Side Quest is dedicated to RPG’s, in all their glorious variety. Most importantly, I’m looking for new stories. I’m looking for games that don’t settle for being “just another RPG”. Even if they’re games that are nolwhere near perfect, I’ll be looking for the ones that push against the norm, and bring new twists to a table already overflowing with ideas.
Today I want to take you through the frost-ravaged land of Vertiel on an epic quest to save the world from total devastation. Welcome to Bound by Flame, an action-RPG developed by Spiders, offering a grim fantasy world steeped in both high-fantasy elements and a hefty dose of gritty realism.
You take the role of Vulcan, a foul-mouthed, down-to-earth fighter, and part of an elite mercenary company called the Freeborn Blades. Although you are given the option to name your character, you’ll still be Vulcan to everyone – to the point they won’t even realise that you’re a completely different gender, should you choose to be. The game begins with you protecting a group of magical scholars, deep in an ancient temple. They’ve hired you to guard them as they prepare a way to stop the seven Ice Lords, a group of immensely powerful wizards using the land’s very life source, the Worldheart, to spread ice and death across the entire world.
This is where the game drops you in: the world already nearing its end, much of civilisation already destroyed and resurrected to swell the ranks of the same undead hordes being used to conquer it. But of course, even though you’re simply working for money, it wouldn’t be an RPG if you weren’t dragged into a world-changing conflict you’re not prepared for.
The game throws said big plot-driver a short way into the tutorial. Through a convenient twist of fate and a mysterious spell gone wrong, Vulcan ends up sharing brain-space with a rather testy spirit of flame – basically a polite way of saying “demon”. Other than spouting bizarrely Shakespearean verses at inappropriate moments, it also offers you access to its tremendous power to help you return it safely to its home in the Worldheart. This “accident” provides the remnants of civilisation one last chance to break the Ice Lords’ connection to the Worldheart before the land is encased in Ice forever.
Now I was actually quite excited when I first looked at this game. I’ve always had a fondness for branching plots and endings in which your choices can, and often will, make important differences to the fate of the world. This game promised quite a lot on its Steam page. I recall a line that immediately piqued my interest: “all your choices lead to consequences”. I’ve seen plenty of games make similar claims, but each time I always end up crossing my fingers for some true consequence-driven story, only to end up heavily disappointed. If Bound by Flame had succeeded in this, even just a little, it would have been a fantastic achievement for such a low-budget game.
Sadly, a lot of what I’d hoped this game would accomplish fell far short of my expectations. It only took me an hour or two to essentially give up on experiencing a well-written or even interesting story thanks to the script and voice acting see-sawing between awkwardly wooden to just plain horrible. I could count on one hand the number of times a character said anything I hadn’t heard barked a dozen times in any other fantasy game, and even less of these moments had any half-decent voice acting to give the dialogue any impact.
Due to the lacklustre performances from the game’s voice actors, I never managed to connect to any of the characters, even the companion NPCs that joined me on my journey. Especially since most of them had very little of use to say outside of very specific quests. A few of these quests did do a fantastic job in making me feel like my decisions had an impact on the way my companions acted, or even whether or not they would choose to stay with me. In these moments, I found myself defusing situations between my comrades, or having a private word after a trying situation. These conversations lent a hint of personal drama to the story, even though your dialogue options tend towards either blunt tactlessness, or low-brow mercenary humour; seemingly Vulcan’s only methods of communication throughout the entire game.
Unfortunately, I found that my choices weren’t as impactful as I expected after I reloaded some of these quests. Despite choosing totally different dialogue options, I was disappointed to find that most of them still ended up with me keeping my companion regardless. They even acted exactly the same way as they had in my original playthrough.
This is really the biggest issue I had with the story as there are only a few points in the game where your choices will cause any real differences in the narrative – all clearly labelled as to how impactful they will be on the rest of the game. In these situations, your resident demon offers an alternative way to complete these scenarios, which in most cases also happens to allow the spirit more freedom over your mind and body. Shockingly, if you accept these Faustian pacts, they do cause a slight boost to some of your stats and can even make some quests just a bit quicker to complete – just ignore the horns growing out of your head and your armor being melted by your flaming demonic flesh. Beyond these few demon-influenced decision points, every other quest you do will have almost no impact outside of mid-quest cutscenes.
