance to elemental and magical attacks. Visually these show in the how the look of the armour or weapons look on screen which is a nice cosmetic touch. But ultimately that is where the RPG side to Bound by Flame ends. It feels very basic and in terms of the weaponry you can find and enhance, they all feel very samey when used in battle that it becomes mostly a cosmetic thing when picking what weapons to use.
Bound by Flame also borrows from Dragon’s Dogma in how you can have an assistant character to help you in combat who can be told to be either defensive, aggressive or a combination of the two, to aid you in battle. The character you team with is at times pre-determined by the story but for a good portion of the game you can hand pick the help. Depending on which character you go for, another soldier class or a character like Edwen who can use magical attacks but also can heal you during combat, will change how you going into battle. But I often found that the AI of the extra character could be a hindrance at times. Even if I had told a more magic based character to be more aggressive in combat, they would end up being surrounded by enemy’s and just standing there defending until I got to them to help out. They just never seemed to be able to take care of themselves enough so I often just chose Edwen who could heal me as I pretty much took care of every fight. The combat needed more precision; it often felt clumsy and frustrating and lacks the refinement of the combat system from the Witcher series after taking great lengths to borrow so many aspects from those games.
For me the main failing in this game is the execution of the story. The voice acting is very poor with dialogue scenes between characters quickly becoming a “how can I skip this” exercise then a vehicle to get to know the characters. With Vulcan having an American accent but surrounded by British and the standard overly used attempt to mimic old medieval style language, it really feels out of place. The dialogue for the female characters is so cringe worthy with how they are spoken to and referenced in the game that you end up rolling your eyes at so much of the content. Cut scenes are so bad at times you do question why they were included at all. Scenes that show Vulcan having a conversation with the demon in his head but with him speaking out loud and only after five minutes of conversation will a character standing right next to you suddenly ask “who are you talking with?”.
The story and game is also very short. The story constantly repeats the dangers of the seven Ice Lords yet you only do battle with one of them before the game sharply ends. With three possible endings which are supposedly based on the decisions you make during the game but really ends up more like the ending to Mass Effect 3 where you are told to make a choice that ends the game, regardless really of any decision you have made up to that point. The world itself is limited by the moving from location to location style of storytelling because you only really visit five locations in the entire world that you do have to consider if Bound by Flame was even meant to be a full AAA title because it never feels like enough game to warrant a full retail disc release.
Overall ‘Bound by Flame’ has the very same issues that plagued ‘Mars War Logs’. It borrows too much from other games and executes them poorly. There is nothing original in Bound by Flame and its many problems and short cut taking steps to put the game together taint the game experience. The musical score is the only element to the game that appears to have had any time truly spent on it to deliver something special. A story that fails to hold up to the game’s ending, characters so wooden and one dimensional that you struggle to see any need for them in the game at all and a main character that just feels out of place every time they speak any dialogue in any cut scene.
The game is poor across the board, what it tries to copy or emulate from other games it does badly. Spiders Game Studio so far have released two games which have attempted to stand up against other bigger titles by taking the best aspects from them and copying them but failing to do them justice making them look second rate in comparison and the failings are passed on to the player. Bound by Flame is another example of what happens when you try to do what others have done better before and delivers a poor experience for the trouble. One to avoid.
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