Bound by Flame

Bound by Flame is an odd game to classify and compare. On paper it has all the makings of a stellar action RPG. But those sentences do not come together as well as one might hope. It’s very similar to games like Dragon Age and Dark Souls, trying to meld intense character-action combat with deep role-playing mechanics. But Bound by Flame’s combat is heavily animation-based, to the point that it feels sluggish during the game’s opening hours. Also, the game’s party system feels underdeveloped and the social interactions are rather pointless. Still, there’s something undeniably charming about Flame and while it may not be as polished or cohesive as it wants be, it still ends up being much better than its first impression implies, or than it really has any right to be.

Bound by Flame takes place in the world of Vertiel, a relatively generic fantasy world that is plagued by a horrible army of zombies. But in Vertiel they’re not called zombies, they’re Deadwalkers. And all of the Deadwalkers are led by the Lords of Frozen Shadows - and if I ever become an evil megalomaniac, I’m totally taking that as my super villain name - which are consistently referred to by their far less cool name, the Ice Lords. The Deadwalker army, regardless of the name of their masters, is wreaking havoc on the world. The lands to the north lie in ruin and your homeland is not faring much better. So, in a last ditch effort to obtain the power to fight the Deadwalkers and their Lords, a group of mages called the Red Scribes enact a secret ritual and hire the Freeborn Blades (a mercenary group of which you are a member) to protect them while they do so. Obviously everything goes awry and the power the Red Scribes sought is channeled into you via demonic possession. This co-pilot you gain manifests itself in the form of fire powers and some (often unintentionally humorous) internal debates.

In terms of gameplay, these fire abilities add a nice layer of depth to an already interesting set of combat mechanics. And being that Bound by Flame is an action RPG, that’s a good thing. Because while you can skip dialogue, cutscenes and side quests, you can’t skip combat. The core of Flame’s combat revolves around light and heavy melee attacks, long-ranged crossbow attacks and proximity explosives combined with four different fire abilities (five if you level your pyromancy all the way up).

The melee combat is expounded upon further by allowing two different stances: Warrior and Ranger. The Warrior stance offers the use of swords, hammers and axes. The Ranger stance allows you to use daggers. Each stance has its advantages and disadvantages with the Warrior stance giving you the ability make stronger but slower attacks and allows you to counter enemies attacks as well as kick them to open up their defenses. The Ranger stance allows for quicker, less potent attacks and removes the counter and kick maneuver in favor of an evasive jump, which actually works much the same way as the Warrior’s counter in that they both can grant the next attack a critical hit if timed correctly.

Magic, crossbows and explosives can be used in either stance and the stance can be changed at the press of a button. Outside of the standard melee combat, which can be leveled up in two different skill trees for both the Warrior and Ranger abilities, our intrepid hero can also call on his or her fire abilities, which comprised the contents of the third and final skill tree. The core pyromantic abilities are a fireball, a radial blast, floating fire orbs that act as a shield and the ability to imbue you melee weapon with fire for extra damage. The combined arsenal of which make most of the time spend with Flame a very rewarding and entertaining ride.

Bound by Flame does not ask you to fight against the Deadwalker alone, however. Throughout the game’s 15-20 hour romp you’ll come in contact with a number of people who will align themselves with you. Like a many RPGs before it, you can take these party members with you on your adventures. But unlike many other RPGs, you have no control over these members. You cannot level them up, give them better loot or assign them anything other than the most routine of base stances. Each party member can assume one of four stances that vary somewhat from character to character. The first three stance are generally similar among the character while the third is a special wholly unique to them (i.e. healing, archery, death magic). This would all be fine and dandy if the characters’ AI were any good. Sadly, all of your party members are completely inept at killing your enemies.

And let’s not forget the other party member, that stowaway spirit of flame. In a somewhat un-developed choice of narrative and game design, you are given several chances to side with or against your new other-half. If you side with your inner demon then you will gain Fable-esque horns and flame vapor will emanate from your visage.  More importantly you will acquire new passive benefits and drawbacks. If you chose to side with the human voice in your head, then nothing really happens.

Early in the game it seemed that if I chose the more humane options that I would have to sacrifice my pyromancy. This is not the case. As a player and as a character, you can fully embrace you pyromaniac tendencies and still remain completely human. This really undermines what Bound by Flame seems to be trying to do with its human/demon duality; by not giving players convincingly challenging dilemmas where siding with a demon seems like a good idea. Instead I only found myself trying the demonic side of things on a second playthrough because I was curious and ultimately disappointed that the differences between a human and demon hero are only skin deep.

This design choice does not, however, work as severely to the game's detriment as I may make it sound because this is the current status quo of choice in video game. Still, with every new game that offers choice and consequence, there's the hope that it will do better than previous games. Bound by Flame doesn't do anything bad with the decision/morality scheme; it's simply no better than other games that have similar systems in place.

Where Bound by Flame does fare worse than many other games like it is in the writing and voice acting departments. Flame tries to have a robust party system filled with characters you can befriend, betray and romance, but it all comes off quite shallow and pointless due to the acting and writing. While I've played plenty of games with far worse acting and writing, it's still a stand out issue. And it's made the more tragic by the fact that you can tell someone on the other end of this game was really trying to give us a compelling narrative.

There are number of points in the game where it felt as though the writer(s) tried to address common issues with the RPG genre. For instance, there's a point in the game, just after you've become possessed, where all of the NPCs are concerned with escaping the Deadwalker army and your character says something to the effect of "Hey, I just lit that guy on fire you're all acting like you're wondering what's for lunch." Later in the game, upon arriving in a small village in which the authority figure besieges you with a set of piddly side quests to complete, your demon-self lashes out at the quest giver, berating him for giving you such meaningless tasks. Sadly, nothing becomes of either of these or similar situations. The NPCs remain concerned with escaping the Deadwalkers and you still have those piddly side quests to complete.

One of the better aspects of Flame is its visuals. While animations, both character and facial, are not great, the world can be quite nice to look while you just playing. Much like the original Dragon Age, it's only when you have close up of characters that you notice how sub par the visuals can be. But overall I found them to be often great, especially the game's lighting. But the absolute best part of Bound by Flame is the soundtrack. It effectively blends haunting and fairy tale invoking tones to make something that is both delightful and unnerving to listen to. One of the better soundtracks I've heard recently to be sure.

Bound by Flame is an exceedingly interesting game. It attempts to join the ranks of games like The Witcher and Mass Effect with its combat and social elements but ultimately falls short. It has everything it needs to succeed, compelling swordplay, magic, crafting and a party system. Sadly, most players will probably find that no single element is good enough to make the game rise out of mediocrity. Even with all of its faults, through a surprising turn of gestalt Bound by Flames comes together as a, while not great, thoroughly entertaining experience. I’d be more than happy to give Bound by Flame 2: Flame Harder a shot were it to happen.

Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.