Dialogue is poorly written, and everything that happens in Bound by Flame's opening hours seems off somehow. The tone of this apocalyptic world is deeply unpleasant, the lines are cliché, the events just plain silly. The combat systems are boring, and stoic adventurers are sidelined by the inclusion of jokes about breasts. Despite the intention of creating a serious fantasy role-playing game, Spiders Studio has decided no lowbrow joke can remain unused. Far from a promising introduction.
However, the French developer gets its act together. After several hours, as our patience wavers, the team's ambitions become clear, and suddenly the drab greys of this perishing world start to permeate with interesting facts and storylines. The world's unpleasantness lingers, but we at least become immune to it. The jokes gradually evaporate and if the dialogue remains poor, at least it's enlivened by the introduction of new, interesting companions. It's in this moment that it becomes clear that we can choose the company we keep.
The rule is simple: characters who are sympathetic to us, we trust. Again and again we are asked for our opinion, and if we don't like someone then the character will most likely leave the group sooner or later.
Such decisions, based on gut instinct initially, are heavy. Yet we know too little about what is going on in Vertiel and what role we want to play in it. Ice lords from the north threaten the country, fighting fierce wars against every nation, until a pitifully small remnant is left. That last bastion, and a group of mercenaries (of which we are part of) work to protect a gathering of wizards as they initiate a ritual, the last attempt to win the war. However it goes wrong, and we're possessed by a demon. Thus sets up the good and evil element of the game, as we decide how much of ourselves we'll give up to the demon - and what comes with it.
That sense of which direction we should take only develops after spending several hours in Vertiel. It makes getting into the game cumbersome; we're overwhelmed by information and from trying to keep up with the recurring motifs of betrayal and trust. The solution is to stick with that gut instinct that saw us through the start, and learn to deal with our decisions based on that rather than how it impacts the wider world. As we travel across swamps, ice deserts and ruins, we gradually learn to appreciate the grey-tone morality that pervades the game.
In similar circumstances, there's a variety of ways to decide how to use the combat system. There are three weapon types, each representing different styles. With one-handed weapons such as swords and axes, we go the way of the warrior, which is playing close to the enemy and focusing on direct confrontation. The Ranger uses daggers, traps and silent attacks. We creep slowly towards unsuspecting foes from an undead army and gradually wear down their numbers without raising alarm. The Pyromaniac is the complete opposite, using the demon's power gained from possession, which is based exclusively on fire magic. It's coupled with the crossbow to offer ranged attacks.
Long-distance only really works if we are travelling with a partner who is well-versed in close combat. Our companions are fairly self-sufficient in battles, though we can decide what basic abilities they use, and whether they behave more aggressively or defensively. Unlike our character, they're unable to level up, nor can they be healed mid-battle. If they're knocked out, they're not back on their feet until after the fight is finished. Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence is not particularly clever, but since this is also true for our opponents, things even out.
Bound By Flame definitely has a few problems throughout. In addition to the sluggish start and the questionable artificial intelligence, there are also some minor bugs. Added to that, the dull presentation doesn't sell you to the fantasy world at the beginning, though you realise it fits particularly well to the melancholic, dreary apocalyptic mood of the story after a while.
In the end, and surprisingly after those first few hours, Spiders manages to deliver a compelling story; enough to raise our verdict a couple of notches from our original impression. However, the team immediately have a list of fixes they need to attend if they revisit this world. They need to make sure there's customisation for our companion, while combat and armour choices should factor in earlier. If you know the studio's past works, Orcs and Men and Mars: War Logs, will be at home with their idiosyncratic charm.