What is the appeal of a role-playing game? A gripping, sometimes heartrending story that reaches into your very soul and doesn't let go? How about shallow level progression and a grind that won't quit?
Call me crazy, but sometimes I'm swept away by the promise of greatness and the allure of the completed skill tree. I just want to sweat and toil until I'm at the level cap. I want to enjoy a means to an end. Bound By Flame is that means to an end. It's rough around the edges; a discount Witcher, by many counts, but it also possesses a certain degree of playability that I find devoid in other, more polished outings. And for that reason, despite its many confusing design decisions and mechanics, I commend developer Spiders on a job medium well.
Bound By Flame (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Xbox 360)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: May 9, 2014
Join the mercenary group the Freeborn Blades on a mission to stave off the advancing hordes of the deadwalkers, the Western fantasy version of the undead. Vulcan, as your protagonist is called whether you assign a different name or not, can be a male or female character, but none of this really matters once the narrative is in full swing.
All that truly counts is that Vulcan (not J-Ho in loving tribute to Joshua Homme as I had so cleverly named my character) eventually finds himself playing host to a malevolent demon in command of powerful fire magic. It is then the bizarrely lighthearted tale that pokes fun at itself nearly as often as it asks you to traipse through several series of copy-and-pasted corridors takes a turn for BioWare role-playing affectations. Should Vulcan give in to the advice his newly-acquired demonic presence imparts throughout the journey or ignore it entirely in an attempt to eke out a meager existence as a pay-blade? That's up to you.
By the end of the game, Vulcan's outward appearance a la Fable will have been altered according to the "good" or "bad" factions you chose to align yourself with, but you'll care so little about your companions or the world around you that there will be nothing holding you back from going full flame demon by the end. So that's what I did.
In fact, that's why I found myself fully enjoying Bound By Flame even as it bored me with forgettable companions and their constant yammering on about their miserable little lives that felt more as though I was reading a cut-rate fantasy novel rather than attempting to become invested in the mythos of a good, old-fashioned Western RPG. It's full-throttle all the way up until the level cap, unapologetically raw and marred in several ways. And still it's hard to put down.
As you slash through Mimic-like chest monsters, swampland abominations, and werebeasts, you can employ a ranger or warrior stance, swapping between speedy strikes or powerful slashes that do a considerable amount of damage. Should you be so inclined, you can also sneak up on your very unlucky opponents, though there's no real reward in doing so beyond the slight advantage you receive by getting in the first set of muscular swings.
The real fun lies in leveling up the demonic pyromancy skill tree, going full warrior, and swinging your flaming sword like a champ through the droves of enemies that dare impede your progress. Customize your version of Vulcan to fit your own personal play style and you'll come out of each scuffle a happy camper, especially when you realize your companions are little more than bait with which you can draw out larger prey so you can land the finishing blows. They're little more than pawns that end up taking most of the damage so you can feel like the hulking monster you've always wanted to be, which makes it even more imperative that you mature Vulcan into the best demon or do-gooder he can be.
The game is actually on your side when it comes to whipping your character into shape, too, as if to compensate for dim AI and the repetitive grind that some may not find as rewarding as I did. There's plenty of loot scattered throughout the multiple winding passageways and easy-to-navigate dungeons, giving you numerous chances to craft new potions and other necessary items for use in battle. While gold isn't exactly in short supply, you'll still be faced with enough opportunities to make your own fortune rather than looking for your next payday.
You can also save anywhere you'd like, just in case you haven't quite scoured each area to the fullest before advancing. You can also take on dozens of side quests that may rely far too often on fetching a specific item from deep in the heart of dilapidated ruins, but they rack up the XP fairly quickly. If you're diligent, you can level up exponentially, and it feels fantastic. Once you've grown an admirable set of horns so large you can no longer wear helmets and must commit to the demonic lifestyle, that's when you realize there's something to be said about enjoying something that may be objectively cut-rate, but feels so good at the same time. It's every bit of a guilty pleasure, but when you're surrounded by flames and bathing your enemies in a torrent of fire, it's hard not to feel even a little cool.
It's not a long game by any means, requiring about fifteen hours or so depending on how much you decide to explore, but sometimes you just don't need 40 or 50 hours to kick ass and take names. Sometimes you need a set of dull armor, Vulcan's attitude, and a demon to kickstart your hunger for meatier storytelling and content delivery. Bound By Flame is the midnight snack that sates, but leaves you wanting something a bit more savory. But when the snack is this tasty, you may find yourself coming back for a second helping a lot quicker than you might think.