[2 June 2014]
Bound by Flame borders on goodness. It’s never great and rarely bad, a perfectly serviceable small-scale RPG. But when it does go bad, it does so at the worst possible moment that makes you look back on its serviceable entertainment with scorn.
When the game opens, humanity and the elves are in a war with the Ice Lords, powerful sorcerers from the north who control armies of corpses. The Ice Lords have steamrolled over civilization, pushing all living folk into one last city where the survivors plan to combine their armies for one final stand. You’re a mercenary tasked with protecting a group of magicians as they try to access the fabled World Heart, which might increase their magic power and give them a better fighting chance. Naturally it goes wrong, and you end up with a fire demon residing in your body.
The story starts off surprisingly strong with a plot that reverses a few common fantasy tropes. Everyone knows you’ve got a demon inside you. It’s not some horrible dark secret that you’re trying to hide at the risk of persecution. You begin the game with this dark secret being common knowledge, but everyone agrees to ignore it for now because the demon makes you strong and they’ve got bigger problems. In fact, it’s pleasantly surprising how honest everyone is with you. They all need your help, and while some requests will naturally clash with others, no on lies to convince you their need is more important. It’s a minor detail, but it helps reinforce the sense of desperation these characters feel: The truth is already so bad that they can’t exaggerate it with a lie.
Any normal hero would want to help as much as possible, but the demon inside you has other plans. It keeps urging you to abandon your companions because their fight is fruitless, they’ll certainly die, and you might die helping them. Instead it wants to go to the source of the problem, the World Heart where it came from, and battle the Ice Lords from that magical realm. Again, the game reverses typical fantasy tropes. Instead of gathering companions along your quest, you lose them or try to lose them at least. As the demon grows stronger and you become more of a god, it’s legitimately hard to concern yourself with the machinations of these puny humans. Maybe it’s because the characters aren’t very well developed beyond their surface traits (the sultry succubus, the inexperienced bookworm, the stoic warrior, the mouthy ranger), but it still actually works in the game’s favor. You do feel superior to them, and you do look down on them, which makes you feel more inhuman.
Sadly the story never delivers on its epic promise. Based on the setup—a super powered warrior appears as humanity prepares for its final stand—you’d think the game itself would chronicle our rise to power, pushing the Ice Lords back up north. Spoiler: that’s not what happens. The game makes a point of mentioning multiple Ice Lords by name, but you only see and fight one of them. Most of the game revolves around that one conflict, which means the story ends after what feels like the first big boss fight. That also means that you don’t see much of the world, just a swamp, a cave, a castle, and then credits. This is justified within the narrative and doesn’t feel forced, but that doesn’t make the small scale any less disappointing.
Hopefully you find some enjoyment from the story because the rest of the game is quite mediocre and at times unbearably awful.
You have two fighting “stances” in combat. The Warrior stance is slow moving but swings a big strong sword. The Ranger stance is fast allows you to dodge attacks, but in this stance, you can only fight with smaller knives. The Warrior stance is so disadvantaged by its lack of speed that it may as well not exist. The Ranger stance is so overpowered because of the ability to dodge that it nearly breaks the game. The one upside is that combat seems designed to be easy. There’s no depth to the fighting, just attack and dodge, attack and dodge until the bad guy dies. Combat is more about spectacle than skill or strategy, which makes it just mildly entertaining enough to support the genuinely interesting story.
However, the damage system is also horribly unbalanced. You do very little damage to an average enemy, while an average enemy can take off half your health in one hit. This skewed damage system makes group fights nightmarishly difficult, and the whole game veers wildly from stupidly simple to stupidly brutal. You’ll enter a big room and kill a bat creature no problem, then turn around and kill a wraith as if it were nothing, then you’ll take out an undead minotaur while only half paying attention, then a skeleton with a knife gets in a lucky hit and kills you and you have to do it all again.
Bound by Flame is never great, but it’s always teetering on good. For the most part, it just lacks that extra layer of polish that could push it from good to great. There’s a better game here, constantly struggling against the limitations of its development. If it could have maintained this balance. It could have become a cult success, the kind of game you recommend with caveats or buy on sale.
Unfortunately, Bound by Flame doesn’t maintain that balance. It ends on a low note with a final level and final boss fight that both fall prey to everything that could have gone wrong elsewhere. The fight is artificially drawn out, since the boss turns invincible at certain points, but, of course, he can still attack, and, of course, he can kill you with two such attacks over the exhausting 15 minute fight. Then the story builds to a final choice but ends before we see the aftermath of that choice. It is a whole game’s worth of build up to an ending that’s disappointing in every way. That kind of letdown casts a pall over the rest of the game. Bound by Flame is consistently mildly entertaining, but that mild entertainment isn’t worth the awful ending.