I am not, generally speaking, a big fan of spiders. In fact, my attitude toward them could be described as abject terror. So when Steve came and told me that a game developed by Spiders would be “right up my alley”, I was a bit incredulous. Also I screamed a little, which I’m not proud of. But then I found out that Spiders is the name of a French game developer (a name I can’t see garnering much goodwill, but maybe that’s just me), and not a pack of arachnids that have somehow learned to program in their quest for world domination. Relieved of my misgivings, I had an inside look at Bound By Flame, and all I can say is… hot damn.
You may think I’m just blindly swearing but that’s actually clever wordplay. See, Bound By Flame casts you as a mercenary who’s been possessed by a fire demon and conscripted to fight the Lords of Ice and their Deadarmy (basically Game of Thrones’ white walkers with dumber names). The demon grants you the power to fight back against the encroaching horde, but you have to balance the use and growth of your fire magic against the purity of your immortal soul. It’s a fairly standard Dark Fantasy setup with a smart twist, exactly what you’d expect from the team behind Of Orcs and Men. The demonic possession angle takes the place of a trite morality bar, and offers a plausible explanation for your moral decisions affecting your appearance a-la Fable. It also has a heavy impact on combat.
Combat in Bound by Flame is based around two weapon stances – two-handed heavy weapons like axes and swords, and dual-wielded light weapons like daggers – that you can switch between on the fly. Each stance has its own skill tree, and each has pros and cons. Heavy weapons have a high chance of breaking enemy defenses, and improve your ability to defend yourself, which is good because you’ll end up taking a lot of hits. Light weapons allow you to move more quickly, dodge, and deal more damage, but if you get hit it’ll hurt. It seems a bit like the skills of both characters from Of Orcs and Men have been rolled into a single protagonist. On top of this, you have fire magic that gives you powerful ranged attacks, but developing that skill tree means giving part of your soul over to the demon, which corrupts your appearance and can change the outcome of the story. Should you cling to your humanity you’ll be able to develop your skills at archery and stealth. You can load your crossbow with poisonous or explosive bolts but… well, it’s not exactly lighting things on fire with your mind, is it?
Your preferred weapon and degree of damnation aren’t the only choices you’ll make over the course of your adventure. There are also five companions who can assist your hero in combat, each with different strengths and weaknesses. You might take a smokin’-hot ice witch into the fray with you, or fight alongside a wise(-assed) 3000 year-old undead knight. Each companion has their own goals and moral standards, and the decisions you make throughout the story determine whether they become your friend, your lover, or your rival. This loyalty system, coupled with your level of corruption, will drastically alter your destiny. It remains to be seen if Spiders can pull off the range of choice they’re boasting, but what they’ve shown so far certainly looks promising.
Speaking of promising looks, Bound by Flame is gorgeous. It doesn’t have quite the graphical fidelity of The Witcher 3, but it makes up for it with stellar art direction. The world is painted in lush colors, and the characters that inhabit it are striking. The designs of the monsters in particular are imaginative and delightfully grotesque, and each of them has unique behavior and attack patterns to keep you on your toes in combat. The animation looks weighty and has a good flow to it as well. This is a real new-gen-looking title, and while it might not push your fancy new hardware to the limit, it certainly won’t be short on eye-candy.
Bound By Flame is shaping up to be a truly great RPG. Assuming Spiders can iron out the gameplay kinks from their last few outings, and maintain the high aesthetic and narrative standards set by Of Orcs and Men, it could well be the western RPG to beat of 2014. The game is scheduled for release on May 9th, which happens to be my birthday. I’ve gotta say, Spiders, I’m flattered, but if you want to give me a birthday hug with your eight spindly legs, you’ve got another thing coming.