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Bound (PlayStation 4) artwork

Bound (PlayStation 4) review

"A work of real artistic beauty, let down by lacklustre gameplay and a plot that never quite gets its hooks into you."

It's rare for a video game to woo me with looks alone, but from the moment I laid eyes on Bound, I knew that I had to play it. The game is a highly stylised, cell-shaded 3-D platformer. The majority of its levels are bathed in the light of a setting or dazzling-white sun, their blocky, pulsating terrains casting pitch-black shadows at every twist and turn. Your character, too, a ballerina referred to only as Princess, moves with a level of style and fluidity seldom seen in games. She arches her back and stretches her calves with catlike grace as she takes a moment to limber up before pattering down a stone staircase--the long, flowing ribbons attached to her wrists trailing behind her. It really is no wonder that Plastic, the gameís Polish developer, chose to make a photo mode available to players right from the outset.

Tasked by her queen--an imposing, extravagantly attired woman who speaks in a slew of chilling, ethereal whispers--with saving her kingdom from an unnamed monster, Bound's ballet-dancing princess sets out to explore a world of precarious platforms and moving tiles that floats above a sea of angry, interminably undulating blocks. Making her way through showers of razor-edged paper planes, fields of wriggling orange tentacles, and fountains that spew balls of crÍpe paper fire, the princess' only form of defence is to dance (performed by holding the right trigger for a few seconds) and infuse her ribbons with a protective energy, so that they form a swirling barrier around her.

The princess' transfixing manner of level-traversal aside, the rest is familiar gaming fare: jumps must be cleared; narrow beams tiptoed across; ladders (and Cirque du Soleil-style ribbons) climbed, clung to and leapt from.

It turns out that the light-footed princess we are guiding through this abstract world is not, however, the gameís true protagonist. Rather, as shown through a series of short sequences set on a sandy beach, Bound's balletic platforming acts as a visual representation of the thoughts and memories of a pregnant young woman who is reflecting on a series of illustrations drawn in her scrapbook. Each of the gameís handful of chapters--one per page of the aforementioned book--represents an episode from this unnamed womanís past, slowly pulling together a tale whose themes, without wanting to give anything away, are rarely explored in video games. Bound's monstrous inhabitants, it soon becomes clear, are intended to represent people from the storytellerís childhood, suddenly making the actions of said characters--not to mention the cold, callous words occasionally directed at the young princess--all the more impactful.

Bound (PlayStation 4) image

It's a real shame, then, that a game that so shimmers with aesthetic style and whose premise is so intriguing should put on such an otherwise unremarkable show. Bound is billed as a 3-D platformer, but in truth those platforming elements are by far the game's weakest elements. Controlling the princess can often feel imprecise, and platforms frequently disappear from beneath her feet seemingly for no reason other than that the game wants to dictate (but never indicates) the pace at which players should take these jumps, regardless of whether or not the gap was cleared. Considering that Bound celebrates movement, its insistence that players stop every few moments to dance and recharge their protective shield, too, is quite maddening, not least when one considers that dancing requires so little input from the player. Gameplay is seldom as fluid as the gameís gorgeous character model, and the platforming, in stark contrast to the visual design, is surprisingly bland.

The game frustrates further by repeatedly setting up--or at least giving the impression of setting up--encounters with the kingdom-destroying monster, only to then shy away from having the princess interact with it in any real way. In one particularly anticlimactic episode, the princess is positioned well within reach of the monster, with nought but a few stone pillars between them. Rather than that moment turning into a game of cat and mouse, however, the princess is, inexplicably, able to skip merrily by without so much as batting an eyelid. The lack of intervention required from the player seems downright bizarre, given that the game early on goes to the trouble of introducing a dedicated "dodge" button.

Bound (PlayStation 4) image

While few players living in this age of narrative-driven, indie-friendly outings would seek to question Plasticís decision to keep the gameís difficulty level turned down low, one canít help feeling that Bound lacks any real sense of progression or discovery. This is a game built on metaphors--itís a story of queens, saviours and seemingly unassailable adversaries, with our introspective storyteller squaring up to her inner demons in an effort to exorcise them once and for all. And yet, for the player at least, there is no final moment of clarity or sense of triumph to be had. Bound feels like a game that would do well to allow the player to skill up in some small way as they progress, perhaps for the princessí dances to become increasingly fluid and effective as player nears the gameís climax so that, as these metaphorical demons are slain, the player too comes to feel that they have grown in some way. But the princessí movements, and with them the obstacles that she must overcome, remain largely unchanged from start to finish, and by the time the credits roll, players are more likely to feel like they have just watched a performance rather than come to the end of a journey.

Bound (PlayStation 4) image

Visually and thematically, Bound has to be applauded. The game's abstract, starkly lit world impresses at every turn, and the developer's decision to create a game that explores such raw, seldom-discussed subject matter is admirable to say the least. But when that highlight is coupled with such lacklustre gameplay, and with the role of the player relegated to helper rather than true companion, the end result is an aesthetically thrilling performance that falls tragically short of delivering as either a straight platforming adventure or a truly emotive experience.


otokonomiyaki's avatar
Freelance review by Philip Kendall (August 27, 2016)

Writer & video game junkie based in York, England. Read my game-related ramblings and ill-advised political rants on Twitter @otokonomiyaki.

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