Flames aren’t the only binding thing in Bound by Flame. This shallow, awkward action RPG is an exercise in limitations, as one might guess by the introductory character creator. You can choose from only five faces and six types of hair; as for the name you choose, it’s immediately ignored—as irrelevant as pretty much everything else in this title. (Your mercenary companions only ever address you by your pseudonym, Vulcan.) Even the central conceit offers little more than the illusion of choice. Toward the end of the first act, you can either work with the demon that’s possessed you, gaining increased magical power, or fight to retain your humanity, which increases your physical abilities. Short of your cosmetic appearance, it has no meaningful impact on how you progress, as each type of enemy is weak to one specific, repetitive type of attack.
Bound by Flame suggests a six-year-old playing dress-up in his or her father’s shoes. While it offers players the opportunity to swap between a sluggish, powerful two-handed Warrior stance and the swift and stealthy knives of the Ranger, it has at best a wobbly grasp over these basic mechanics. Worse, the game, like some unfair version of Dark Souls, relies heavily on time-based parrying and counterattacking, which would be fine if not for the unresponsive lock-on, jerky movements, and flat camera angles that obscure your enemy’s movements with your own awkward body. Additional tools, such as explosive traps and poisonous crossbow bolts, are difficult to aim or to find the time to lay down—and in any case, the game’s Pyromantic skills make these limited tools quite redundant. It’s not just a matter of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing; it’s as if the left hand were actively sabotaging the entire body. In this, the game accurately mimics what I imagine demonic possession would feel like, but to be clear, it’s at the expense of any fun.
Such harsh words might not be necessary, if not for the fact that the developers seem genuinely proud of this embarrassing product. How else to explain the repetition of the same dozen or so monsters, with early bosses becoming standard foes by the grueling final act? (One boss type, a half-naked Concubine, is literally fought four times in a row.) The game appears to be a product of magical thinking, as if throwing together watered-down tropes from games like The Witcher might somehow yield a finished product.
This soulless feeling is best summed up by the threadbare crafting system that’s meant to distinguish Bound by Flame. Here, scavenged items can be used to fully customize your gear, buffing specific types of damage (critical, interrupt, raw) or reducing certain status effects (poison, dark magic, ice). In practice, however, there are only a handful of options to choose from, many of which are gated not by level or skill, but by overall progress in the game—making it no different from outright buying items from a vendor. (In fact, most late-game weapons don’t allow you to modify them.) To put it as bluntly as much of the game’s hacky dialogue, while all the recognizable components for a robust crafting system are present, there’s nothing worth building with them. The missing ingredient, for which there’s no substitute, is inspiration.
Nor are crafting and combat the only places where Bound by Flame shows its skimpy budget. The environments are also severely limited in scope, with claustrophobic corridors doing little to push the PS4’s graphics potential. “Explore” is the wrong word, because it’s all so linear, but there are scarcely more than three zones to walk through: a modest forest, a decimated town and its surrounding icy steppes, and the monotonous outskirts of a fortress. As if that weren’t bland enough, the game forces you to cycle through the same areas over and over again (and that’s if you avoid the fetch quests), and populates them with enemies who even on the lowest difficulty soak up damage and dish it out tenfold. At first it’s unenjoyably difficult, but once you finally grind enough to level up some abilities, it’s merely unbearably tedious.