Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 9/7/16
"Because I could."
Dancing games make up an odd and diverse genre, including the "Tomb Raider" inspired "Space Bunnies Must Die!" (1998), the rhythm based antics of "Space Channel No. 5" (2000), and the infamously awful sci-fi shooter "P.N. 03" (2003). And now we can add "Bound" to the list. What's unique about "Bound" is that the dancing aspect wasn't introduced until a year and a half after development had started. It was an afterthought to make the player character more interesting, rather than being a core gameplay mechanic. That decision paid off, because it's the most compelling part of the game. In "Bound" you play a pregnant woman who revisits her past and has to reconstruct some painful childhood memories. In the dream world, the protagonist reverts to a faceless young girl who is instructed by the queen (her mother), to save her kingdom from being destroyed by a monster (her father). The dream world is constructed of abstract blocks and strange shapes that coalesce in the player's presence, and fall apart as she moves away. The modern art look and feel is disorienting, and the screen is often full of distracting objects that fly around at high speed and obstruct your view. While the environment is initially fascinating to look at, it quickly loses its appeal and the various levels do little to differentiate themselves. The gameplay is very rudimentary and consists of simple running, jumping, and climbing tasks in order to reach a particular memory. You reconstruct the memory by wandering around in a dark room and watching fragments pull together to create a scene. Once you've seen enough key elements, you can exit the room and confront the memory. Memories cause pain, and the only way to work through that pain is to dance. The climax builds to one especially traumatic childhood event, which is what the story is all about. This requires you to make a very poignant moral decision right at the end. It's an agonizing choice to make, but neither ending is particularly satisfying.
While the gameplay is repetitive and uninteresting, the player character is enchanting and watching her move is sheer delight. She dances her way through the entire game with the grace of a ballerina, and the game's most dazzling and magical moments are when you see her interact with new objects for the first time. The motion capture performance is superb and the character seamlessly transitions from one movement to the next. The entire presentation really speaks to the universal appeal of the female form as an object of art, and I never grew tired of watching her navigate the environment. The "combat" maneuvers take on a more modern dance vibe and are much more aggressive, which ultimately repels any nearby threats. The music is also quite good and consists mostly of melancholy piano pieces that are reminiscent of "Child Of Light" (2014). These break into more upbeat and triumphant pieces whenever a memory has been defeated and you return to the real world.
It's a relatively short game and can be completed in 3-6 hours, depending on how much exploring you want to do. There are collectibles hidden throughout, but their value is unclear and the objectives are overly vague. There's very little replay value unless you're interested in speed runs, which are unlocked after you finish the game. The controls are a bit finicky and the camera can be troublesome at times. It's difficult to gauge your position in the abstract nature of the dream world, but thankfully there's an edge guard option that keeps you from accidentally falling to your doom. This is especially handy when you're jumping between narrow platforms, because you almost always overrun them. Another sore spot with jumping is that you can't guage the distance of your jumping potential. Sometimes you can jump twenty feet, and sometimes you can only jump five feet, which inevitably leads to instant death. And then there are the platforms that require you to jump ten feet, which you either overshoot or come up short. It can get rather maddening, but the game almost always offers an easier path that goes the long way around and avoids the more challenging platforming obstacles. Of course the most aggravating aspect of the game is its insistence that you be online. IT'S A SINGLE PLAYER GAME. THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO BE ONLINE. Thankfully it doesn't prohibit you from playing, but the constant nagging is annoying and unnecessary.
"Bound" is an emotionally contemplative game that takes a lot of pointers from Tale Of Tales and That Game Company, but the overall experience feels disjointed and falls a bit flat. The player character is wonderful, but it would be nice to see her in more varied and visually appealling environments. It's certainly worth a look if you're into philosophical games like "The Path" (2009), "Dear Esther" (2012), or "Journey" (2012).