If ever there were a game that I would set forth as a champion for cult gaming it would be Bound By Flame.
It is the proverbial diamond in the rough, an overlooked gem despite portions of mediocrity. It is a fantasy RPG that has the gall to try something different. This game is best experienced on PS4 and to be completely honest it’s my favorite PS4 game yet. Killzone Shadow Fall was sub par and inFamous: Second Son was a very watered down version of the franchise with a terrible main character. Bound By Flame may not be a AAA production but it knows what it is and any gamer that gives it a real chance will be at least mildly impressed. Who knows, you might even see what I see in it.
What does it try different? The combat system and the level/exploration progression. In most aspects you can tell that Spiders is doing their very best at a Bioware impression. Since they don’t have the same kind of money or resources the game is ultimately much more constrained. The result is that you feel the part you play in your drama is important to what is going on in a bigger set of world events that you can’t see. There’s a healthy back story full of good mythology too.
The combat is quite difficult and I along with a few other people I know had to start over from normal and switch to easy (you can’t switch on the fly). You get daggers for quick or stealth attacks and a large weapon that can be a sword, axe, or hammer. Fun fact: This is the only game I’ve ever seen where the weapon on your back actually fits right onto a place for it instead of hovering a foot off the character’s back in mid air. The game cannot be played with button mashing, you will be destroyed. You can’t take on crowds, you will be destroyed. This is a game where every fight counts and almost every enemy presents a real threat. You have to use the environment or your spells to get them alone and then duel them on your own terms. This requires expert timing, proper position, patience, and a great deal of restraint.
With your large weapon you can make weak and strong attacks or charge the strong attack for a series of blows. The enemies won’t let you just do these things, they will block and parry and take you down without smart engagement. To do this you’ll have to use a perfectly timed block to slip past their attack and get a strike on them. Even that won’t always work but you can give a swift knee or stout kick to knock them back and off their guard. Don’t get cocky though, they recover quickly. The moves are natural and varied so battles come off as impressively won. When you make a great dramatic set of moves or catch them with a parry time will slow down for that classic cinematic slow motion scene. Don’t worry about pushing the stick toward the enemy while fighting, you’ll stick to them allowing you to focus on every button press (every one is important).
With your daggers you can slip into stealth mode and creep up on enemies, based on your stats you’ll have a certain massive blow effect. After that though the enemies around tend to see you, it’s good to try to add a stealth blow to any assault whenever possible. Daggers also make for much swifter attacks so pressing the light attack button again and again can be effective for a time. The hard attacks mix things up and can also be charged for a flurry of blows, but it’s hard to find time to charge without getting hit. You can still block but if you want to get in a counterattack the kick button now gives you the ability to jump back. If you execute the jump on time you’ll bounce back then lurch forward with a series of cuts in slow motion that can serve as a beginning to a combo.
The enemies are wily and have varied attack patterns so no one strategy will work on every enemy and you have to learn what to do with them all. How you approach battle is everything. You also have to keep in mind that your stats decide your chances at interrupting the enemy’s attack. I’ve noticed that I can have a hell of a time with exterminating four enemies that eventually kill me, and then on the next try a new approach easily allows me to kill them all without getting a scratch on me. The crafting system is a lot of fun and provides you with boosts and physical changes to your armor and weapons. That’s the gist of the combat, there is much more to it like the skill trees and fire powers and weapon customization but you can see how it isn’t concocted for mainstream mashers like other games in the genre.
The progression is something different which uses limited resources to progress through a linear plot in a different way. You do get a create a character mode at the beginning but it’s a bit restrictive. The structure begins with your mercenary squad and the Red Scribes who you are protecting, as you go you set up a forward operating base at each location and then go questing through the maps nearby. When all the quests are done (there are also optional side quests which can help with your character relationships) then you make decisions on how to proceed to the next area. While the game touts a lot of choice unfortunately it doesn’t make much difference except in the characters who accompany you and the cut scenes you see (and of course the physical appearance of your character). No matter how you choose to go or who with, you will end up in the same places doing mostly the same things. It’s a good start for this small team though, and there’s something special about taking the demon route and letting it into your mind. You can watch your body change gradually into a demon while your mind is slowly taken over and nobody is quite sure which of you is speaking.
Obviously the game got some low scores for a reason. The voice acting is pretty bad in many cases, the world isn’t particularly large, and there aren’t a ton of skills and abilities for you. It wasn’t chastised for massive technical problems though, which means it’s fully enjoyable. On the good side of things the musical score is absolutely astounding. It commands the gamer to take the world and its inhabitants seriously, which draws you into the dark and bleak environments. The composer wanted to bring a sense of loneliness and despair; he was successful. BBF doesn’t provide the greatest graphics of AAA quality but they do more than the necessary job and have their own unique look. Most things look somewhat realistic and then at a distance they begin to take on an outlined graphic novel look to them. I liked it in Mars: War Logs and it’s on full display here to good effect.
Something I don’t know if any critics remarked on is the enemy and character design. They are very good all around even if they do tend to fit right into some stereotypes. Your undead friend Mathras and the “witch” Edwin are great companions that are fun to just look at and are even occasionally funny. The enemies are a breath of fresh air. In a world of generic monsters even the basic undead, called Deadwalkers in this game, have a different look to them as you can see in their detail during cut scenes. Large bosses are also imaginative along with environmental troublemakers. Usually you only see well designed bad guys outside of Japan, but Spiders has done a fine job of putting work into these models.
If you did get a chance to try the budget title Mars: War Logs you’re quickly able to see that Spiders has made big strides since that game. Though they still make amateur mistakes and don’t have a big budget it’s difficult not to root for these guys after seeing what they are capable of. After playing this game I plan to support their next project with another day 1 purchase.
Bound By Flame is another work from Spiders that has a large and wonderful scope in an interesting world but is ultimately more enjoyable as an intimate, confined and largely linear adventure. The great difficulty that made critics go nuts isn’t nearly as demanding as the Dark Souls series and can easily be alleviated with the easy difficulty on. The combat is something different and ultimately addicting in its fun factor. The story isn’t epic and you can’t do as much with companion relationships as you might’ve hoped but talking to them for information, using their talents in battle, and seducing some of them is good enough for this game.
Cult Gamers simply should not miss BBF. Overlook a few things and you’ll have a great time with it. I was fine with paying $50 for it but I think most of you would probably peg its worth at about $30-$40 so perhaps you can find it for that price. I encourage everyone to at least buy it new even after a price drop just to support Spiders, they deserve it.