To the Fire we are Bound

With the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt delayed until February 2015 and Dragon Age: Inquisition far away later this year RPGs are a bit thin on the ground. Spiders and Focus Home Interactive are hoping that they can at least tempt the appetite of RPG players on PC, 360, PS3 and PS4 (Xbox One devkits didn't arrive in time for the Xbox One version of the game) with Bound by Flame.

They might just have succeeded too, because after spending literally most of the week with this title and pouring just over 30 hours into one playthrough, what we have here boils down to a fun and fairly decent action roleplaying game, with a great crafting system and solid character progression in terms of both mechanics and character itself. There are a few problems, but we'll deal with those as we go.

This review mentions controls that are unique to the PS4, things involving the touch-pad for example. The visuals are also better on next-gen and it's got a neat visual style to the whole game that reminds us of a graphic novel, whilst not as apparent as Borderlands or Crackdown you do get the feeling there's a nifty little filter being applied over the highly detailed textures (you should see the detail on the armour for example) and the effect is often more noticeable when an NPC is against a wall.

Bound by Flame casts you in the role of a mercenary called Vulcan, this is your nickname of course, since you can pick a character name and choose from male or female. The male voice is performed by Robin Atkin Downes (is there anything he's not in?) and we're not sure who the female lead is. The voice work could have been done so much better, but it's passable. It's a lot better than the terrible Two Worlds voice work and the dialogue is much better too.

It lacks some in the delivery, and the dialogue has some cringe-worthy moments now and then. None of it really breaks the game for us though, so we were happy to play and found a sort of B-Movie quality fascination set in after a while.

It is a pretty game, the screenshots on the PS4 we used were taken direct from game capture so you can see for yourselves just how nice it really is. Don't expect something akin to Bioware's Mass Effect 3 though, the team just didn't have the budget to create this game to those kinds of standards. Custom characters are made up of some face choices, some hair choices and that's about it. None of the faces or the hairs are pretty exciting, but what's really good is the sheer diversity of cultures represented here in Bound by Flame.

Your main PC is going to evolve too visually, so you'll see those features change if you let the demon in. Gradually you'll become more and more transformed, gaining horns, darker skin, glowing eyes and flames pouring from your body. This will also have a direct effect on gameplay systems like armour, where the armour becomes less effective since you've partially melted it and you can't wear helmets, it's the horns you see, they make that kind of thing impossible or at the very least silly looking, imagine if you will a demon with a metal helm perched on their horns.

The game plays like a fairly typical action-adventure title, with three skill trees to pour points in. But you can only max out two of those three trees in a playthrough. You won't get a New Game+ either, so make those choices wisely. First off there's the Warrior tree where you can pump skills into the two-handed and heavier weapons of the game, like axes and hammers. Then there's the Ranger tree where you can improve your daggers. Finally, when you complete the Prologue you'll gain access to the Pyromancer tree and unlock the powers of the flame demon inside you.

There's also Feats, little additional things that make your life a lot easier. From doing more damage with daggers, to using less materials in the robust crafting system. There's a lot to choose from and since you're only going to be able to get to max level 25 in the game, there's more Feats than there are points and the higher tier feats cost 3 points to get. Again, choice plays a big role here so make sure you think your character progression through.

You're also going to want to think on your combat style too, if you favour no stealth and a heavier approach, go for Warrior. Two-handed weapons are slower but pack more punch, they can parry and riposte with a series of deadly strikes, you can also kick to break an opponents guard with the Warrior Stance. Daggers afford stealth (Click in the left stick) and faster combat, less damage, dodging (Circle) and limited forms of riposte usually triggered by a perfectly timed dodge. The Pyromancer favours devastating fire magic and will become more powerful if you give into the demon.

The game's controls are simple enough to get to grips with, nothing too complex and after a few minutes you'll be able to dodge, parry and attack without too many problems depending on the difficulty you've set the game at. You can choose from Recruit (can be hard in places)a few others and Captain (What was I thinking?) which will alter the challenge and make combat a lot harder. You'll need to use all your arsenal, crossbow, heavy weapons (or daggers), pyro along with crafting traps and potions constantly to keep your enemies off balance on Captain Difficulty.

