When you take your cues from the likes of thatgamecompany’s Journey, you’d better have a pretty damn good follow-through. Bound certainly brings some neat tricks to the table; its central ballet-driven conceit is a brave start, and the bizarre yet attractive presentation initially make for a compelling little game. But the more you play, the more frustrating and hollow Bound feels. Its dance is missing too many steps.
A car pulls up to the pavement by the seaside and a heavily pregnant woman climbs out. She heads to the beach, walks a short distance, and pauses to pull out an old notebook. The landscape fades and distorts into a fantasy realm, a jagged and fractured kingdom built atop a roiling sea of cubes under a sunset-orange horizon. Two characters appear: the Queen, domineering and regal; and the small Princess, a modest dancer and the player character. “A monster is destroying my kingdom,” the Queen says in a garbled unearthly tongue. “Go and stop him.”
Thus begins your quest to dance through the shifting alien world to fix its wrongs. Every movement you make in the game is some form of dance; just the act of moving forwards is carried out with grace, the Princess’ arms outstretched and trailing twin ribbons. Every frame of animation as you leap, twirl, and pirouette through standard platformer moves like jumping, dodging, and ledge-crawling is wonderful to behold.
It’s not all platforming, though. There are malicious entities on your path that will attempt to bind you and hold you still, whether they do so by pelting you with a stream of projectiles or grabbing onto your limbs to physically hold you in place. That’s when you really break out your moves, holding down the “Dance button” and pressing face buttons to carry out an improvised routine and magically shield yourself from your would-be aggressors.
Bound’s main issue is that it all feels like more like a shallow tech demo than a piece of art. The spectacle of the game is quite beautiful, but to actually play through it quickly feels like a slog despite its short 2 hour runtime.
As entrancing as the dancing is to watch, platforming is consistently inconsistent and vexingly awkward, as it’s tough to gauge the range of your leaps and dives. Although you always reset right at the ledge that you fell from, it’s still maddening when you fall thanks to the imprecise form-over-function movement system. The mounting exasperation over control of your character really undermines the game’s major theme in the joy of movement; why care about all the monsters trying to limit my freedom when the act of manoeuvring within the world is irritating anyway? All enemies do is slightly impact upon an already stunted pace of progress.
Further to this, I feel like there was a huge opportunity missed in the game’s approach to dancing as protection. You can vary your dance moves by alternating between the four face buttons if you want, but it actually doesn’t matter whether you do or not. You can just hammer the Square button to ward off surrounding threats, or the X button to keep leaping forwards if you need to maintain forward momentum. There’s so much potential to this mechanic that’s squandered here, and I can’t help but think of what might have been: rhythm elements could’ve tied your defensive moves to the backing track; different enemies could’ve required different type of moves or combos to be effectively rebuffed; different sequences of button presses could have formed new moves instead of the same four actions. There’s no incentive to act beyond the bare minimum required of you, mindlessly bashing the same commands over and over again in order to progress.
What thatgamecompany got right with Journey’s core gameplay was making sure that it was fundamentally joyful moment-to-moment. The high points of that game – sand surfing and sweeping flights across the mountains, unladen by gravity – were pleasurable because of the burst of absolute freedom you were offered in those sequences relative to normal play. Bound’s answer to those sections takes the form of sequences at the end of each level where your character glides along a ribbon for a couple of minutes, scooting through the level’s architecture to a grand symphonic backing track. Here, though, you have extremely limited control over her – you can only slide slightly towards either side of the narrow ribbon, and influence what poses the dancer holds on the way. You’re simply along for the ride, watching overlong and overwrought “look how pretty the game is!” sequences with nothing in the way of gameplay-led satisfaction.
I suppose it’s appropriate, then, that Bound isn’t just anaemic in terms of gameplay mechanics; its narrative is seriously lacking, too. The game tells a story of the pregnant woman’s memories of childhood and family issues, filtered through metaphor in the dance-platforming sections that form the game’s meat as well as short first-person examinations of frozen moments of time that those sequences represent. The game’s story is fractured (presumably due to the fact that you can play through the game’s levels in any order you want, for no good reason that I can think of), obtuse to the point of pretentious, and melodramatic despite a failure to make me care about any of its characters at all. I suppose the game thinks that a few frozen frames of a fraught family’s life is enough to make me empathise with them, but the approach is so ham-fisted, opaque, and at times inane that I actually resent the main character for making mountains out of so many molehills. “Oh, you broke a plant pot as a kid and got told off? Yeah, you’re totally cleared for hallucinating a self-indulgent dreamscape.”
Although short, Bound doesn’t pull off enough ideas to fill up the time it takes to play. Its lack of mechanical complexity, haltingly ponderous pace, and failure to emotionally engage beyond the surface level means you’re just twirling through a series of moodscapes bereft of much meaning. I admire much of what it tried to do different, but there’s just not enough depth to make Bound feel like a particularly interesting tech demo, never mind a product priced at £15.99.