Bound by Flame is the PlayStation 4's first foray into the magical land of fantasy role-playing games. Over the last few months leading up to release, developer Spiders has thrown numerous trailers and screenshots online, and although you can never judge a finished product from its media, it's worth pointing out that this particular title hasn't quite measured up to the lofty expectations that its attractive videos and pictures have created. There are no doubt a lot of good ideas here, and some are executed fairly well, but when all's said and done, the title never really manages to ignite.
As alluded, the potential for greatness is buried in the game, much like the fiery demon that possesses main character Vulcan, but it fails to reach boiling point. Take the story, for example. The staple of any memorable RPG, a good, cohesive plot can strengthen a title immeasurably, and for the most part, the release's narrative is worth the ride. As a mercenary who's living and fighting in a world that's on the brink of destruction thanks to armies of walking corpses, it's a rather dour tale that's set in an interesting universe. As it progresses, you're thrust onto the front line of this global battle against the forces of evil necromancers, and it moves along at an enjoyable pace, but the often cheesy and sometimes downright ridiculous dialogue clashes with the overall tone, and forms something of a strange experience that's not quite sure if it wants to take itself too seriously.
One minute Vulcan will be politely asking elves what they think of the war, and the next, he – or she – will be yelling expletives and action movie one-liners at people who haven't done all that much to deserve such a verbal barrage. Whether you decide to play as a male or female protagonist, the lead remains a loud, aggressive personality who likes to make jokes about fetch quests, and at first, it's all a bit jarring, especially when most gamers will be used to comparatively serious titles like Dragon Age: Origins.
Speaking of which, the release borrows a few of BioWare's trademarks, specifically player choices that alter the course of the narrative. At various points in your journey, you'll need to decide on a course of action, with some of the game's best moments coming from the interactions between Vulcan and his or her inner demon. A constant theme throughout, you'll need to either work with the entity that shares your body, or resist its advances and promises of power. Unsurprisingly, fighting the spirit's influence results in the preservation of your humanity, while siding with it causes you to take on a more demonic appearance as horns sprout from your skull. It's essentially picking between being a good guy or a baddie, but there are a few morally grey scenarios that'll have you mentally weighing up the outcome before you choose which path to take, and in turn create a nice sense of immersion now and then.
As for consequence, your choices can have a decent impact on how the plot proceeds, but your actions generally don't affect where it ends up. Still, there's enough difference between each route to warrant multiple playthroughs – at least, if you're a fan of the game's twisted universe. Many of these decisions will also have an impact on the surrounding cast, most of whom you'll be able to take with you when you're off jogging around dangerous swamps or ruined cities. Whether they end up friend or foe largely depends on their own views regarding how you handle the demon that dwells inside of you, but unfortunately, your companions are all rather shallow. There are a couple of interesting allies, namely a quirky spirit that's lived for thousands of years and a witch who's almost a carbon copy of Dragon Age's Morrigan, but the game's short length means that they're never really fleshed out to a degree where you'll actually feel anything for them – even after a vague and emotionless romance scene.
To make matters worse, each party member is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard when it comes to combat. Outside of a few specific circumstances, you'll be able to journey with one fellow warrior by your side. Each offers their own skills and fighting styles, but they're ultimately just as bad as each other. Unless you specifically order your follower to defend at all costs, they'll charge into the fray and hit the dirt within 30 seconds. Even our shameless Morrigan clone, who's supposedly a dangerously powerful mage, is consistently unable to fend off all but the very weakest opponent by herself. Sadly, your allies' atrocious approach to battle only serves to further enforce your apathy towards them, especially when they boast of vengeance against a certain enemy only to once again be brought to their knees in an instant, and you're forced clean up the mess alone.
However, with health bars that drain as quick as this, it's perhaps no wonder that everyone seems to kick the bucket so easily. On everything but the easiest difficulty setting, Bound by Flame is an utterly brutal game that's full of beasties which can kill you in just a few standard attacks. But despite its unforgiving nature, the title's combat system is one of its best achievements that rises above the mediocrity displayed elsewhere. Taking on either the stance of a warrior or ranger, you've got access to a reasonable amount of options when it comes to trading blows with abominations. The warrior stance is all about blocking hits and parrying with careful timing in order to counter with criticals dealt out by two-handed weapons, while the ranger stance focuses on dodging incoming attacks before getting in close to pull off a fast dual dagger combo.
