Spiders and Focus Interactive attempted something a bit ambitious with their RPG Bound by Flame. The ingredients for at least a modest success were there: levels with branching paths, a combat system that merged action with tactics, and a story, that while by no means original, was still decently told. You have to give a smaller developer for at least thinking big, and in the end they do deserve credit for trying. Sadly, they may have overreached a bit, and bitten off more than they could chew. A majority of your time with Bound by Flame (a four act tale that can take you around 15-20 hours to complete) is actually quite fun. But the flaws rear their ugly head, starting with once the characters begin speaking (the voice acting here is not the best, though it is also not the worst) and compounds in the game’s final act, where the final boss becomes a huge exercise in frustration that leads to a choice between two endings, neither of which are wholly satisfying. In the end, it all seems hardly worth it, despite any fun you may have had along the way.
But oh, what could have been.
The story isn’t overly complex. You play as Vulcan, a mercenary with the Freeborn Blades, who are among those engaged in battling the Ice Lords and their Deadwalker army. While defending a temple so a faction of priests called the Red Scribes could perform a ritual that had the potential to turn the tide of the war, Vulcan becomes possessed, sort of, by a demon. This demon offers you power, though you can choose to give in to the demon, which alters your appearance as well as giving you mastery of fire, or you can push it down and retain your humanity. The choice is yours, though in the end that choice (and others that follow) seem to do little to change the inevitable outcome, where you make one of two choices. Along your journey to the Worldheart (a mystical place of power), you travel through swamps, caves, a mountain village, and an ice draped fortress. There are sidequests and a fair variety of enemies to fight along the way, each who drop items that can be used for crafting useful supplies. You generally have one companion along for the ride, and they are at times useful but far too often fall quickly in battle, especially against a boss. Still alive long enough and they will revive, but mostly you’ll be finishing fights on your own. The final fight you face solo, and that’s where you wished you could have had a little help.
Vulcan can follow three different paths- Warrior, Ranger, and Pyromancer. The Warrior is strictly a melee class, using both swords and axes in combat. Rangers use primarily daggers, and Pyromancers, of course, use magic to control fire. You can mix and match as you choose, and in truth a more rounded character may serve you a bit better. A simple button press switches you from Warrior to Ranger mode, and you hold down a shoulder button in conjunction with a face button to use magic attacks, fire your crossbow, or plant explosive traps. Most fights will end up requiring you to use a variety of tactics, and with the press of another shoulder button you can slow things down should you need a health or mana potion to replenish yourself. Up to four attacks can be mapped to face buttons, if you choose to do so, or access them through the tactical menu. While combat is real time and action based, it isn’t always just a button mashing affair, though that can get you through a lot of battles. Combat proves to be generally fun, and is one of the game’s strong points.
Exploration doesn’t always yield much, though you will find the odd treasure chest or barrel with useful items and supplies. Often branching paths simply lead to more enemies, which of course can be killed to gain supplies for crafting. Crafting is a simple affair, which works nicely for the game. As long as you have the required materials, you can craft health and mana potions, crossbow bolts, explosive traps, and you can modify your weapons and armor. Take note that should you follow the way of the demon after a certain point you will not be able to equip helmets, due to the horns that grow out of your head. Vulcan’s form changes quite a bit if you let the demon take over, with flames sprouting along his body, his skin attaining a burnt look, and, of course, the horns, which grow larger towards the game’s end.
Vulcan’s companions are varied, but often stilted voice acting and some silly dialogue make them less than what they could have been. Along the way you’ll meet the Russian accented knight Randval, the priest’s daughter Sybil, and the witch Edwen, among others. One of the most interesting characters is Mathras, a staff wielding 6000 year old zombie. Mathras provides some very amusing lines, and is somewhat helpful in certain sections of the game. The AI can be a bit problematic, though you can adjust how your companion approaches combat, whether you want them to be aggressive or have them hold back as a support. All too often your companions will charge into battle when you don’t necessarily want them too, such as when you’re trying a stealthy approach or just want to run through an area and evade a fight. It doesn’t detract too much from the game, but it can frustrate from time to time.
Speaking of frustrating, your map is not always the best help in finding your way. It’s fine if everything is on the same level, like in the sewers, but when you have multiple levels like the fortress the guiding arrows can be a bit confusing to sort out, especially between those designating multiple quests. Your journal can help should you become unsure as to what to do next. And then there are the glitches and flaws. Occasionally during combat I had the area I was in disappear, leaving me and my foes floating against a grey background. Figures clip through scenery regularly. Your controls won’t always respond, nor will your attacks always have a consistent effect. Making things a bit cheap is when enemies are whittled down and then retreat to a certain point on the stage that takes them right back to full health. At least, for the most part, checkpoints are generous and you can save whenever you’d like, ensuring you’ll never lose much progress should you die. And you will die, as enemies can be tough, and some will relentlessly pursue you.
In the end, Bound by Flame was an ambitious venture by a smaller developer, and they should be commended for trying. A lot of time they succeed, but the flaws ultimately show the lack of polish and funding that could have made this so much more (that even extends to spelling errors in the text, among them Vulcan being spelled Volcan at one point). It’s an RPG that almost could, but didn’t quite make the grade to hold up with the better AAA titles out there. That being said, this is not an awful game. In fact, it’s generally competent and fun to play. Hopefully this will provide the building blocks for their next outing, and with any luck that will prove to be a more satisfying experience. For this title, it makes for a decent rental. For those looking to purchase, you may be better off waiting for a price drop. It may not prove to be a memorable game, but it makes for a nice diversion while it lasts, as long as you appreciate the effort that was made to create the world of Vertiel.
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