I generally hate it when people reduce a work in any medium down to what it bears the most obvious similarities to. It strikes me as doing a disservice to the work, and more to the point, as being critically lazy. The problem when discussing something like Bound by Flame, then, is that you really can’t get around doing so, because it is very deliberately meant to be a low-priced spin on Dragon Age. It’s got enough of its own merits that it comes off as a homage or a work by fans rather than a deliberate case of follow-the-leader, with a surprisingly funny script, although it completely loses focus as you move into the third chapter, and a combat engine that has some genuinely interesting ideas built into it. The problem is that it’s not quite done yet, although there’s enough here that a theoretical sequel could be something special.
The player in Bound by Flame is Vulcan, a build-your-own hero in the Bioware tradition who has given up his or her previous life to serve as a demolitions specialist in a mercenary company called the Freeborn Blades. The Blades, as the game starts, are one of the only surviving organized groups in the world of Vertiel, which is currently under siege by an army of undead led by the Lords of Ice. Most nations have fallen, with the elves left as the last civilization standing, and all the Lords have to do is bat cleanup.
The Blades are hired to provide security for another organization, the Red Scribes, as they conduct a ritual that’s meant to provide some last chance at survival, if not victory. Vulcan’s in the wrong place at the wrong time as the ritual concludes and ends up as the unwitting host of a previously-unknown entity: a demon with powers over flame.
The central ethical issue in Bound by Flame is how much free rein you’re going to give the demon. The more power you get from it, the more it changes Vulcan’s body; soon your skin darkens to black, you sprout horns, and you end up with parts of your body constantly on fire. If you side with the surviving humans and try to save as many of them as you can along the way, you deny the demon. If you listen to its advice and ignore all other concerns in the name of gaining enough power to challenge the Lords directly, you give the demon what it wants.
The demon’s abilities represent one of three skill trees that are available to you. The Warrior tree uses a single two-handed sword and focuses on damage resistance, sheer power, and delivering massive damage with a few slow swings. The Ranger tree combines stealth and rapid attacks into a sort of swashbuckler option, sacrificing damage resistance in favor of dodges and counterattacks. Finally, the Pyromancer tree provides you with a hundred and one ways to set undead on fire.
You can switch between the three skill trees at will and improve each one point by point every time you level up. Each has an ultimate ability that’s unlocked when you invest at least 24 points into it, and heavy investment in a single tree makes the game a very different experience. In practice, you’re going to be a Warrior or Ranger with occasional points spent in Pyromancer, and both approaches are intuitive and reasonably fun with a little practice. The enemies telegraph their attacks far enough in advance that you can figure out ways to deal with them, and you have a number of alternate options like explosive traps and a crossbow that you can use to help even the odds.
If anything, the skill trees are too top-heavy. If you try to spread your points around, the early areas will prove difficult. You really want to improve Burning Weapon as fast as you can, because even standard enemies tend to have tons of health, and whatever you can do to whittle them down is worth doing.
In fact, one of the major criticisms I have of Bound by Flame is its difficulty. The combat system feels pretty good once you get used to it, but any enemy with the ability to knock you down can easily kill you, and there won’t be much you can do about it. Some kind of rapid recovery or roll would go a long way towards removing the frustration.
You can have a companion NPC with you for most of the game, but they’re usually not a factor aside from absorbing a few stray hits; enemies usually mob your companion straight away and kill him or her, then turn to you once they’re done. You have to work around that tendency for companions to be worth a damn. They all seem to have a death wish, and it’s rare that they survive even a simple fight.
In short, Bound by Flame feels like it’s harder than it needs to be. Standard enemies are tough enough to kill you in a few lucky hits, bosses can send you flying or corner you with little difficulty, and it’s rare that a death feels fair. Combined with the script losing cohesion at around the halfway point, Bound by Flame has an unfinished, generally unpolished feel that sometimes makes it a frustrating game to play.
It’s entertaining enough despite its faults that it’s worth checking out. If Spiders gets the chance to put together a sequel, with a more cohesive story and another pass or two on the combat system, this could be the start of a fun series.
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