Thanks to indie developers, video games don’t always fall into the typical video game convention. Some developers don’t evoke a challenge with the gameplay and instead favor exploration and/or story. Journey is perhaps the epitome of such a game that focuses solely on exploration and yet has a rather deep story buried within. However, Journey has so many other elegant pieces that it all comes together beautifully, including the game’s score, the gameplay, the silent characters, and the simple yet breathtaking environments. Bound attempts to tap into that same magic that thatgamecompany created with Journey, and while the team at Sony Santa Monica was successful with creating beautiful and unusual environments and building a deep story, they failed in one crucial element. The gameplay is sadly incredibly boring.
Can’t Deny the Beauty
Bound tells the story of one girl’s journey to save her kingdom from a monster via the art of dance (no, really), but the question is, what is the monster? Is the monster this giant who screams as the girl approaches? Is the monster her mother? Is the monster herself? The answer is never clear, but that is part of the beauty of Bound. The levels can be played in any order after the first one, and each level introduces a completely separate element of the overarching story. Playing the levels in one order gives one interpretation of the deeper story, and playing them in a completely different order can unlock new insight. There may be an “ideal” order to playing the levels, but the game is telling what that is, and it’s possible that such an “ideal” order is different for each player. That’s also part of the beauty of Bound.
Naturally, the biggest element to the beauty of the game is in the visual presentation of the world of Bound, which is told in bright colors with a polygon-esque quality to the shapes of the characters and environment. The polygons themselves appear to be pieces of paper, some cut and others folded into paper airplanes. It’s also open to interpretation, depending on what the player derives from the underlying plot uncovered at the end of each level. Yes, there’s yet another plot folded into the dancing girl’s story, but for spoilers’ sake, this is all I’m going to say about it.
But back to the environment.
Everything about the world of Bound is so fluid and brightly colored, which is only enhanced by the dancing movements of the main character. Everything she does is in a dance, even her running and sidling along a cliff. Playing it right now during the Olympics only enhances the beauty, especially when she crosses a narrow beam across a crevasse. It’s hard to not liken it to a gymnast’s balance beam, especially since she can leap across it. And when she dances, which is the only way to ward off attacks, it’s also akin to the ribbon dancing of the rhythm gymnasts. When she does dance, the movement and colors are absolutely breathtaking, and I would probably make her dance the entire time because of how beautiful it is if it wasn’t so difficult to control her movements while she dances.
Can’t Deny the Boredom
All the beauty in the world can’t make up for boring gameplay. I’m not a gamer who enjoys a challenge, and you’ll never catch me playing a game on its hardest difficulty, but even I need something more than what Bound has to offer. There isn’t much motivation to explore and look for the various memory shards the dancer can collect or for shortcuts through the levels unless you just want to burn through them. After completing the game once (which takes less than three hours), the speedrun mode unlocks. The developers obviously want players to explore and find these shortcuts for the sake of speedrunning, but speedrunning isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Speedrunning these levels doesn’t entirely rely upon skill either; it’s mostly about knowing where the shortcuts are.
The reason why these speedruns don’t rely upon skill is because it doesn’t take much skill to get through any level. There is some minor platforming, but none of it is difficult. In fact, as long as you jump in the correct direction, the dancer will reach the next landing no matter what. The only times I ever fell was from leaping in the wrong direction. As long as you know where to go, you won’t fall anywhere.
The dancer also doesn’t have any combat moves. When she is attacked, all she has to do is dance through it. There is no boss fight. There are no battles to speak of. Any skill from dancing comes from knowing when to dance and when to stop to make that needed jump. As lovely as dancing is, it’s extremely difficult to control where she moves and when she leaps. I learned the hard way that the key to dancing is to dance to ward off the attacks, then stop and quickly leap to the next platform, and dance as soon as she lands to ward off additional attacks. It’s a bit of an art in of itself, and it’s virtually the only challenge present in the game.
There aren’t even puzzles for the player to solve. I was literally just going through the motions with each level, desperately searching for something in the gameplay that would entice me to replay a level. Turns out, going through the motions is all you need to do to get to the end. Speedrunning will force you to go through those same motions more quickly, without falling, and via all the shortcuts. That is it.
Players will really only find a challenge if they want those Trophies. Most of the Trophies are for speedrunning and collecting the memory shards. Collecting the memory shards does not appear to offer anything extra to the story. As an experiment, I completed one level by actively getting all of the memory shards and then replayed it actively avoiding them. I did not detect a difference in the story presentation at the end of the level.
Can’t Deny It Makes You Think
As much as Bound bored me and made me want to burn through it as quickly as possible just to get it done, I found myself thinking what it was all about for hours after completion. What was the meaning behind it? What was the monster? What was the kingdom the dancer was trying to save? What was going on in the buried plot? Forget that; what was going on in the dancer’s story? Even after I replayed the levels for the sake of the review, I had more questions than answers with new insights to the overall story. That’s not a bad thing at all, and I’d argue that this element is yet another part of the beauty of Bound.
It’s unfortunately obvious how much Bound wanted to be like Journey, but it’s even more unfortunate that they go so close and yet failed to fully capture everything amazing about Journey. A beautiful environment, unique concept (the dancing), and deep story will get you very far, but the gameplay needs to be just as entertaining. Unless you’re a Trophy Hunter and/or you enjoy speedrunning, there’s not much that will keep you bound to this title.
Review code for Bound provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.