Casting a dim light
Dead man walkingIf there’s one base yet to be covered in the post-launch period of Sony’s Playstation 4, it’s that of the RPG. Such a treat is a rarity within the first few months of a console launch, and so Bound by Flame looks to capitalise on a captive next-gen audience with its tale of a vast frozen land populated by deadwalkers, kings, religious groups, magical ceremonies, elves, zombies, demons, witches, heroes and everything else you could imagine in a traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy mashup.
Blending distinctly eurotrash production values with one of the most ridiculously dumb scripts you’re likely to see in quite some time, Bound by Flame is also not quite the disaster I’d initially expected from a first-generation RPG title with half a foot in ancient console technology (PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are also available, alongside PC). There are some pretty stiff caveats however, and at various points during its short running time, this is a game that forces you to appreciate its charms as being so terrible as to end up compelling for all the wrong reasons.
VulcanisedThe storyline casts you as a hero named Vulcan, part of a bodyguard group of ragtag mercenaries protecting a sacred party as they conduct a ritual to banish the zombie-esque deadwalkers from their land of Vertiel. Of course, as is the way in pretty much every fantasy storyline ever created, something goes drastically wrong during a key moment in the ceremony, and pretty soon Vulcan realises that his brain (or her brain, depending on your character build) is now co-habited by a fiery demon intent on turning every situation to a bloodied, charred cinder.
That dual personality is Bound by Flame’s take on the Bioware-style morality meter, with key points in the storyline offering distinctly good or bad outcomes dependant on your conversation choices. As with their inspiration, Vulcan’s overall appearance also alters to become more demonic should you choose the (frankly more interesting) path of ill-repute, with combat styles morphing to reflect powerful new flame-based abilities. Horns punch through his scalp, eyes glowing with mischief and malevolence.
On paper, Bioware RPGs aren't exactly the worst thing in the world to be copying, but unfortunately Vulcan ends up manifesting as more of a Poundland cousin to Commander Shepard’s slick military leader. The dialogue is gobsmackingly awful throughout, frequently shifting in tone and casting its characters in a completely unbelievable light. Conversations veer wildly from stoic fantasy archetypes into Fable-esque little England twee, and then frequently nosedive into Viz-level crassness - without any of the wit.
That mashup is actually quite charming for a while, but around the halfway point, Bound by Flame’s ridiculous script breaks into monotony. Almost every character is underdeveloped, and thanks to a complete lack of quality dialogue, most of them begin to grate. You can select a single warrior from a handful of companions to take into battle and gradually discover a little more about their backstory during any downtime (and unlock romance options, naturally), but it’s wafer-thin stuff, lurching from laugh-out-loud moments of terribleness to entire conversations you’ll want to erase from your mind.
Bound by Flame’s overarching storyline does eventually lead Vulcan into some interesting scenarios in which promises are broken, sacrifices are made and secrets uncovered, but none of that really matters when you simply don’t give a toss who lives and who dies.
Flame grilledAnd as much as the schizophrenic dialogue could have done with a second and third pass, the same can also be said of Bound by Flame’s combat and RPG systems, which display a similar level of inconsistency. Things begin brightly as you explore Vulcan’s three stances that allow for powerful sword swinging, speedy dagger assassinations and ranged magic-wielding, with the opening handful of enemies exhibiting a toughness not out of keeping with something like Dark Souls. Vulcan will die, and die, and die again, and there’s a whiff in the air of the sadistic gameplay loop that kept FromSoftware’s classic from becoming too much of a chore.
It quickly dissipates however, and Bound by Flame turns into a grind. Enemies are tough but can be whittled away with the right dodge, counter or cheese move, and its bestiary of drab creatures display none of the cunning and varied attack patterns found in the best of the genre. Combat abilities are bolstered and occasionally freshened up with a small skill tree of buffs and unlocks, but the scant availability of potions, crafting items and advanced weaponry seems an arbitrary measure to toughen up a game that’s already bordering on dull within its thin running time.
There is a rhythm to be found however, and it’d be a lie to say there weren't moments in which Bound by Flame passed my time merrily with its handful of hub towns, sidequests, story missions, crafting, gear and perks. It’s the sort of routine you might find yourself in having played hundreds of hours of an MMO, when you don’t really care about what you’re doing anymore, the loot is secondary, but the muscle memory and low-level brain activity turn it into a soothing experience nonetheless. Attack, collect, return, follow the exclamation marks, listen to dialogue, repeat.
Whether or not that’s an appealing trait for a full price PlayStation 4 RPG with last-generation visuals is questionable at best, and you really have to expect more than to be engaging with an action RPG in such a placid manner. Vulcan’s increasingly bizarre dialogue and physical mutations provide a few sparks along the way, but once the charm slides away and any hint of character investment dies another death at the hands of a horrible quip, there’s simply not much else to be found save for that gentle questing rhythm.
- Bizarre dialogue
- Occasionally looks ok
- It's short
- Bizarre dialogue
- Terrible characters
- Light on the RPG
- Monotonous combat
Bound by Flame PS4 ReviewYou simply won't care who lives and who dies beyond Bound by Flame's first few chapters, and that's a huge problem for a game hanging its hooks on a morality-led storyline. Its melee-driven triple-stance combat system could so easily have taken up the reins and carried it forwards regardless, but thanks to poor enemies and repetitive AI, much of Vulcan's quest is unremarkable at best.
It's not horrible, but it's hardly the stuff of recommendation.
It turns out there's a good reason solid RPGs take a while to emerge on new platforms, and Bound by Flame is proof that rushing out a low budget title will only result in underwhelming filler. There are moments of hilarity to be found in those opening few hours, and it's certainly not the worst RPG in the world, but laughable dialogue and repetitive gameplay soon take their toll.
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