Bound by Flame is the latest title from French development team Spiders, and their first to appear on a current-gen console. Known for a few previous Sherlock Holmes games and most recently Mars: War Logs, their latest release is a fantasy-medieval action-RPG romp through the realm of Vertiel.
Your Bound by Flame adventure places you in the boots of Vulcan, a male or female mercenary (your choice) of the Freeborn Blades. After some minor character customisation in the form of a small variety of oddly-featured hair and face builds, you find yourself in Vertiel. The nations of this world are at war with the Ice Lords, necromancers who have raised an army of the dead creatively titled as the Deadwalker army. You stand in defense of a group called the Red Scribes as they undergo a magical ritual to try and improve their chances against overwhelming odds.
Unsurprisingly for a magical ritual it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and Vulcan soon finds himself in possession of –- or rather, possessed BY -– a fire demon. You’re BOUND by FLAME, you see. It’s quite clever. Once the dust settles, Vulcan finds himself able to harness the demon within in order to use a variety of fire-related skills.
This opens up your three-pronged combat arsenal, giving you multiple approaches to battle and combat customisation through the game. In addition to your firepower, you have a slow moving but powerful two-handed sword or axe, and fast dual-wielded daggers that also allow you to approach enemies stealthily for quick takedowns. Each has its pros and cons, but the ability to imbue your weapon with fire to deal extra damage is a very helpful one from the get-go. Personally I found the sword too slow, despite its higher damage levels, and mostly stuck to the softer-hitting daggers. While this does drag out combat a bit, it at least felt more comfortable.
Combat itself is a bit up-and-down. Whilst there aren’t a huge variety of enemy types, the ones that do appear in game are interestingly designed and present a different approach to many RPGs. Sadly the combat mechanics themselves are a bit of a mess. Almost every enemy attack has an interrupt or knockdown effect, which combined with a slow recovery animation for Vulcan can leave you stuck on the ground, unable to get up as foes repeat their knockdown move. You’ll also find your health quickly evaporating in battle, leaving you with only two options – try and use a health potion without being interrupted by an enemy, or run circles around them and let it slowly regenerate on its own. You’ll find yourself doing this a fair bit for boss fights in particular.
Outside of combat, you’ll be dealing with a story that feels a bit… Half-baked. The seven Ice Lords and their army of undead are invading from the uncharted, icy north (sound familiar, Game of Thrones fans?) and have destroyed pretty much everyone who has stood in their way. There’s the implication that the alliance between the Lords is fragile at best, which could present some interesting infighting among them. Sadly this is offset by the ice-pun-heavy titles these big bads have adopted. One of them is called “The Chiller”, you guys. This is a name that supposedly instils fear in the people of this world, as opposed to being a nickname for their freezers.
The game has tried to adopt a mature nature in its characterisations in the vein of Game of Thrones as well, but it falls flat as their idea of mature is having the entire cast swear. A lot. This COULD work, as it obviously did for George RR Martin’s beloved series, but it’s executed in a very juvenile way. Despite the pseudo-medieval setting, dialogue is delivered in very casual language that would be more at home in a game set in current-day, and delivered fairly poorly by the voice actors to boot. Really the only character to break this trend is your demon passenger, who instead uses lots of thees, thous and thines to angle for sophistication… but it mostly comes across as pretentious.
One more interesting aspect of the game’s story are landmark decisions that affect the appearance and skills of Vulcan. Key points of the game will present you with a decision to listen to your new demon buddy’s advice, or to refute him and work with your own skills. Accepting demonic help will power you up but it comes at the cost of your humanity, with each submission warping your appearance bit by bit, bringing you closer to full-on demonic possession. The cool part is that the changes aren’t purely cosmetic; for instance, one of the physical changes that can occur is growing up to three sets of horns on your head. This will prevent you from being able to equip helmets and gaining their various defense boosts, but the horns improve your magical prowess instead. Alongside these physical changes you can customise and craft a wide variety of add-ons for your armour and weapons, with benefits ranging from defense boosts, to poison or magic resistance, greater defense against knockdowns, and magical boosts. The fact you can do this at absolutely any time -– even mid-swing with your weapons -– adds an exciting layer to the gameplay that it definitely needed.
It disappoints me to have to relay all these issues with the game, as I was quite excited about Bound by Flame when it was first announced. Much like Spiders’ previous title, Mars: War Logs, this game has a lot of promise that it doesn’t quite deliver on. The crafting customisation is definitely the game’s strongest feature, and pulled me through when I might otherwise have set the game aside. The human/demon dynamic and combat mechanics are both conceptually great, but executed in a less than spectacular fashion. I’d still say the game is worth a look at the very least, but it might be best to grab it cheap on PC, or wait for the price tag to drop on consoles.
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