YEAR OF RELEASE: 2014
PRICE AT LAUNCH: $49.99
METACRITIC SCORE: 53
WHAT IS IT?
A poor man’s Dragon Age, with hints of The Witcher and Bayonetta. This is the Beastmaster of the PS3 library: silly, low-budget, and not in on the joke. But still kind of fun!
HAD I HEARD OF IT? YES… BUT I HAD NEVER PLAYED IT.
- I eyed the PlayStation 4 version of the game when it launched, because there was a pretty limited selection of new titles. Glad I waited until it was free.
WHO MADE IT? SPIDERS.
- Spiders is French studio that’s produced a series of games I had never heard of on last-generation console and PC. A few Sherlock Holmes games. An XBLA/PSN/PC action title set on Mars. A medieval title called Of Orcs and Men.
- The part of the game market that Spiders inhabits is fascinating to me. Their games are obviously profitable enough to keep the studio going, but questions abound: where do people hear about games like Bound by Flame? Why do people decide to buy this, instead of a game in the same genre with better production values? Are most sales achieved at a discount price? Is there some regional loyalty going on, with French consumers being particularly keen to play them?
FIRST HOUR IMPRESSION: A+ AMBITION, D+ EXECUTION
- Mechanically, the game is fun. It’s an RPG brawler, in the vein of Dragon Age Inquisition and The Witcher. You have combos, reversals, counters, and spells, which blend well and are flexible enough to allow for developing a personalized play style.
- Skill trees provide the impression of a high level of customization. The user interface is clean and easy to understand.
- The visuals are really rough. The color palette feels limited to brown, red and grey. Characters animate stiffly. Female characters look ridiculous, with their curves falling out of their costumes.
- The dialogue is AWFUL. Really, some of the worst I’ve ever heard. Every character swears like a sailor in the most awkward, forced manner imaginable.
- The game aims for large scale action sequences and massive boss battles, but they come off as cut-rate when compared to the action games you’re used to playing (God of War, The Witcher).
THIRD HOUR IMPRESSION: I COULD KEEP PLAYING IF I HAD NOTHING BETTER ON TAP. BUT SINCE I DO HAVE BETTER OPTIONS…
- The game is too hard.
- Navigation is a real headache. It’s easy to get lost, despite the fact that you’re always just walking down barely disguised corridors.
- The map is useless unless you blow it up to fill the screen, at which point it’s impossible to see what’s going on.
- Progression is often gated in fiction-breaking ways. When you are facing enemies that dramatically overpower you, your instinct is to run. But your escape can be blocked by foot-tall obstacles, mysteriously insurmountable until your foes are defeated.
- The story and characters are unappealing. This is a pretty big issue in an RPG.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Spiders releases all of its games through Focus Interactive, who specialize in low-budget/quirky products, including Farm Simulator, Pro Cycling Manager and Cities XL.
DID I COMPLETE IT? NO!
- In this blog, I commit to playing for three hours per game. I’ve always felt that this is a fair amount of time for a game’s strengths to emerge, so nothing is written off too quickly. If I had spent fifty bucks on this game, it would not pain me to continue, but I’m glad I had other things to move on to.
HOW DOES IT WORK ON VITA? TOUGH TO CONTROL.
- You can’t remap the buttons, and this game is very reliant on using all of the shoulder buttons. This makes VITA play a little tricky. Nothing you can’t get used to, but your fingers will be going through a learning curve.
- The game actually looks much better on the smaller screen. The shoddy visuals are less of an eye sore when they’re made more compact.
HOW LONG DO YOU HAVE TO PLAY BEFORE YOU’VE GOTTEN THE GIST? 3 HOURS.
- It takes a long while before you’ve effectively started ramping up your character. You initial weapons and skills are very limited, so if you jump in, know that the game gets better with time. If you’re not sold after three hours (I wasn’t), it’s reasonable to move on.
I worked at a video store in college, where limited stock dramatically impacted a customer’s viewing options. People would come in to rent the biggest releases of the week. But we’d only stock roughly 10 copies of each big title, and when those copies were gone, customers would move to the catalog sections to find something that they hadn’t seen before. At that point, it was all about the cover. If the cover promised something truly gross, sexy, or action-packed, it would always find a taker on the weekend, no matter how old it was. The Beastmaster, Faces of Death, and Red Shoe Diaries were real standouts.
Bound by Flame really does feel like the video game equivalent of The Beastmaster, an analogy made more potent since PlayStation Now feels a bit like a video rental store. Bound by Flame isn’t worth $50 – but in a zero cost (or rental cost) scenario, it has its pleasures. Just like the classic B-movies you grew up with, the dialogue is camp to the point of being quote-worthy. The monsters are a bit more endearing because you can see their seams (or polygons, in this case). And the T&A on display is just hilarious.
When I was in film school, I learned that the best student productions understood budget limitations, and aimed to tell a personal story. The worst were the Quentin Tarantino rip-offs, which invariably turned out to be boring, over-long, and poorly written. In the indie game scene, it seems that the same rules apply. I’d imagine that Bound by Flame had a bigger budget to work with than most digital-only PSN titles, but that they had a fraction of the budget that games like Dragon Age wield. So what we get is a cut-rate AAA wanna-be. What could this game have been if the development team decided to produce something we’ve never seen before? A No Man’s Sky with a bigger team? There are talented guys at Spider, as the compelling battle mechanics demonstrate. If they could pull a Starbreeze – make some licensed games that keep the lights on, while exploring more personal products – they could actually be a studio to watch.
But as it is, if you want to play Dragon Age – just play Dragon Age.