(TLDR? This review is also available in video format below for your convenience.)
Developer Spiders is a small studio that isn’t lacking ambition, after what was considered a major disappointment with Mars War Logs, they’ve tried yet again to craft a title whose quality is equal to its ambition with their new fantasy action RPG; Bound By Flame.
Set in the kingdom of Vertiel, a region besieged by a massive undead army that’s invading from the north. A group of mages known as the Red Scribes think they’ve found a way to combat this threat and are fast at work performing a ritual. You assume the role of Vulcan, a member of the Freeborn Blades, a mercenary group that has been hired to protect the Red Scribes while they conduct their research. Things are quickly interrupted as a Deadwalker army attacks their position and amidst the carnage, something goes wrong with the ritual resulting in Vulcan becoming possessed by a Fire Demon. The Demon talks to you throughout the game, offering advice or seeking to manipulate Vulcan; ultimately playing a part in the game’s moral choices as listening to the Demon can make your character appear more demonic, bolstering magical prowess at the expense of your character’s well-being or you can choose to ignore the Demon and preserve Vulcan’s humanity. Regardless of your decision, it’s clear that Vulcan is the only one able to stand up to the Ice Lords, a group of warmongering necromancers that control the vast undead armies.
Upon starting the game, you’re greeted with a brief character creation screen which only gives you a few very limited options in terms of designing your character before being awkwardly thrust into an awful tutorial section. This tutorial simply acts to highlight all of the flaws of Bound by Flame along with constant interruptions explaining the game’s various mechanics. You’ll immediately notice a lack of pacing, awkward dialogue and voice acting as well as an unmatched feeling of linearity. This leads to a very poor first impression, however gritting your teeth and pushing through this period of misery has its rewards as the game shows signs of competency later on.
After completing the tutorial, the half-baked writing immediately improves giving rise to an interesting narrative with surprisingly strong character development. Similar to The Witcher 2 and other titles, you’re faced with moral decisions that can have an effect on the game however these changes are fairly minor comparatively but still add some elements of re-playability. The decisions aren’t cleverly thought out or morally ambiguous like The Witcher 2, instead there’s generally a clear good and evil answer. This still did well to hold my interest and watching Vulcan gradually lose his humanity in favor of becoming more demonic and powerful was a welcomed addition to the game.
Along with Vulcan, there are several companions that accompany him on his journey. These characters have been greatly improved from Mars War Logs, each having their own developed story however their proficiency in combat remains the same, often dying very quickly and doing very little to aid Vulcan. The option to romance these characters also exists depending on which gender you made Vulcan however there is little development between characters and much less chemistry making romance seem like it was only added to cover all of the features offered by superior RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
Not content to simply borrow the moral choices featured in The Witcher 2, the combat is more or less identical, with two different primary melee attacks along with traps and magic. Parrying and dodging also plays a vital role. The combat while simple is quite satisfying and requires a bit of skill and timing to master. While nowhere near on the level of Dark Souls, it’s still quite solid for an RPG. The RPG elements are surprisingly deep as well, offering three different talent trees along with an in-depth crafting system. There’s a warrior stance that has Vulcan don a 2 hand sword which boosts his parrying and defensive abilities while his ranger stance equips 2 daggers, drastically increasing his speed and stealth capabilities. The third talent tree is directly related to the Demon inside of him, which consists of boosting his magical prowess and fire abilities. Playing on the normal hawk difficulty will provide a reasonable challenge and despite being simple, the combat is definitely the highlight of the game. It isn’t without flaw though as parrying or dodging an attack perfectly will result in Vulcan performing a counter-attack which can sometimes be a detriment to dodging or running away in general. Despite this, the combat is still satisfying and I never felt bored throughout its brief campaign.
The soundtrack is quite unusual, focusing on a lot of vocal chants mixed with percussion. It still fits the game well and adds to the overall experience. The rest of the audio is hit or miss though, particularly the voice acting. Some characters play the part well, while others are abysmal. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the actor’s fault or just the writing in general as the dialogue can be laughably bad at times. It’s inconsistent in general, particularly the tutorial which almost made me stop playing the game entirely while at other times, I found the narrative, setting, and characters to be engaging. This inconsistency is even apparent in Vulcan’s personality as he can sometimes act like a jerk with no rhyme or reasoning behind it. It leads me to believe that Spiders suffers from having one or two incompetent writers or maybe it’s just a case of poor translation. If this wasn’t enough, the audio can glitch out at times, often causing characters to repeat the same line over and over again.
The visuals and environments are well done. It’s just a shame that the game is extremely linear as the many sidequests are usually confined to a small area, leaving very little room for exploration. There’s also the odd graphical glitch, such as disappearing textures and pop-in. Despite the graphical overhaul, the facial animations are on-par with Mars War Logs as characters will simply move their lips while giving a blank expressionless stare.
Borrowing from The Witcher again, the game tries to separate itself into acts. Upon arriving at a new location, Vulcan will be given a host of sidequests to complete while simultaneously progressing the main story until he completes the area and moves on. Unfortunately, the game is rather short for an action RPG, running around 15 hours if you complete all of the sidequests. The poor writing rears its ugly head once more before the game's credits roll, as there’s quite a bit of buildup, and without spoiling anything, the game ends rather abruptly when there easily could have been room for another 10-20 hours of content.
Ultimately, Bound By Flame is greater than the sum of its parts and certainly an improvement over Mars War Logs as it features a solid narrative, refined combat system and deep RPG elements. It’s a step in the right direction, although once again a bit too ambitious a project for Spiders to handle. Although it has many flaws, it is still an enjoyable experience but let’s just hope they hire some better writers next time.
This review is also available in video format if you don’t feel like reading all of this:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVo2Oc0fRGY
+ Interesting Narrative & Setting
+ Deep RPG Elements
+ Enjoyable Combat
+ Watching Vulcan become more demonic is great
+/- Dialogue is so bad at times it’s laughable
- Terrible Introduction
- Linear & Short Length in general for an Action RPG
- Poor Facial Animations & Voice Acting
- Audio bugs, texture pop-in and various glitches
- Abrupt conclusion
- Does nothing original
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