You must obey the Dance Commander.
Released: August 16, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
Bound is a gorgeous game. Its geometric world crumbles and morphs around the player, a shifting landscape of saturated color enhanced by stirring music.
Characters are at once alien and elegant, faceless yet expressive thanks to incredible animation and choreography. Every player movement is that of a dancer, turning relatively routine platforming sequences into radiant performances.
Its story marries the mundane to the fantastical as a story of parental conflict is metamorphosed into the journey of a princess saving her mother’s kingdom from a rampaging monster.
Yes, Bound is beautiful indeed.
It’s a shame all that beauty is consistently undermined by the issue that playing it is a messy, obstructive hassle.
Bound‘s biggest problem is that it cannot commit. It at once wants to be a narrative-driven experience with minimal gameplay and a sly puzzle platformer. The resulting compromise is a blundering affair, hampered further by poor controls and a camera that has no intention of being in any way helpful.
While the princess’ fluid animation is alluring to look at, it makes for painfully slow traversal around the game’s esoteric levels. Due to this extravagant movement, input invariably feels delayed – jumps and dodges are not particularly responsive due to the flowing nature in which they’re performed – it’s all very pretty, but mechanically awkward.
At times, players will need to dance through hazards by holding down the right trigger and pressing any number of face buttons to pull off moves. While enamoring at first, these dances only slow things down even more, as progress through the shapes and tentacles that otherwise trap the player becomes an agonizing crawl.
One soon learns there is no benefit to switching up dance commands beyond the purely visual, a revelation that leads to holding only the jump button while dancing as it produces the fastest, most efficient animation with which to hop past any hindrances.
It’s a shame that, for all the game’s emphasis on music and movement, the dance command is little more than an occasional interruption tossed in when Bound needs more “gameplay” to fill its remit. Beyond creating a shield with which to ward off danger, it does nothing. In fact, it’s only at its most effective in cutscenes, when balletic motions are used to perform some impressive feat or other without the player’s help.
Platforming sections would be straightforward – bordering on banal – if not for twisted camera angles, unwieldy jumps, and platforms that suddenly become incorporeal for no other reason than to be a dick. I still can’t work out if falling through platforms is a bug or an intended “gotcha” but it doesn’t matter – it equates to a bad time either way.
Despite featuring manual controls, the camera loves to do its own thing, contorting and swirling to create trippy effects that are – like everything else – visually profound and practically irritating.
Missing jumps and falling to oblivion happens frequently thanks to a collapsing world, obfuscating presentation, and thoroughly ponderous controls. Fortunately, death in this game isn’t even a slap on the wrist. Players will spawn exactly where they were before the fall, the only punishment being a few seconds’ loss as the princess gets up off the ground.
Despite the impossibility of failure, however, the frequent falls are stalling and aggravating thanks in no small part to them being almost universally the fault of the game itself.
Another frequently grinding habit of the camera is to dramatically change angles without warning, altering the player’s sense of direction or causing one to expect a cutscene break. This egregiously ruins one of Bound‘s cleverest sections – an Escher-like journey through shifting staircases that could have been impressive had it not been rendered stuttered and confusing by the constant viewpoint alteration.
Like several other productions of late, Bound would have been better off if it had just completely copied the playbook of thatgamecompany and focused entirely on unambiguous exploration of the world. Nowhere is this more evident than when the game dispenses with gameplay altogether.
At the end of each level, players slide along a bright carpet through incredible panoramic surroundings as the soundtrack kicks into rousing gear. Reminiscent of the sandslide portion of Journey, the relative lack of interaction is forgotten amidst a rush of speed and vibrantly hued splendor.
For a brief moment, the stodgy jumping and lethargic navigation feel almost worth it. At least until the sequence ends and players are unceremoniously dumped on the other side.
Similarly, there are many areas of Bound where the player is simply running across grassy clifftops, shuffling along ledges, or delicately navigating narrow beams – no real interaction aside from the walking, but with just enough audiovisual stimulation to keep it refreshing.
This is when Bound succeeds, when it drops the pretense and just delivers what many would disparagingly call a “walking simulator.”
Again, however, it never takes long before Bound, perhaps self conscious about such criticisms, shoehorns in some mid-90s 3D platforming nonsense to wreck the vibe.
I hate how critical I’ve had to be of Plastic’s latest endeavor, because it’s not hard to see the love that went into the game. It’s presented with authentic soul and it’s pitch perfect on an aesthetic level. Had something been done to improve the tactile aspects – be it more fluid controls, meaningful dance commands, something – this could have been something truly special.
Or if it could at least decide what it wanted to be – Journey or Croc: Legend of the Gobbos.
Bound really is stunning to see in motion, but the keyword is “see.”
I dare say I’d have had a lot more fun watching someone else playing it as opposed to playing it myself. Simply soaking in the color and music is captivating. All that splendor, however, is balanced with equal weight by the troubling truth that it’s just really, really not that enjoyable to play.
It gives me no pleasure to say that. I wanted this to be impeccable, but it’s caught halfway between concepts and has ended up little more than a trifle.