macholucha's Bound by Flame (PlayStation 3) review

Like Killing Plants And Zombies? Play Something Else.

How often does the opening of a game feature the courageous hero, musclebound and full of bravado, struggling to take out a single enemy? Bound By Flame has a strange dichotomy where cutscenes and gameplay seem don’t seem to convey the same sense of struggle. After a demon find its way into your body as the result of a ritual gone wrong, he often derides the hero as being pitiful, although the game has you slaughter hordes of enemies even without his powers. Of course he’s going to want to break your will and rely on his powers so he can take over your body, but it’s odd that despite all the game outwardly says, the way it plays doesn’t really back this up.

The world doesn’t give the sense of urgency that humanity is on its death throes that the story would like you to believe. You enter a ransacked city at one point and are asked to recover heirlooms from the dead bodies, all twenty of them. I will give them credit for the antagonist Blackfrost being kind of awesome, he doesn’t really give off the typical evil overlord vibes, he’s remarkably chill, in fact I’d have been more interested in playing the game from his perspective. But as it is, you take your rag tag team of adventurers to stop evil people from messing around with the world’s source of power, with your own internal conflict of do you accept your inner demon’s help or not?

Of course I did, I wanted to see how you transform… At first you get glowing eyes, I was severely disappointed. Ultimately you end up looking like a demon, though nobody at all is even slightly troubled by that.

You’ll have a number of party members to take with you; a healer, a magic user (who of course has revealing clothing), an undead guy who just seems to die a lot. Sadly, since you can only choose to bring a single member with you, it never really feels like you’re much of a party. The game offers an incentive to at least talk to them by having character specific side-quests; Sybil wanted cheering up and taking to a library, they’re not exactly fascinating sub plots.

Leveling up feels odd in that it doesn’t directly increase any statistics, instead you’re given two different types of skill points; the first type increases your combat skills, so you can choose to improve the types of attacks you use more often; better chances for criticals, more damage with the fire spells etc. The second type is for passive benefits; health/magic increase, potions recover more, things cost less components to make. It’s an interesting approach, but I only found a few different things I cared about putting points into and I never really felt any stronger, kind of nullifying the point of levelling up.

I also ended up with more magic points than health… What kind of warrior boasts that?

Another “typical” RPG convention Bound By Flame breaks is that the shops are completely useless. Sure they have stuff for sale, but it’s almost consistently worse than the stuff you’ll have found littering the streets of the level preceding the shop. The game offers a crafting system, which keeps you topped up with any supplies you’ll need as well, leaving me wondering if they just put in shops because RPGs are expected to have them. I guess it offers an alternative to having to search every corner for loot, but then you’ll have the problem that the game doesn’t exactly line your pockets with gold, even when I was selling every surplus item that I wasn’t using I was still rarely able to afford anything. I think I bought one piece of armour the entire game.

Sadly the one RPG convention it refuses to break away from is that a lot of the side content is fetch quests.

There are two different forms of combat on offer; big weapons or daggers. You can switch between them whenever you want, but since you have to dump points into them as your only way of improving the character, it makes sense to work out which you prefer early on and stick to it. For me the bigger weapons felt far too slow and since enemies can take you out in a couple of hits, it made sense to go for the daggers. There’s magic on offer, but it’s basically shoot a fireball or slap fire on your weapons. Oddly you’re given two buttons to attack per style; but there’s no combo-ing available, making battles a chore since it’s mash the button until you need healing.

The daggers offers stealth kills, though the “Press X To Kill” prompt doesn’t work.

The levels aren’t particularly inspired, most branch out into loops but they’re not particularly long and converge into single entry and exit points. The forks in the road don’t really offer enough variety or promises of treasure to make it worthwhile to explore the entire map, though the game tasks you with traveling through the same areas over and over, so you may end up doing so without intending to. Of course the way is littered with enemies, but in each location you’ll end up fighting specific clusters of enemies, to the extent that every battle feels almost identical. The choices of enemies aren't particularly inspired, despite the constant threat of the undead killing off the last survivors of humanity at any moment, you spend the first third of the game fighting plant monsters. The few bosses on offer don’t really expand on this, since I used the same process for fighting them as I did any other enemy, for the most part they even just use the same area of effect spells other “normal” enemies have.

What makes the experience even worse is that there are only a handful of enemy models in the game. Actually, expand that out to cover all NPCs in general, outside of the story-centric characters, you’ll just be running into the same characters over and over. The audio side of things is sufficient, though battles feel rather silent since there’s pretty much only the swooshing of swords and crackling of magic spells, characters remain oddly sombre while fighting for their lives. Most of the background music seems to include chanting for some reason, which doesn’t really feel like it fits, outside of the summoning a demon aspect.

There’s nothing fundamentally broken with the game, but it looks unpolished and feels unbalanced. Yes it was released at a slightly discounted price, but not enough to make up for how it excels at being mediocre in every way.

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