It can be a hard game in combat, especially if you get a bunch of enemies gang up on you. It's best to break out and run. The combat camera suffers here too, it can obscure some of the areas and lead to unfortunate hits that normally you might not have taken. Once you learn to swing it around with the right stick you can constantly adjust the angle and make the game easier in that respect.

It's not perfect but it feels responsive enough and weighty enough thanks to PhysX. Those wanting a Dark Souls/Witcher 2 experience won't get it here, but they won't be wholly short-changed either. We found the two-handed combat to be more fun than the daggers at first, but after a few hours with our new Vulcan and her dagger skills, we started to warm up to that style too.

You can also pause the combat (slowing time to a veritable crawl) to activate skills, choose and use potions and order your companion to change their tactics in the fight. We won't say much about the companions, but we saw them on their asses enough times to realise that they aren't ever going to overshadow the player character. Once they go down they'll stay down-out until you beat the surrounding enemies, only then will they rise. Many of them have a mix of skills and abilities that are useful enough in a battle, Sybil is a healer and can keep you going if you bring her along, she can also use some offensive magic. Rhelmar is an elf and he's great at long range combat... only one of them stands out and you don't meet him until later on in the game.

You can also use the touchpad to activate skills by swiping your finger in the assigned direction. Pressing the pad pops you into the handy menu where you can check on quests, level up, see your character inventory and access the crafting menu!

So here we are at last, we've said something about crafting, and that's the joy of the game for us. The craft system is simple and intuitive allowing you to pick a base piece of equipment, be it a weapon or piece of armour. In the case of weapons, you can pick from a guard or a pommel - each one of these will have a direct effect on the weapon's stats and will change the weapon's look visually too. The same goes for armour. Modifying chest armour has 3 slots, shoulders, tassets (the bits that hang down over the top of the legs) and a trophy/jewel. Again the armour will change visually and stat wise as you modify. There's also a lot of loot to discover and most of it's hidden in sneaky off the main map areas.

You can recycle (with a %-chance) bits of equipment you no longer need to get back vital materials. You can also make more materials from this menu in order to craft the more epic items you'll need to succeed on your quest. This system is excellent and it's one of the definite highlights of the game!

Lastly the physics system is pretty decent, PhysX imparts a lot of impact to the bigger monsters attacks and lets them whack Vulcan over onto the floor where you need to spend a bit of time recovering before you can get up again. It ties in nicely with the animation system, which is great for combat, great to see Vulcan stow weapons correctly and cling onto rocks to climb up and so on.

What's not so great is the lip-synch dialogue which suffers from fish-mouth syndrome where the lips move and the dialogue doesn't quite synch with the motion making the whole thing appear a little jarring.

That said, we still like the game and the good points mentioned elsewhere are enough to let us score it on the merits of what it is, not what it's trying to be.

You can sum up Bound by Flame like this: whilst it's a good solid game in places, some issues crop up, AI pathfinding for the companions can be troublesome for a start, we had any ally get stuck behind a rock a couple of times. The level design takes a hint from Dragon Age 2 and sends you back into places you've been before and you'll get used to the areas a lot. The quests are repetitious for the most part, the side-quests often boil down to a few fetch quests and a few kill-this quests.

The dialogue can let the game down a bit. We chuckled a few times at some of the more anachronistic sayings that popped up. The voice work is passable but nothing really stands out there.

The music can be a little jarring, but for the most part has a really good solid atmosphere to it.

We mentioned the camera in combat, that's a big problem for a lot of people, we got used to adjusting it.

There's a lot to like about Bound by Flame for us, and we're pleased that it's at least a good enough game to stand above the likes of Two Worlds (not hard though really) and carve its own little slice of action-RPG pie out from the crowd. We're hoping there's a sequel because we kind of liked the way the game dealt with actions-consequences and gave you some really interesting choices that mattered. Just like Witcher and Witcher 2 these choices didn't always pay off right away, it was hours later when we realised just what we'd done and there was no going back. Just for that we elevated the score to a respectable 8 and we wish more games would follow that route when it came to quest and choice payoffs.

We love the visual style, the sound effects are good and the evolution visually of your character as the demon takes over (if you let it) is another highlight of the game, as well as offering a bunch of in-game boons to Vulcan.

At 30 hours with a save anywhere feature, good solid auto-saves, it's not a stellar game but we feel it's a game more deserving of a second look even if you're tired of generic fantasy.

Combat and Customisation video from PS4 and Sharefactory