Like I mentioned earlier, this is a game that has some deep flaws, many of which could be considered a serious deal breaker for most gamers. Once I accepted the poor quality of the role-playing aspects was not going to improve, I found what really drew me in was the combat. Despite a few minor grievances, the thought put into the combat sequences really proves that the developers could have made a fantastic product if they put similar quality into the game’s writing and voice acting. My closest comparisons would be The Witcher 3 or Dark Souls, making use of high-speed swordplay with lethal penalties for overextending yourself, but also giving you an array of abilities and skills to tilt combat in your favour.
When it comes to dispatching your foes, Vulcan carries a rather large two-handed greatsword and a pair of nifty combat daggers. Both weapon sets come with a specialised Stance, changing the way you can engage your enemies. Pulling out your daggers activates the Ranger Stance, which allows for quick dodges and rapid strings of attacks, relying on critical hits and status effects to wear your opponents down in between their counterattacks. Alternatively, pulling out your greatsword triggers the Warrior Stance, slowing you down somewhat, but allowing you to attack in huge arcs, staggering your foes and dealing hefty chunks of damage with each hit while you shrug off or deflect smaller attacks.
Once the demon is bound into you, you also gain access to new powers, focused on both offensive and defensive fire magic. These Pyromancy abilities can be cast from either of your weapon Stances, providing you further flexibility in the form of defensive auras, flaming weapons, and ranged fire balls.
On top of these Stances, you also have access to a crossbow which is best used to knock a little health off of the larger enemies before you enter melee range. You even have the ability to craft explosive traps which will send most enemies reeling, giving you a few precious seconds to land some free hits or down a health potion.
The key to almost any combat encounter in this game is clever use of all your available skills: wearing down enemies with fireballs and crossbow bolts, then taking out slower enemies with your daggers and smashing aside weaker enemies with your greatsword. To help develop your combat capabilities to suit your taste, you’ll earn skill points as you increase in level after earning experience the same way any RPG character has since the beginning times. You’ll have to wisely place your points into three skill trees which correspond to your stances: Warrior, Ranger and Pyromancy. Levelling up felt pleasantly frequent, letting you rapidly improve your preferred combat style, while also providing enough points to let you give some love to the other skill trees.
I personally put most of my points into upgrading the Ranger and Pyromancy trees since the upgrades to counter-attacks and slow motion dodges in combination with the ability to add fire to my daggers gave me some serious damage output. Despite putting very few points into the Warrior tree, I still found myself using my greatsword when deflecting attacks and staggering my opponents proved to be more effective than going nuts with an endless flurry of quick dagger strikes.
There’s a decently diverse rouges gallery of enemies you’ll find yourself fighting against as the game progresses. Some of which I found truly awful to engage, though thankfully they were few and far between. For example: a sturdy zombie equipped with a shield on one arm and one on its back caused me great misery every time he reared his rotting head, especially since navigating to his unshielded side could become quite difficult in larger fights. Beyond these few nasty minions, I enjoyed finding the best ways to defeat the various groups of baddies fighting against me. One of my personal favourites was luring clumsy zombie foot soldiers into traps to thin out their numbers before taking on their tougher undead commanders in single combat. But much to my annoyance, some of the larger enemies were basically damage sponges that dragged out encounters longer than I would have liked, making some fights feel more like a trial of endurance than anything I’d call fun.
Having played this game through to completion, I’m rather confident that Spiders has the ability to develop some truly fantastic games if they could get the right balance of money and time to let all their ideas combine properly. As it stands, however, Bound by Flame at least has a fairly well-polished combat system which sports cleverly designed skill trees and perks to encourage adjusting your tactics against the game’s various enemies. It’s just unfortunate that this game lacks is any meaningful reason to care about it beyond looking forward to the next combat encounter. I still can’t recall the name of most of the NPC’s, and other than one particularly eccentric companion, everyone else I met were nothing more than cardboard cut-outs with even less personality.
Overall, I still recommend Bound by Flame those who like a good challenge. Just prepare yourself to wince and smile awkwardly in equal measure at the below average voice acting and scrambled mess of a plot. I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this game for another playthrough, but I will be seeking out future products from Spiders to see if they’ve managed to learn from their past mistakes. And at the very least I can look forward to some brutal, unforgiving, excellent combat.
Final Score: 3/5
Final Recommendation: Watch for sales, but don’t expect much from the plot!