Spiders’ followup to the ambitious Mars War Logs ups the ante, but doesn’t quite break into the land of top tier RPGs.
I played a little bit of Mars War Logs, developer Spiders’ last release and was pretty impressed with what I saw. It was a nicely made action/RPG with some very interesting ideas, particularly in the form of it’s gameplay, which was almost like a lighter version of Mass Effect according to our own Troy, who reviewed it. Bound by Flame is similar in a lot of ways to Mars War Logs and definitely feels ‘related’, although it most definitely is a brand new IP.
Playing out like pretty much every other dark fantasy title you’ve ever seen, Bound by Flame sets it’s adventure in a world where humanity has been decimated. Simply put, there’s not much left in the way of civilization and humans are all but wandering tribes trying to stay one step ahead of the undead forces set loose by some very nasty magical types called the Ice Lords.
Not mere zombies, thèse guys are armed to the teeth and come in several different varieties. At first, they (and the rest of the bestiary) are kind of vanilla to be honest, but they get infinitely cooler as you play and there are some very neat ideas present throughout in terms of not only enemies, but locales and options for you and Vulcan too.
That’s who you play as by the way, a mercenary named Vulcan (ooh, foreshadowing!). He’s part of a protection detail working with some mystics who believe they can turn the rotten tide and save the world. Very early in the game though, things go… wrong- or right depending on how you look at it. It’s not spoiling anything here (since it is so early in the narrative), but a ceremony meant to bring forth salvation actually calls up an uber-powerful fire demon who bonds with your character and, for all intents and purposes, possesses him.
That’s one of the core elements of the game, the internal battle between the demon and the human, both of whom lay claim to the same physical form. The demon gives you power, lots of it, and it’s incredibly useful in your quest, but if you abuse these abilities and go batty with them, the demon starts to win. Let that happen and you’ll start to be more beast than man.
It’s kind of like in Fable, where you do evil acts and get a physical ‘tell’ that embodies that nastiness. Except here it’s an actual evil force that’s taking hold and driving your humanity further and further into oblivion. This element is pretty easily the cornerstone of the game and the most interesting about the main quest. It’s very easy to give into the flame too, so even if you don’t really usually play the ‘evil’ character in open world games (which this is not, but just so you get my drift), you might find yourself tilting that way. For that alone, Bound by Flame is worth checking out to be honest, as I’ve never played a game that made it so hard to make the heroic choice! And there’s something inherently cool about using a demon to fight the undead. It’s just a neat theme.
Other than choice and morality, you’ll also get the chance to effect an impressive amount of upgrades on Vulcan’s arsenal. Weapons can be detailed and made to order, which almost becomes a mini-game unto itself as you play. There are a lot of them too, and crafting parts, implementing them, and then using them in combat is incredibly fun.
About that combat though, it’s a definite mixed bag. The controls are actually quite good and most of what you’ll be doing is pretty straight forward and should come as second nature for anyone who’s played a game like this before. Sword-swinging, magic-casting, it’s all here and works like you might think. The only thing is, almost every battle in the game takes forever. Enemies in Bound by Flame are all pretty tough which results in fights that last a while. And that can break up the momentum that the game actually does a solid job building. Simply put, it can be a slog.
It’s also worth noting that you get four party members, whom you can take on your missions one at a time. No, you can’t lead a squad into battle, you get one partner and can choose out of an eventual small group of them. Each one has different strengths like healing or attack magic too, which is cool. Here’s the thing though, they’re all next to worthless in actual combat.
Sure you’ve probably had situations like ineffective AI party members before, but you ain’t seen nothing like this. Even shortly after the start of the campaign, when you should be facing weak and easy to dispatch baddies, the AI is so bad that it’s a chore just to keep them alive during a fight. The best you can hope for is that you’re able to winnow down the enemy forces before your buddy goes dark. Oh, and don’t worry, they pop right back up after the battle ends, so that’s something I guess.
As for the A/V package, that fares a little better. The graphics aren’t really what I’d call ‘next-gen’, but they are pretty nifty. The character models in particular have a cool semi-animated look to them that I haven’t seen in ages and is very well done here. The level of detail on them is solid too, with some great looking enemies (particularly the bigger ones) and allies alike. One minor issue here though are the cut-scenes and the lip-synching, which really look like they’re from a PS2 game. Not great, not game-breaking at all, but not great.
The levels and setting themselves don’t have quite the same flair as the character designs, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with them either. Locales are varied too, so you probably won’t get too bored of seeing the same place over and over again like in some smaller game releases where graphic sets are ‘reused’, for lack of a better term.
The music sets the tone nicely in Bound by Flame and the voice work is passable. I have to make mention here of the demon in particular, who’s coolness was exemplary. Even occasionally iffy writing (the script isn’t the best thing in the world) wasn’t able to water him down and he came across pretty dang cool throughout the game, so nice work there.
Bound by Flame isn’t the RPG epic that you might think it is, if you saw the game in action for a short stint or if you’ve read some of our news pieces on it (fooled me!). That said though, it is entertaining and does some very cool things that I haven’t seen before in a game.
The possession element and the level of choice & consequence that you’re subject to is excellent and holds up well. Now that I think about it, for an action/RPG, Bound by Flame almost plays like an adventure game. There’s such a heavy choice element that it almost seems like you should be pointing and clicking instead of hacking and slashing.
It’s far from perfect, but Bound by Flame does what it does pretty well and actually adds something new to the landscape. And let’s be honest, how often can you say that?