Hot Mess

Bound by Flame Review Screenshot

HIGH The first two chats with the demon, and a nifty skillset for Vulcan.

LOW Having my partner glitch out and disappear when I needed backup.

WTF I gotta collect crystals? What is this, a joke?

Bound By Flame is a confusing, disappointing project.

At a glance, the latest from Spiders suggests nothing so much as a Dragon Age-lite experience thanks to a similar fantasy setting, familiar aesthetics, and third-person semi-realtime action. However, Dragon Age is a pretty epic thing. As a fan of Spiders, I'd say their strengths are in coming up with unusual ideas and working on a small scale. Bound By Flame has the ideas covered, but shoots for a scope beyond their capacity and in doing so, fails to deliver.

This story begins with the player taking the role of a mercenary named Vulcan. He or she (either gender is available) is part of a force working to prevent evil ice wizards with goofy names from taking over the land. During the first mission, a magical spell goes awry and a demon is trapped inside Vulcan, sharing both its thoughts and flame-oriented powers.

Once Vulcan's skull is turned into a roommate situation, it's not immediately obvious whether the new occupant is good or evil, and having this secondary, interior opinion creates an interesting dynamic where the player must decide who's telling the most truth when choices pop up. Is the demon trying to manipulate Vulcan when it tells him (or her) to be wary of the Elven lord, or does that lord actually have ulterior motives behind his heroic facade?  

In these first few scenes, I found myself second-guessing everyone's intentions to the point that I was somewhat paralyzed when trying to decide who to trust; this feeling rarely occurs for me in games, and it was appreciated. Unfortunately, the developers hardly do anything with the inner demon past those first few instances, and that's a huge missed opportunity.

The rest of the script is quite poor, and writing has been a weak point for Spiders time and again. I never felt a connection to any of the people that join Vulcan's team, choices don't seem to matter, and the quest doesn't have any memorable moments or compelling scenes. Oddly, Bound By Flame also has an unusual level of profanity, and rather than giving the game a mature, gritty feeling, it feels forced and out of place.  The vocal performances are also quite poor, often bordering on farcical.

With so little happening in terms of the story and characters, Bound By Flame seems to want to make up the difference with action-oriented gameplay, but just like its demonic premise, it starts off well and then fizzles out.

The combat system is somewhat unique in that the player has three different skill trees (sword-wielding warrior, dagger-using ranger, flame-tossing magician) but rather than forcing a choice of one to the exclusion of the others, Vulcan can switch between weapon styles at will, and the magic is accessible in either mode—it's a fantastic idea giving players flexibility in any situation. Wielding daggers lets Vulcan utilize quick dodging and rapid strikes, but the longsword style's shield-bashing and raw power are just a button-press away. Being able to cast flames without sacrificing physical attack options was just icing on the cake.

However, this strong design soon proves wasted thanks to encounters which prove needlessly frustrating and difficult. Enemies become deadly early on, the hit detection seems random (I often saw fireballs disappear into enemies) the camera frequently obscures the action, teammates are utterly incapable of holding their own, and fights are more about not getting overwhelmed by mobs than they are about fighting skillfully. Side note: Whoever thought that enemies should regain full health if the player wanders too far outside the ‘combat zone' is in need of medication.

After putting my time in with Bound By Flame, I'm left with the sense that the Spiders team has badly overreached. There are some superb ideas on display here, but none feel like they even begin to tap their full potential, and the experience overall feels rushed and incomplete. I'm not sure why the studio thought this project should shoot for a scale larger than their previous efforts, but the hard truth is that this title is in no way ready for prime time. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes. 

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood, strong language, suggestive themes, and violence. Although it's not particularly bloody, the action is largely about killing icky creatures with swords. There's also an excessive amount of salty language and more than a few instances of overt sexual innuendo. Best to steer the young ones clear. 

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All dialogue is subtitled, and I found no audio cues that were relevant to successful gameplay. Calling this one accessible.

Brad Gallaway
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