The first notes I jotted down as I played Bound by Flame were miserable: “What the hell is going on with the screen resolution? I wish my character would shut her dumb mouth. Oh cool, undead ice guys from the north. Never seen that in a popular fantasy novel or TV series ever.” The most positive thing I wrote was “I found leather under a rock.” Bound by Flame had to grow on me, and it did—but only just enough to keep me from dumping its Steam Trading Cards on the curb and changing the locks.
As RPGs tend to do, Bound by Flame starts with character customization—limited to gender, a few haircuts, and some ugly face presets—and a prologue to establish the apocalyptic plot. Whatever you name her (she’s Arya in my game), the protagonist goes by Vulcan. She works for a mercenary group called the Freeborn Blades, which has been hired to protect a group of elder mages. They begin the game performing a ritual that could save the world from an army of undead soldiers called “Deadwalkers,” but the ritual goes wrong and Vulcan’s mind is invaded by a fire demon. Typical ancient ritual. The possession comes with pyromancy spells, a voice in her head, and the central dilemma: how much do you let the demon consume you in return for its power?
Vulcan and her resident fire demon make a strong case for silent protagonists. Vulcan is unlikeable and stupidly crass, like a child showing off all the swears she’s learned, and the demon speaks like a kid who just discovered Shakespearean English. Thou, thee, thine, thy— please shut up.
The other characters are more enjoyable: The Captain, the Freeborn’s tough but caring leader; Randval, a charming, single-minded knight; Rhelmar, a sarcastic elf; Edwen, a powerful and mysterious sorcerer; and later on, an undead creature who makes up for his lack of skin with the most personality in the game.
At first, Edwen was my favorite character. Her motivations are never fully clear, even when her identity is revealed, and she’s got a sharp tongue that’s smarter than Vulcan’s. Unfortunately, she’s the prime target for Bound by Flame’s adolescent sex jokes. She’s constantly mocked for her revealing armor, as if chastising her for wearing ridiculous pointy breast plates makes it a funny in-joke instead of a sexist trope. Bound by Flame isn’t funny.
Despite the poor attempts at humor and often stupid dialog, I grew to like most of the characters and took the time to ask them questions and take care of their personal side quests. Even Vulcan grew on me as the demon took more control, largely because she started talking less like an angry child and more like an angry AM radio station with poor reception.
The dialogue options are mostly about gaining information and receiving fetch quests, but there are a few important Bioware-style decisions early on as Vulcan either fights or gives in to the influence of the demon, who claims to have the worlds’ best interests in mind. A couple decisions were tough to make, and I enjoyed the deliberation.
Strangely, those pivotal moments dry up in the latter two-thirds. I stopped feeling like I could change my path, and my former cohorts grew dull and distant. I had almost connected with them, almost started feeling bad about my decisions, but the emaciated second and third acts feel like an epilogue, where my path is determined and my relationships aren’t going to grow anymore, except in moments where obviously foreshadowed plot points need to happen.
In some respects, Bound by Flame uses its budget wisely. Areas are kept relatively small, rendered with a hint of Borderlands-style shading, and in return some of them look great. There isn’t a huge stable of monsters, but they’re well-animated and I like some of the weirder designs a lot. Outside of combat, character animation is stiff and the lip synching often creates ugly, unnatural grimaces, but that’s more easily forgivable than bad voice acting, and most of the acting is passable (I didn’t like Vulcan, if I haven’t said that enough).
In bigger ways, though, Bound by Flame falls into the gap between what it tries to do and what it can do. The small areas mean that massive battles are only talked about after the fact, a grand and ancient elven city turns out to be a maze of unimpressive streets, and most questing requires running back and forth fighting the same groups of enemies over and over.