As the gaming medium evolves as an art form (yes, an art form), developers increasingly undertake the task of addressing difficult and diverse topics. This occurs occasionally in “big” releases, probably most famously with Spec Ops: The Line, which primarily dealt with the psychological toll of war. In general, however, the conversation-starter titles are more often found in the indie realm. Games like Among the Sleep and That Dragon Cancer, dealing with alcoholism/child abuse and the death of a child, respectively, are created by small teams and seek to tackle subject matter that is decidedly “unfun.”
Bound from Plastic, with a little help from Santa Monica Studio, seeks to do the same. At the heart of their game is an all-to-familiar to many story of a broken family. Because the experience is so short — in the 3-5 hour range — it would be a little too revealing to discuss the narrative further. It is enough to say that the tale the game ultimately tells is a sad one. The depth of its impact on the individual player will be left to their own ability to be open to emotion and based on their own personal experiences with similar situations. As it is with all forms of art, this isn’t for everyone. Bound, in its own way, does a commendable job confronting the concerns of the events portrayed.
When it comes to story-driven experiences such as this, gameplay is often a secondary concern. Puzzles and mechanics are usually uncomplicated, going so far as to become simply linear interactive experiences colloquially known as “walking simulators.” Bound’s approach is a beautiful and fluid one, as all of the movement and combat — if it can be called that — are carried out through dance. You’ll forgive me if I lack the collective dance terminology to correctly ascribe to the movements, but the main character leaps, twirls and slides through the game with a casual grace, and mostly with a feathery weight. It’s gorgeous, and the transitions are flawless, though sometimes slow.
The rounded movement is a nice contrast to the hard-edged and ever-shifting mechanical world made of blocks and segmented spheres. Dangers outside of falling come in nebulous forms which either directly entangle the player-character or fling projectiles at them. Damage is avoided through again, dance, with balletic dodges or in-place ballet. The simplistic controls are easy to pickup, the only trouble coming with short-spaced jumps, and for me, issues with alternate routes on top of the spheres. Outside of any frustrations with the controls deaths are hardly penalized, making missteps fairly inconsequential.
This is all a setup for a good experience to wrap around an important story. Trouble is, there’s not quite enough there. The move-set is limited. The flowing style never quite gets old, due in large part to the brief length, but it felt much too passive of an experience at times. “Combat” could have easily been expanded with the reflection of projectiles at bosses for example. Instead the approach and conclusion for each gameplay level will be the same.
While I enjoyed the visual aesthetic, it too could have used a little more diversity throughout the stages. The sound designed paired fairly well, but was a little grating in parts and, again, limited. It’s a small team and small project, granted; my overall feeling remains that the concepts weren’t quite carried far enough to make the game feel like a complete experience.
One thing that I noticed nearly instantly on my playthrough was that Bound was an excellent candidate for speedrunning. Low and behold on completion of the first run-through of the game a speedrun option is unlocked in the main menu. This is a brilliant move by the development team. It instantly extends the replay value of the title, which already stands at reasonable $19.99, by adding competition via this mode. Already the leaderboards are filled with ridiculous times, and you can find many videos on Youtube and players on Twitch.
I appreciate what Plastic have done here; its not an easy thing to do, surrounding a social discussion/examination with actual gameplay. They succeed to a fair degree here despite any qualms I have with the diversity of the gameplay and visuals, and the execution of the narrative. It will be interesting to see what they do next. I recommend the title for those who are interested in the examination of challenging subjects and elegant movement, though it may be a better experience at a slightly smaller price. Speedrunners, likewise, will probably enjoy spending some time with game. Hardcore-only minded gamers should probably avoid this one.
A copy was provided for review by the publisher. Bound is a PS4 exclusive title.
Developer: Plastic Studios, SIE Santa Monica Studio | Publisher: SIE Santa Monica Studio | Genre: Platform, Indie | PEGI/ESRB: 17/E | Release Date: August 23, 2016