Originally Written on August 19, 2016
Polish Demoscene studio Plastic has yet to have a breakout success. Both Linger in Shadows and Datura are interesting projects, but they’re not particularly great games. Despite this, Sony decided to take the studio under its wing and have them develop a game with the help of Sony Santa Monica. Bound retains the creativity of the studio’s earlier work while adding an extra layer of quality that I can only imagine comes as a result of the resources available to them. It is a testament to what a talented studio facing challenges can achieve with just a little outside help.
Without spoiling too much of the story, Bound stars a pregnant woman reflecting back upon her troubled family life as she gets ready to start a new one. Nothing in Bound touches upon themes that aren’t well-worn territory, and it doesn’t bring these thoroughly dissected ones into a new light either. But it still manages to present them in an emotive way that makes the story effective. It opts for direct storytelling as opposed to the vagueness chosen by a lot of other indie developers, and through this it paints a picture of a broken home, but not an entirely unique one. The problems which exist in the protagonist’s past are ones which everybody has either experienced or known somebody who has. It’s the tale of thousands of families across the world, and because of this it really resonates.
Of course, the fantastic visual and audio design help this story come across. As the protagonist sits on the beach and reflects upon her past, you are transported to a world in which she uses dance, specifically ballet, to escape her problems. In order to capture the true essence of this art form, the team at plastic had an actual ballet dancer come in and be motion captured. The result is some of the most beautiful animation I have seen in a game.
The world you dance through is equally stunning. It’s a bizarre, dream-like place that manages to be both beautiful and sometimes a bit frightening. It’s a world that clearly has a lot of problems, but the grace of the character and the softness of the music present a great juxtaposition that melds with the story being told. The rest of the main character’s family is also presented in this alternate world, and the interactions between the four of them that take place in each level are analogous to the real life events that are shown to you afterwards. It’s an odd structure but one that I picked up on fairly quickly. After completing the second level I then spent every other one trying to piece together in my mind what the post-level scene would look like. It was a clever way to keep me continuously invested in the story over the game’s three hour duration.
Bound‘s beauty, which is being captured by the impressive photo mode, also applies to the music. Ukranian musician Heinali was brought on to do the soundtrack for Bound. It’s an electroacoustic score that uses a beautiful blend of piano music fitting for the ballet movement of the main character as well as more surreal sounds befitting this strange world. It’s the glue that brings all of the other artistic and storytelling achievements together to create something that is truly great.
But Bound, of course, is a game. And unlike a lot of games in it’s genre, Bound embraces this. Calling Bound a walking simulator (or dancing simulator) would be disingenuous. The game is through and through a 3D platformer. You have a jump button, a run button, a roll button, and a dodge (cartwheel) button. There are static platforms, moving platforms, wall jumps, ladders, collectibles, and all of the other basics you would expect to see in a platformer. However, the platforming isn’t very good. There is almost no difficulty to the platforming, and the little that there is can be attributed to frustrating design issues. The camera in bound has problems. It is mostly a behind the back camera, but it will sometimes make a jarring cut to a fixed perspective. It also deforms walls it pushes against, which can be a bit of a distracting effect. The level design is also not great. There is no clear language, so when I look at a platform it is hard to tell if I need to use a running jump or a regular jump. Adding to this confusion is the fact that you don’t always have to land the jump. Plenty of times I fell a little short but was able to force myself onto the platform. This strikes me as admittance from the development team that the platforming isn’t great and that they are trying to be super generous with failure. I’m glad it’s like this as opposed to super punishing, but it’s frustrating that it needs to be this way. It also really sticks out in a game so focused on elegance and grace. These issues aren’t pervasive enough to ruin the experience of playing Bound, but they were enough to make me confused at the idea of playing through the speedrun mode that unlocked when I beat the game. There are hundreds of paths through the game according to the developers, but despite immensely enjoying my time with Bound, I have no desire to seek these shortcuts out or go back to find all the collectibles. If I ever return to Bound it will just be to hold down the dance button and take in the visuals once again.
And that, along with the story, is really what makes Bound special. It is not a great platformer by any means of the word, but I still loved my time with the game. It is a tight, emotional, and beautiful experience that is going to stick with me for quite some time. Elegant is the perfect word to describe everything Bound does right, and it is a shame that the gameplay feels like dancing with two left feet. That doesn’t undermine Bound‘s achievements, but it makes the game simply good as opposed to an instant classic.
Final Score: 4 Stars