Whether you're parrying or dodging, your success is indicated by a momentary slow down, which gives each fight a noticeable, rewarding rhythm – but only if you're able to get into the flow of a brawl. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case due to some poor enemy balancing. Some groups consist of ranged opposition and fast moving infantry, alongside devastating brutes, and too often it feels like you're not equipped to deal with such a well organised force. You can lay down explosive traps or launch a sneak attack if you're quiet enough, but neither tactic is particularity effective against bigger hordes of creatures who'll soon come stomping to your position. The biggest offender, however, is the fact that the majority of monsters you come across have absolutely huge amounts of hit points, which means that many fights become little more than a case of mashing square and hoping that you'll be able to pull off a dodge or parry when the time is right. Needless to say, scenarios that contain beefy foes quickly grow thin as you employ the same repetitive tactics time and time again, all while chipping away tiny amounts of health.
But as we mentioned, when the combat is good and you're up against a grouping that isn't frustratingly uneven, it's easy to get lost in Vulcan's satisfyingly weighty dance of death. The system is helped further by the demon's powers, too, as you conjure different forms of fire magic. It's not quite the same as having a full-blown mage class, as you'll still need to adopt one of the two aforementioned stances, but giving your broadsword a flaming edge or blasting foes away with a wave of heat provides some much needed variety.
With a story that has an interesting premise but is enacted by half boiled characters and bathed in either boring or out-of-place dialogue, and a fun combat system that's let down by repetition and poor enemy balancing, it's safe to say that Bound by Flame lacks the overall quality to see its ambitions through. Thankfully, there are some bright spots that make the release more appealing than it arguably should be. For starters, levelling up and using acquired skill points to unlock abilities in the warrior, ranger, and pyromancer skill trees is accessible and addictive, and each point spent results in noticeable growth as you put your new powers to the test on the battlefield.
Adding further to player and fighting style customisation is the option to craft new bits and pieces that you can apply to your weapons and armour for various statistic boosts. As you explore and loot fallen foes, you'll discover plenty of raw materials, and subsequently find yourself dipping into the crafting menu on a regular basis just to see what goodies you can slap together. Because it's somewhat easy to use, creating new trinkets becomes an exercise in adapting to your current situation: you could use up a few gemstones to raise your resistance to icy magic, or you may find an immunity to poison more effective. Together with the levelling, crafting always gives you something to work towards and tinker with, even if both mechanics lack the depth that you'd find in other RPGs of this kind.
Sitting at around 15 hours if you slog your way through all of the game's mostly humdrum side quests, Bound by Flame's amount of content doesn't quite stack up against the epically scaled stories that its peers offer. You'll only visit three main locations throughout your time with the release, and although they're varied, they all subscribe to the same gameplay structure: have a chat with quest givers, explore relatively linear environments, and then meet up with your allies for one big boss fight. There's nothing inherently wrong with utilising such a predictable blueprint, but much of it feels padded out in order to add some value to what is otherwise a light fantasy snack. You'll be traipsing around the same areas multiple times in order to fulfil different objectives, and in the final third of your adventure, proceedings become infuriating as the release throws previous bosses at you and pretends that they're regular opponents.
All in all, it isn't difficult to pick at the title's flaws until you come to realise that it's a bit of an unpolished mess, but it isn't without its charms. Although it looks like a shiny PlayStation 3 game, it's home to a nice art style and some fantastic character and enemy designs, as well as a decent soundtrack that ranges from subtle, eerie melodies to percussion-heavy beats that up the tension during tough fights. And, for all of its awkward writing and questionable dialogue, it can be refreshing to see such a title partake in a little comedy here and there – even if it isn't wholly intentional.
If you've been burning with anticipation for a fantasy RPG on Sony's newest console, Bound by Flame may be worth a look – but be sure to keep your expectations lukewarm. Much like its lead character, the release is a conflicted creation that's eager to prove its worth, but fails to set its ambitions alight. Not quite a product forged in the fires of Hell, Spiders' latest isn't a bad game, but it's never going to be much more than a flicker of light in a dark age of absent RPGs.