Dancing Without Depth
HIGH The art direction is jaw-dropping
LOW Everything outside of polygon world.
WTF Why wasn’t dancing better integrated?
If visuals were the most important thing to me as a critic, Bound would easily be a front-runner for game of the year. With its faceless main character, hyper-abstract world and graceful dance movements, the latest effort from Plastic Studios grabbed me from the moment I saw it. However, grabbing me and keeping me are two separate things.
Yet another vague art-house title that prioritizes aesthetics over all else, the experience that Bound provides is an uneven one that manages to be both masterfully astonishing and incredibly undercooked at the same time. The premise? It’s a bit hard to pin down. At least at first.
Bound begins with a crudely-rendered pregnant woman walking along a beach. She carries a sketchbook with drawings of odd shapes and fantasy figures. After a moment, the player takes control of one of these figures in a different world—a faceless princess who’s charged by her queen to… do something?
It’s not entirely clear what the princess’s goal is, but she moves like a ballet dancer through a strange dimension of pulsing polygons, trailing ribbons behind her as she twirls and steps. Her smooth, graceful presence is a wonderful contrast to the spiky protrusions and constantly unfolding sharp-edged landscape, its vibrant colors framing every minute of play perfectly.
In fact, it’s so striking that the developers have smartly included a photo mode, which I became infatuated with on my first night with Bound. I took dozens of shots, and each one was a masterpiece—not because I have any knack for snapping pictures, but because the game looks flat-out fantastic from any angle.
So, there’s no question that Bound is top-shelf when it comes to aesthetics, but actually playing is far less impressive than watching.
In each level, the princess spends her time walking from one point to another, and I don’t think it would be accurate to say that there are puzzles—rather, there are occasionally some minor obstacles in her path which can be surmounted in a moment or two. There are also some creatures that distress the character, but she has a ‘shield’ move that protects her and permits her to keep moving forward.
…And that’s about it.
Since it offers almost no gameplay, I would expect at the very least that the themes of dancing or ballet would play an important role, but Bound fails to deliver anything on that front as well.
Specific dance moves are mapped to a few buttons but they don’t serve any function, don’t have any impact on play and don’t do anything except look pretty. Worse, there’s not enough variety, and no way to string them together to perform anything close to a routine. This aspect of Bound is too limited even to enjoy dancing for the sake of dancing, so this handful of moves only serves to break up the monotony of walking.
The developers also stumble by trying to connect the princess and her polygon world back to the pregnant woman I mentioned earlier, and to another section that shows scenes from the woman’s past.
Of course, a tired “I had an unhappy childhood” theme (surprise!) becomes discernible soon enough, but I didn’t see how it related to the gameplay, nor how it connected to the idea of dancing. These two distinct halves of Bound just don’t support or build on each other in a meaningful way, and frankly, I would’ve preferred that the developers cut the clumsy ‘emotional’ content and focused on adding depth to the princess’s sections. It’s clearly where their strengths lie.
It’s a shame there’s not more to Bound than there is. The artists are incredibly talented people and the visuals they’ve crafted can legitimately be described as poetry in motion. Sadly, graphics can only go so far and there’s nothing of significance past them, reducing Bound to being another beautiful art-house trifle that doesn’t capitalize on its potential.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Plastic Studios and published by Sony. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains fantasy violence. There’s nothing to be worried about there. The princess can only shield herself and the scenes of unhappy upbringing are totally tame. It’s fine for kids to watch or play.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The dialogue is delivered via text and there are no audio cues needed for gameplay.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.