Version tested PlayStation 4
As anyone who struggled through Orphen on the PS2 will tell you, the first RPG of a hardware generation is rarely an impressive experience. The vast amount of content that needs to be created for your average dungeon-crawler also makes them quite rare in the first year of any console. Bound By Flame neatly solves this problem by having so little content you could write the plot on the back of cereal packet and still have room for a large picture of Snap, Crackle and Pop laughing and counting your money.
Bound By Flame is a poster-boy for the janky Euro-RPG, a genre loved by contrarians everywhere. These games are packed with typos, glitchy animation and poorly rendered cut-scenes - and on this level the game excels, even misspelling the name of your protagonist in the loading screen hints. The setting is a deeply sub-Tolkien fantasy milieu: the world of Vertiel has been overtaken by Ice Lords, and the virtuous Red Scribes are looking for an ancient power that will help even the score. Of course, their ritual to invoke it goes badly wrong, and as the Red Scribes' bodyguard Vulcan, you end up getting a demon stuck inside you. Will you succumb to its world-conquering desires or will you do the right thing? The right thing obviously being to go and play something, anything else.
Bound By Flame desperately wants to be Mass Effect, with its interpersonal relationships, moral dilemmas and gritty dialogue, but it manages to mess it up every time. Take the character creation screen: you can pick your character's name, but everyone calls you Vulcan anyway. I went for a female character, only to discover that everyone called her 'lad' regardless. And while it may seem like a minor point, it's sad that the only hairstyles available for girls are soccer mom, skinhead and Miley Cyrus.
There's a desperate lack of innovation here. Developer Spiders, which made Of Orcs and Men, has attempted to tick all the RPG checkboxes - a crafting system, a talent tree, lots of stats - but none of it feels particularly meaningful and the upgrades are often barely noticeable. You'll mainly spend your time alternating between fetch-quests and a handful of boss fights. Even these get recycled a lot; fighting five different concubine bosses is really just an excuse for them to wheel out the same character model five times. There's some variation in the combat - you can change your stance between warrior or ranger, and use magic in either - but only the ranger seemed particularly effective, with the warrior being far too slow and the pyromancy too weak.
Enemies seem to level with you, so you never really feel like a badass, and there's barely a single bad guy that can't be defeated by running around its back and hammering the square button for a few minutes. The loot drops are particularly disappointing. Pretty much every monster in the game drops nothing but crafting materials and there can't be more than 50 weapons and armour pieces to find in the whole game. What's worse is that none of them feel significantly more powerful than any other. Bound By Flame is also notable for having the most expensive shops ever seen in an RPG; after playing for three hours and without spending a single penny, I'd amassed a grand total of 127 gold pieces, which was enough to purchase three small health potions from one of the greedy vendors.
As much as it's become fashionable to browbeat games for their attitude towards women, Bound By Flame's outright sexism really does deserve a mention. The script is littered with "sluts" and "whores" and "concubines", while the scenario insists on placing the ridiculously busty Edwen and the various concubines into costumes that could charitably be described as chilly. It feels like the game was put together by a bunch of grubby and nastily misogynistic teenagers.
It can't even keep a consistency of tone in the writing; the lead character's dialogue uses modern affectations while everyone else seems afflicted by Ye Olde Tourette's. Admittedly, some characters - like undead chap extraordinaire Mathras and chirpy Ice Lord Blackfrost (who looks suspiciously like the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) - are quite amusing. But their appearances are fleeting.
Bound By Flame is ridiculously short for an RPG, screeching to an abrupt halt after around 10 hours. This 'epic' journey takes you through a swamp, an icy mountain, a sewer system, a city - and that's it. Maybe spending a third of the game wading though effluent is some sort of meta commentary on its development, but that seems to be giving the developers too much credit.
It seems safe to assume that a massive amount of content was cut. Despite the seven Ice Lords being mentioned at every turn, Lord Blackfrost is the only one you actually get to meet. I was stunned when I reached what appeared to be the midway point, only to see a feeble cut-scene that explained that the game was over and that my character had saved the day off camera. Imagine if Star Wars ended just before the trench run, with Han Solo popping up to describe it and tell you that the Death Star subsequently exploded and how exciting it all was, before rolling the credits. It's absolutely baffling.
Simply by staggering across the finish line first, Bound By Flame may seem to be an attractive proposition for PS4 RPG fans, but don't be fooled. With its shonky cut-scenes, its outdoor sound effects that play indoors and its linear maps, this is in no way a current-gen experience. It's a budget offering at a premium price - and a poor one at that.
4 / 10