[13 June 2014]
The best part of Bound by Flame is its story, but even that is far from flawless. It’s quite flawed, but those flaws actually make the story more interesting. In a weird twist, the things that make Bound by Flame unique—at least amongst its epic fantasy RPG peers—are also the things that make it a lesser story overall. There’s barely any character development for either the protagonist or the supporting cast; the world isn’t well developed; and the game sets up an epic war only to end after a single skirmish. The narrative constantly undercuts everything that makes an epic fantasy epic and almost gets away with it.
You play as Vulcan, a mercenary who’s tasked with protecting some mages while they perform a dangerous ritual. They’re desperate for power because humanity is at war with the Ice Lords, and we’ve done nothing but lose. This ritual is supposed to make the mages more powerful, allowing them to hopefully fight back against the Ice Lords. Naturally things go wrong, and Vulcan ends up with a demon inside him. He’s not possessed, the demon is just a passenger, but at certain points in the game, you can choose to give it more control, trading your humanity for more power.
By the end of the game, if you’ve chosen the power option every time, you become something of a demon: ultra powerful beyond any human or mage with horns sticking out from your head and a body engulfed in constant flame. You’re essentially a god, having transcended above humanity, and thus no longer concerned with petty human conflicts. This is where the lack of proper character development benefits the game.
By luck or by design, Vulcan’s character arc matches your own disinterest in the world and its inhabitants. The idea to use “humanity” and “power” as options to represents “good” and “evil” is not new, but it feels especially powerful in Bound by Flame because for once I can understand this character’s lack of humanity. I understand why he’d want to kill his commander or abandon his friends or let his potential lover die. It’s hard to care about the main cast since they’re all archetypal and never grow beyond the trope they represent (the sultry succubus, the inexperienced bookworm, the stoic warrior, the mouthy ranger). I do feel superior to them, and I do look down on them. I see them as the sacrificial pawns that they really are, which makes for a different kind of RPG experience. I’m more likely to do things that harm them because I’m not invested in their struggle.
At the midpoint of the game, the humans and elves want to go to a certain city to reinforce its defenses, and they ask you to come. It feels strangely good to say “no,” to actually refuse to help someone in an RPG, but it also feels appropriate, the kind of thing I’d still do if I were truly role playing as Vulcan. The more I disrespect the world, the more at one I feel with Vulcan, or at least the demon version of Vulcan. As a result, by the time the game ends, I feel uniquely attached to him.
Looking at the game from a larger structural perspective, it’s frustrating that the story ends after you fight just one Ice Lord, but that’s also kind of neat. The truth is that Bound by Flame is a small game—at least in comparison to its epic fantasy peers—and to its credit, the game knows its own limits. The story is specifically written to be small scale. There’s a logical reason that the story ends after you fight one Ice Lord. It’s a plot development that makes sense, and it doesn’t feel like a rushed, slapdash ending that we got stuck with due to production problems. Bound by Flame knows exactly what kind of game it is, and that is something to be respected.
The problem is that the game doesn’t let the player in on this knowledge until after we’ve had time to imagine something grander. The premise promises a continent-wide battle to retake the world, and the game proper opens with an ambitious action scene that further sells that promise. It’s only after several hours that the demon explains how we can disempower the Ice Lords with a single swoop, but by then, it’s too late. We’ve already been sold on the war.
The developer, Spiders, makes many small scale RPGS. One of their other games, Mars: War Logs, was similarly written as a small scale conflict set within a larger war. A prologue talks about huge corporate battles on Mars for water, hinting at a lot of interesting politics. However, the game proper opens within a small scale P.O.W prison setting. The moment that we take control of a character we’re under no illusions about the scope of this adventure. Mars: War Logs knows that it’s a comparatively small game, and it makes sure the player knows this as well. Bound by Flame doesn’t feel like it purposefully tries to trick the player, but it does trick the player.
Bound by Flame is at the very least interesting because of all of its contradictions. It’s a bad game with some good ideas, but it’s also a bad game whose badness actually makes its good ideas better. It’s impossible not to be disappointed in it, but I can still appreciate it for its realistic ambitions and inadvertently clever writing. If only all bad games were this good.