A couple of hours into Bound By Flame, Spiders’ latest RPG outing, I was assaulted by deja vu. At first I chalked it up to the game’s reliance on all manner of tired fantasy troops from busty witches to evil necromancers intent on destroying the world. That wasn’t it, though. There was something else clawing at the back of my mind.
Then it came to me. This is Mars: War Logs - Spiders’ previous RPG - with the science fiction setting swapped out for a trite fantasy one. And that’s rather unfortunate, because Mars: War Logs was rife with problems from appalling writing to frustrating combat. Bound By Flame improves on few of its forebearer’s issues and is hampered by an utterly forgettable setting.
Spiders is an ambitious developer. It draws inspiration from RPG titans like Dragon Age and The Witcher, but Bound By Flame lacks any of the polish or nuance that those titles contain. You can teach a parrot to spout some phrases, but you’re not going to get a scintillating conversation out of the bird.
The world of Vertiel is about to be destroyed. It’s hard to care about the fate of a fantasy realm so devoid of personality. Only three areas in it are visited: a gloomy swamp, a gloomy derelict city and a gloomy derelict fortress. There are other lands, though. Of that I’m certain. Occasionally a character will mention them very briefly in a half-hearted attempt to flesh out the world. It doesn’t work. It’s as bare-boned as the undead enemies.
To cut a long, boring, story short, he ends up sharing his body with a demon of fire and has to go on a quest to stop the Ice Lords - the aforementioned necromancers. Bound By Flames’ adherence to the dullest of fantasy tropes is made all the more unpleasant with its inability to even do them justice. Mostly absent, entirely underwhelming villains; a bullish, dull “anti-hero” in name only; and a party of adventurers that have less presence than cardboard cutouts - there’s almost nothing remotely appealing about the narrative.
Which makes the game’s handling of the demon living inside Vulcan quite surprising. Spiders has integrated the alien presence fighting to control the hero into every aspect of the game. And for the most part, the studio has done so deftly.
Ostensibly, the demon is Bound By Flame’s morality system. Moral choices are posed, and the route Vulcan takes makes the battle for his body go one way or the other.The choices themselves are large, but binary and clear black and white affairs. Take the demon’s advice in a situation, and Vulcan loses his humanity; ignore the demon, and he keeps his humanity. In that regard, it’s disappointing, but the impact the choices have on the rest of the game are significant.
The most obvious effect of Vulcan being a naughty boy is the Fable-like mutation of his body. The more he gives into the demon, the more he looks like one himself. At first his skin grows ashen and his eyes burn with an unnatural intensity, then horns appear and his flesh burns and cracks. It’s a dramatic transformation, and one that is more than an aesthetic change.
Vulcan’s horns preclude him from wearing helmets and the ferocious heat generated by the flames that dance around his flesh melts his armour. This weakens his armour and his ability to deal with attacks, and the absence of a helmet leaves him without the many statistical bonuses that extra piece of armour provides.
The payoff is an increased affinity for fire magic. His merging with the demon near the beginning of the game adds a third ability tree on top of his more mundane skills. The first two trees deal with his proficiency with a broadsword, a slow, defensive weapon with large swinging arcs, and his skill with daggers and stealth. The demonic tree, pyromancy, deals with a myriad of infernal spells. Vulcan can launch fireballs at enemies, wreath himself in flame and coat his blade with fire. The stronger his pact with the demon, the greater his powers. It’s just unfortunate that, as flashy as the pyromancy techniques are, most of them aren’t very effective.
The gaggle of NPC companions react to Vulcan embracing or denouncing his demonic passenger, as well. They question his humanity and if he is truly in control, and some of them won’t be best pleased by the choices he makes. Yet it’s hard to care about what they think. His chums are a singularly dismal bunch of characters, scraping the barrel of stereotypes from the aforementioned buxom witch to the stalwart warrior with a tragic - barely touched upon, mind you - past.