It's not easy, battling the undead. To roughly paraphrase the opening to the action role-playing game Bound By Flame, every undead monster you kill is just one fewer monster, while every living soldier they kill swells their ranks further. Fortunately, after a magical ritual gone awry, protagonist Vulcan finds him/herself in command of some powerful new infernal magicks... now if only Vulcan could be in command of a less uneven RPG experience.
If you're familiar with any of Bioware's popular RPGs, or the more recent Witcher series from CD Projekt Red, you'll feel (mostly) at ease with Bound By Flame. The world is as grim and dark as it is in Dragon Age, with character customization options reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic, and foul language that wishes it was half as clever as The Witcher. As the customizable hero Vulcan, you're a member of an elite mercenary group helping combat the seemingly-endless army of undead encroaching on the land of the living. Thanks to the aforementioned infernal magicks, it looks like Vulcan may be the only one who can stop these unliving losers for good. Bound By Flame's plot doesn't exactly break the mold for fantasy RPGs, offering a typical narrative most gamers have played a dozen times before, and NPC party members who feel more like Wikipedia pages about themselves than actual characters. Like a Bioware game, Bound By Flame offers important choices for players to make... only, these choices often end up leading you to the same basic outcome, which begs the question as to why players have to make such choices in the first place.
Character customization, while robust, suffers from some of the same things the plot does. Upon starting a new game, you're asked to create a main character, with options to customize this character's gender, ethnicity and name. Once you start the game, however, everyone just calls you by the default name, Vulcan, making the name selection thing feel pretty moot. Being able to customize gender and ethnicity is a welcome choice, however, one that more game development teams should take note of.
Outside of cosmetic choices such as appearance, Vulcan comes with numerous ways to enhance her combat abilities. Levels grant skill points and feats. There are several skill trees for players to pump points into, each specializing in things like magic, stealthy combat or all-out brawling. These skill trees are fairly straightforward, but still feel a bit uninspired, as this mechanic has more than overstayed its welcome at this point. The trees themselves are well laid out, as each point grants a small bonus of some kind, and later sections of each tree are roughly as strong as the early areas, so if you're the kind of player who likes to be a jack of all trades, go ahead. Feats each have prerequisites to them which can be unlocked by performing certain actions like consuming X number of mana potions or opening Y number of chests— this system is far more successful and interesting, giving you a direct look into your exact playstyle and allowing you to customize accordingly.
When you're not traipsing around looking for treasure or talking to NPCs, a bulk of your time will be spent in combat. Don't be fooled, gentle gamer, as Bound By Flame's combat is rough; even on the easiest difficulty you'll have to be fully aware of your surroundings to survive, and sometimes even that's not enough. With dodge, parry, and stealth kill mechanics in play, Bound By Flame's combat is more active than most RPGs, and herein lies its problem. You'll have to dodge and parry with precise timing to survive, but the controls can be sluggish, the auto-targeting system finicky, and the enemy AI and distribution too aggressive for you to do anything other than chug health potions and try to barrel your way to victory. These frustrations are compounded by the enemy monsters' tendency to reset back to their spawn point should you drag them too far, instantly recovering their health and wasting whatever supplies you used against them in the process. You do get NPC party members fighting by your side, but they're often useless, getting pummeled into unconsciousness before they even know what's happening.
Bound By Flame's aesthetics, like the rest of the game, are an uneven experience. The score is impressive, oppressing the player with ominous beats and strumming up stirring fanfares for the more epic moments. The voice acting, however, is a bit on the rough side. Most of Bound By Flame's characters are dirty-mouthed hooligans, and while this can be funny at times, at others it just comes off as puerile. The art direction skews a bit too far into the brown-and-greys, with most everything having a bit of a muddy look, and characters lack the kind of facial animations or lip-synching accuracy needed to take things seriously.
Bound By Flame's combat is difficult, but often it's due to bad game design rather than challenging game design, and many aspects of the game, from the main storyline to its audio and visuals, are hit-and-miss. On the positive side, there's a lot to do for players who like to scour menus and dungeons alike, plus there are numerous ways to customize your character, and the whole package comes at a discount price tag. Bound By Flame strives to live up to its forefathers, and while it doesn't exactly fail, it does make some serious mistakes that drag the experience down.
This review is based on a purchased download of Bound By Flame for the PC.