Bound by Flame would make for an amazing heavy metal band name. Picturing long flowing hair flailing around as the metallic strings of a Gibson guitar are strummed furiously amidst choke-inducing smoke from pyrotechnics is quite easy. This elaborate fantasy cobbled together in my head pleases me with hopes that it was actually real. Instead, we get the reality that Bound by Flame is nothing more than a sub-par role-playing game.
As far as fantasy stories go, Bound by Flame seems of the standard fare. With the world on the way to extinction from the Ice Lords with an army of undead, humanity’s last bastion of hope lies in the hands of the Red Scribes. You play Vulcan, a member of the ruthless group of mercenaries known as the Freeborn Blades. While guarding the Red Scribes during their ritual to end the war, things go awry and a powerful demon now inhabits Vulcan. With this demon sharing your body, you must decide if embracing the demon inside is wise or retain your humanity while saving the world. The whole good versus evil turmoil inside of Vulcan starts off great, yet falters more and more as the story progresses.
To help make the decisions to push you to either side of the moral scale are dialogue trees in Bound by Flame. With the abundance of dialogue present in the game, it can almost feel like you are playing a point-and-click adventure. The sheer amount of words I had to read could be bounded together in a three part book series. It’s a good thing that for the most part, the voice acting is adequate. Some may have an issue with the amount of cursing the characters spill out. I felt that this added to the believability of being part of a bad ass mercenary group. If action war movies have taught me anything, it’s that soldiers love to curse, a lot. The delivery of some of the dialogue can be all over the place. One moment you have perfect tone and emotion conveyed from a character. Then not a minute later, everything seems to go lifeless. Still, there is some sort of charm in how bad the voice acting can get.
Bound by Flame can look pretty fantastic at times. Everything has a cel-shaded look that pleases the eye. Views overlooking a chasm with the sun high in the sky is a stunning view. As you make your way through different areas and hub towns, the shine starts to wear off a little but manages to not degrade into something terrible or grungy looking. The same cannot be said about the character models. Everyone ends up looking too plain. The detail that went into creating the world didn’t seem to carry over to the characters. It makes believing the emotions of someone speaking difficult to relate with when the expressions and body language is wooden. The one standout thing about character models can be attributed to the transformation of Vulcan to full-on demon if you choose that path. As you let the demon take control little by little, your outward appearance starts to change into something inhuman. Horns start jutting out of your forehead, the color of your skin turns black as charred coal, eyes as red as the blood spilt by the entity inside you and flames dancing on your shoulder in delight. With these mutations, helmets can no longer grace your head and the armor worn will show damage from the scorching flames emanating from your body. Even the voice pitch of Vulcan will change to mimic what would sound like a demon possessing you.
Calling Bound by Flame an action role-playing game is sort of misleading. When I think of an action role-playing game, I think of fast movements, being able to react to enemies at a moments notice or use items instantly. Going into battle with these notions will get you killed. Even as I write this, I have a love/hate relationship with the combat in Bound by Flame. On one hand, I enjoy the slower pace of combat when I engage an enemy. Not being able to just mash attack to win, makes you think before you leap into battle. Getting the timing down to block or dodge right as a gigantic axe is falling towards your head, thus pulling off a counterattack can be very satisfying. What is not satisfying, however, is the cheap tactics deployed by the enemy AI. When enemies attack faster than Vulcan can react while ranged enemies snipe away at my meager health, all the fun is sucked out of the game. Even if you equip the best armor you can find, it seems to do little in terms of mitigating damage. However, this seems to be no issue with the enemies, being the damage sponges that they are.
Making things even worse are the two stances Vulcan can switch to on the fly. Warrior stance allows blocking, knock-backs and more powerful attacks. The Ranger stance provides a dodge mechanic, fast attacks and stealth attacks. The problem with this system is you cannot possibly switch fast enough to block or dodge when the time calls for either. Having either mechanic tied to a stance is frustrating in regards to the cheapness of enemy AI. Whether you attack, switch stances or use spells, be prepared to get interrupted and possibly knocked to the ground. As you stumble back up from the ground, it seems as though Vulcan had too much ale consumed the night before. In what seems like forever, Vulcan will finally stand up. All this would be ok, if it weren’t for the lumbering General of the Ice Lords charging your exposed guard.
Skill trees offer to make Vulcan more powerful by enhancing abilities or granting new ones. Upgrading the Warrior stance to have the ability to block from all sides, more resistant to knock-back and greater health regeneration seems great on paper. When put to use though, blocking from all sides in a group of enemies will trap you in endless attacks with no way of escaping the precious few hits Vulcan can endure. The upgrades to the dodge mechanic for the Ranger stance is also not too helpful. Even though you will get a sliver of a chance more to react, being restricted to only moving backwards is a big hindrance and negates the extra time to react. Since you will find yourself surrounded in the majority of fights, dodging a death blow only to ram your backside into the embrace of another blade is the opposite of what I want in the ability to dodge. Since a flame demon resides inside you, the magic of pyromancy ends up being the third fighting stance that you don’t need to switch to. Sadly, the demon’s flame wielding spells given to you are just as useless as most of the other skills. The only skill worth a damn was augmenting weapons with fire magic, thus increasing damage output with a chance to set a burn status with the touch of your weapon. The extra damage is nice, but with the enemies treating each hit like a tickle, it ends up being nothing more than cosmetic effect.
Having companions should help in your fight against the Ice Lords. Instead, you get the most incompetent partners I have ever seen. I would go into detail about the different characters at your choosing but it won’t matter none. From getting stuck on geometry to outright leaving you to go do whatever the hell is more important than surviving an encounter, the companions are utterly useless. Since they seem to die easier than you with no way to revive them without defeating all enemies in the vicinity, I would be better off venturing on my on.
Crafting is available, though not useful enough due to the lack of material found in Bound by Flame. In fact, the lack of loot found throughout my time with the game was disappointing. At least with what loot you can find, it enabled me to tell the shopkeepers to piss off. The weapons and armor you find are always better than the ones sold in shops. Which is great since the economy is non-existent. No matter how much you save in your piggy bank, it will never be enough to purchase that shimmering item in the shopkeeper’s window. Since crafting material is also hard to come by, recycling unused items will serve your needs better than haggling sale prices. Most of your equipment can have additional stats added to them by crafting upgrades for them. Choosing things like resistance from status effects or boosting attack speed are just some of the choices given to you. I never felt like these upgrades did much at all. Near the end, I spent what little scrap I had left to craft healing potions since those are the one thing you will use the most.
Bound by Flame wants to burn bright with the fiery passion of a great action role-playing game. It almost accomplishes this feat with mostly interesting dialogue told by the many characters you meet and combat that has a more strategical component instead of mashing your way through the battles. What turns that flame into a fizzle, however, is hard to ignore. Voice acting quality all over the place, stiff character animations, utterly useless companions, cheap enemy AI and lack of meaningful loot ends up charring any hopes of enjoyment to be had.