Bound by Flame Review

As one of the first RPGs to make its way to a current generation console, Bound by Flame had the potential to capture attention towards itself as a title from a relatively unknown developer. Spiders Studio promised many engaging aspects, from combat to customization to narrative. But is this game actually worth giving attention to?

The premise behind the story is a fairly simple one. Vulcan, the mercenary player-character, is one of the few humans left on the fantasy world of Vertiel. Early into the course of the game, a ritual goes awry and he finds himself essentially sharing his body with a ‘demon’, which allows him to gain fire magic abilities. This leads way to the three skill trees you can navigate: the two-handed weapon Warrior, the knife-wielding Ranger, or flame-slinging Pyromancer. This predicament also opens up the game’s morality system - do you allow the demon to gain more control of Vulcan’s body or do you retain his humanity?

Bound by Flame is in many respects, a typically styled RPG. Vulcan can be customized at the onset by the player, including gender. The options here aren’t too exhaustive, however, with only a handful of hairstyle and faces to choose from. It wouldn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t the only aspect of the game lacking in variety. Similar to other role-playing titles, there are base areas where the player can chat with several NPCs to gain information about the current objectives, learn about the world, interact with merchants to trade gear and loot, or to progress sidequests. The dialogue trees are typical and straightforward, usually with Vulcan asking numerous questions to prompt the NPCs to explain at length about the world, quests, or characters.

On the field, Vulcan explores various environments searching for materials, completing quest objectives, or encountering monsters in real time. Most of the time, a second ‘companion’ character will tag along to provide support. These companions provide different abilities like healing, crippling magic, or tanking, so choosing who accompanies Vulcan can, at times, affect the course of combat. However, these party members have a difficult time taking care of themselves, and unless the player keeps an eye on them at all times, they will likely fall in combat numerous times to regular enemy mobs. Boss encounters are where they are most useful, when they aren’t overwhelmed so easily. Otherwise they do serve well as momentary distractions, I can at least say that much.

Character creation options and upgrading equipment give Vulcan a unique look.

Every enemy drops materials for Vulcan to gather, and there are several chests and corpses lying about with equipment to pack away. Bound by Flame’s crafting system can be accessed anywhere, even during battle, where the player can use the materials collected to create potions, crossbow bolts, or mine-like traps. Materials can also be used to enhance equipment by increasing resistance to certain attack types, weapon attack speed, or chance to interrupt the enemy attack. Equipment enhancements can be swapped on and off multiple times, so you don’t have to worry about choosing the ‘best’ long term upgrade as it can be altered at any time. The crafting isn’t necessarily deep, but it’s effective and can generate immediate results. Not having to worry about crafting at certain kiosks or permanently changing equipment is a bit of a relief.

However the combat itself is more than a little lacking. Vulcan’s total health pool never becomes exceptionally large, meaning taking any hit will deal a sizable chunk of damage. This advances an emphasis on reading the enemy and blocking or dodging properly. Blocking or dodging at the precise moment of impact leads to a counter or parry. However, that’s about all the depth the combat has. There's extremely little variety to attack actions and basically every enemy is fought in the same way. There are essentially two attack actions, a normal swing or a wide swing. Several games have a combat foundation stemming from two basic attack types, but usually they allow for various combinations of those two attack types to create an assortment of attack patterns and animations. Bound by Flame barely has any variety in this regard. Your attacks are basically just that, a normal swing or a wide swing. Combat is essentially mashing the attack buttons in any order – since there’s no real reason for rhythm or specific button combinations – and pressing the block button when the enemy gives their obvious pre-attack animation. By mid-game enemy encounters become very tedious and dull tests of endurance.

Every combat encounter is an exercise of the player's patience.

If you have poor timing with your guards and take a few hits, just use one of the dozens of health potions you can easily make as crafting materials are abundant. Or you can kite the enemy until your regeneration kicks in (you can lay traps as you do this which the enemies will basically always run into, but they are mostly ineffective). Some enemies, especially late in the game, have an excessive amount of health which just makes fighting even more tiresome. Different weapon types don’t help much in changing things up either. The primary difference between swords, axes, and hammers are only slight parameter adjustments, like attack speed, but that doesn't truly change much of anything as far as how combat is approached. Some enemies will be equipped with a shield or whatnot which only means the player has to add an additional kick every once in a while.

In addition, the feats and skills gained throughout the game are also mostly passive parameter improvements, such as a higher chance for a critical hit, or higher damage with a certain weapon. This is another element that could have led to new attack combinations or abilities, but instead it furthers how dry combat quickly becomes in Bound by Flame. The Pyromancer skill tree does open up a few new flame abilities that can be used, but much like Vulcan’s HP, his MP also remains very limited, which makes spells cumbersome to use unless you plan on downing mana potions all the time. It is nice that most spells can be cast relatively quickly, even in motion.

Boss enemies have some neat designs, but the encounters aren't very fun or engaging

Finally, the tone of the narrative is all over the place. At times the dialogue seems to want to be taken totally seriously, but at other times it’s comically filled with swear words or eyeroll-worthy one-liners. It’s an awkward combination that is hard to get a feel for what the developers were trying to do with it. The plot is set up well enough in the early course of the game, but it ultimately doesn’t lead to anywhere interesting. At certain points you are left to make clear-cut decisions which either places you more on the path of humanity or the path of the demon. The game doesn’t try to hide these choices or create any sort of dilemma between them. Not saying that it should have, but as it’s difficult to really attach to anything that’s happening, the morality system in place is mostly throwaway.

In the end, it’s hard to recommend Bound by Flame to anyone. The game is not very long for an RPG, as it can be completed in about 15 hours even when performing every side quest, so perhaps some who can tolerate shallow combat mechanics can derive enjoyment from the title over a weekend at a budget price. But with incredibly tedious combat and little else of substance to be found,  this experience is best avoided.