With a couple of rather average RPGs under its belt, Spiders looked to be on the verge of releasing its first truly great RPG. Promising rich and dynamic combat, a compelling narrative, and a dark fantasy world overrun with the armies of the dead, Bound by Flame – on the surface, at least – certainly looked like it could finally be the game the French developer has been hinting at for the last few years.
The player is Vulcan, a warrior tasked with protecting the last remnants of resistance in a long-fought war against the Necromantic Ice Lords and a near-endless army of Undead. The main conceit is that early on, Vulcan is possessed by a fire demon giving him or her access to elemental attacks and skills that can be used to augment combat. This demonic influence not only adds to Vulcan’s combat prowess, but alters his or her appearance as the demonic forces are used.
This demonic influence is at the core of the Bound by Flame experience, in that it provides a moral choice as well as some meaningful decisions regarding Vulcan’s abilities. Choosing to follow the demonic path alters the game's combat dynamics, but also influences Vulcan’s limited interactions with NPCs in the game, as his face and body are consumed by his curse.
Combat in the game is mechanically very strong. Altering combat styles, changing weapons, and using demonic powers all happens in a highly reactive fashion, and in theory these things provide some interesting choices and opportunities for the player. Seeing as combat is about the only solution to any problem in the game, it’s a good thing that so much effort was put in to nailing the fundamentals of Vulcan’s skill set.
It’s such a shame, then, that almost every other game element is handled so poorly. For starters, there was simply no thought put in to balance. Constantly faced with nigh-unbeatable combinations of ranged enemies and close combat creatures, combat far too often becomes frustrating and unfair.
Unlike Demons Souls where the difficulty is due to design, in Bound by Flame the difficulty arises due to a complete lack of it.
Vulcan’s travelling companions are essentially useless, and more often than not add to the combat frustrations with their paper-like defenses and apparent inability to use their impressive-looking weapons. Yet enemies frequently strike down the player’s party with one-hit kills, and are also little too fond of auto-healing should the player manage to inflict any serious damage.
Add to that the fact that despite looking like a total badass, Vulcan hits like sickly child desperately in need of a good meal, and what should be the high point of the game instead is its most glaring flaw.
Unfortunately, things don’t improve elsewhere. Bound by Flame’s story is at best generic, but more often than not is cringe-inducingly trite. The central narrative is completely devoid of a compelling thrust, and its universe populated entirely by shallow, unlikeable, and poorly-written NPCs. Even Vulcan is a barely-likable ass for the most part.
The voice acting department does the hackneyed script no favours either. As in previous Spiders games, for every passable actor there is a chorus of inept and amateurish voices defeating any sense of immersion.
The only real highlight in the whole experience is the wonderful music, which provides a thumping, kinetic backdrop during combat, and an ethereal and highly-evocative atmosphere during the quieter moments. It never wears out its welcome, and is the only genuine pleasure to be had in the 15 hours it takes to complete the game.
Visually, Bound by Flame does a good job despite its limited budget. NPCs, locations, and objects are all rendered in great detail with high resolution textures skinning the entire game. The monsters Vulcan encounters are also wonderfully-detailed, and while some lack originality, all look suitably monstrous and intimidating.
If only the rest of the game had been given as much attention, things could have turned out very differently. Instead, Spiders has again released a fundamentally flawed game that only shows very occasional hints of real brilliance.