Last year, an indie company known as Spiders released Mars: War Logs. This Sci-fi RPG was slightly over-ambitious, over a little too soon, and had a slightly wonky combat system. Despite its shortcomings, I found it to be rather enjoyable. It certainly wasn't a AAA title, but that was fine, because it worked. Bound by Flame is the developer's foray into the world of fantasy, but does that make for a better game?
Bound by Flame is essentially Mars: War Logs all over again. Its mechanics, from combat to dialogue and even decision making are ripped straight out of their previous game, but this time with a fantasy skin. However, these mechanics work better here. For example, Mars' combat was primarily melee, with guns being used as secondary choices. In a sci-fi setting, this just seemed out of place. Exchange spiked clubs for swords, and Bound by Flame's combat system just makes much more sense.
With that said, it's certainly not perfect. The game tries to do a good job at easing you in, offering up easy to defeat enemies, usually two at most. You'll think that you've got the hang of it until the game starts to throw five enemies at you at any given time. The problem is that the combat system just isn't built to take on that many enemies at a time.
Your main hero has two stances to choose from, a Warrior stance wielding a giant two-handed sword, and a Ranger stance which relies on quick combat with two daggers, but there is absolutely nothing defensive about either stance. Sure, you have a block button which does a pretty good job at decreasing damage, but the enemy attack patterns leave no openings for defense. There are also pyromancy spells that unfortunately don't end up feeling all that powerful.
Throughout the course of the game you meet a band of characters that will offer to join you on your adventure and act as battle companions. Sybil is a mage that focuses on healing. I thought this would be perfect way to stay alive while getting tossed around by five enemies at once, but turns out she's just not that good at healing. Either she doesn't do it, despite me ordering her to, or she dies before she gets a chance to. Edwen, on the other hand, is a powerful mage with mostly offensive spells and some mind control spells. She's slightly more effective, but I found her to be tad ineffective overall.
Much like Mars: War Logs, you can also upgrade your equipment on the fly using crafting materials you find or scavenge off of dead enemies. Upgrading your equipment is satisfying because it changes up the way it looks. For example, chest pieces have three slots that can be customized; the shoulders, waist and raiments, and changing each one alters the overall look of the armor piece. It also helps that every armor in the game looks great. This customization, though on a much more limited scale, applies to weapons as well.
However, if there was one department where Bound by Flame disappoints, it's the narrative. It's strange, because there are a lot of good ideas here that should have made the story better. What you need to know is that your character is a member of a mercenary group who by an unfortunate circumstance gets possessed by a Demon who wants to slowly take over his own mind and body. Your ultimate goal is to put a stop to an all-encompassing evil known as the Ice Lords. These antagonists are menacing, sure, but they're also evil just for the sake of being evil. You need a force to hate in the game, and without really knowing what their motives are, your character is motivated to bring them down.
Throughout various points of the game, your character can choose to tackle an objective in one of two ways; succumb to the Demon inside and slow let him take over, or preserve your humanity, and essentially extend your questline a little bit more. Your character will alter in appearance thanks to these choice, much like Fable slowly turned your character into a monstrosity the more evil you were. Here though it's not just cosmetic. I was unable to equip certain armor anymore, like helmets, because my character now had horns. Genius. I lost some defensive power this way but it was a trade-off for some of the power from the Demon.
By the end game though, it was more of a test of patience than genuine curiosity about the game's conclusion. Enemies were obviously harder, but I never felt like my character was getting that much better. Each hit from an enemy would take a quarter of my health, meaning I'd have to keep retrying battles or make sure I have enough healing potions that I could keep chugging to stay alive. The combat in games like Dark Souls is hard but fair, but here it seems like the exact opposite.
Bound by Flame by all accounts ends up being a rather mediocre experience. There are various systems and mechanics that work brilliantly, but are sadly overshadowed by a largely forgettable story and a flawed combat system that ends up testing your patience rather than testing your mettle.