In the past several years, the gaming industry has been treated with the rise of the indie scene. These small titles developed by equally small studios oftentimes explode with character, charm, and a deep affinity for the gaming medium and those who engage in it. It’s here that we’ve had perhaps the greatest growth in innovation and thoughtful expression in the entire industry. Bound is no exception to this trend, as it sets itself apart from the crowd with its unique visuals, smooth platforming, and subtle yet thoughtful storytelling. Bound is a fun and emotionally charged experience that is, for better and for worse, unlike anything I’ve played in recent memory.
Developed by Plastic Studios, the developers behind the similarly unique titles Datura and Linger in Shadow, Bound is a narrative 3D platformer exclusive to the PlayStation 4. Similar to games like Journey and the more recent ABZU, Bound may be light on engaging gameplay but still remains heavy on subtle environmental storytelling and atmospheric world-building. In Bound you play as a nameless princess in a fantastical fairytale kingdom teeming with beauty but fraught with perils. In order to keep her kingdom and her queen safe, the princess must venture out into Bound’s dreamlike city and overcome great obstacles, including a menacing monster, the game’s seeming antagonist.
Although the core gameplay of Bound focuses on the story of a fairytale princess, Bound simultaneously tells the story of a girl in a more realistic environment — a story that I will not spoil for you. In these more mysterious portions of the game, the camera shifts from a third-person view into that of a first-person adventure game, placing the player in dark environments that appear to hold nothing. However, once you begin to move around, objects start to take shape and the true nature of your surroundings is revealed. Lacking any interactivity, there’s nothing to do in these areas other than look around and piece together Bound’s unique story. Although rather predictable, again without spoilers, Bound spins a heartfelt tale that mostly succeeds despite its poor delivery.
Bound’s breathtaking world is deeply inspired by modern, often abstract, art. Using a minimalist, low-polygonal design, the game’s visuals inspire awe as you travel through this colorful kingdom brimming with style and flair. The game’s environments are populated with somber hues of white, grey, and black that juxtapose with bright shades of orange, red, and pink that permeate through the seemingly drab cityscape. Furthermore, Bound’s locale creates an impressive sense of scale. Massive, opaque structures stretch into the sky as a towering monster climbs upon a distant castle and calls at the princess with a distant but penetrating shriek. These structures are surrounded by a sea of voxels that bounce around like waves in an ocean. Interestingly, the world feels alive and ever-changing. As you walk the platforms underneath you and the walls you pass by shake and shudder at your presence, further adding flavor and character to an already charming world.
The stunning visuals of Bound are accompanied by a moving score that, like the visuals, convey a sense of somberness juxtaposed with beauty and life. Bound’s dazzling electroacoustic soundtrack opens up with soothing and tranquil tones that create a sense of ease in the player. However, the score takes an unsettling, almost sinister turn when the princess runs into difficulty, but turns into a boisterous, triumphant melody as she overcomes her fears, driving the player through the finales of Bound’s puzzle-platforming levels.
The princess herself is inspired by modern dance. From her character design to her movements and animations, the princess takes on the persona of a ballerina. Plastic fine-tuned the princess’s animations to reflect that of a dancing ballerina by motion-capturing an actual dancer, adding an incredible amount of attention-to-detail to Bound’s protagonist. The princess’s dancing translates nicely into the gameplay as well. Unlike many platformers, movement isn’t limited to just walking and jumping, as every movement the princess makes reflects her proclivity for dancing. Using intuitive controls, the player can effortlessly skip, roll, and glide through Bound’s levels with the grace and air of an experienced dancer.
" Plastic fine-tuned the princess’s animations to reflect that of a dancing ballerina by motion-capturing an actual dancer, adding an incredible amount of attention-to-detail."
Likewise, the princess doesn’t just use dance to get around, as she also uses her craft as a form of defense. Along her adventure the princess is halted by numerous obstacles which represent her deepest fears. The princess can be completely debilitated by hazards such as black tendrils that seep out of the ground and grab hold of her and swarms of paper airplanes that dart around her and halt her movement. To combat these attackers, the princess spins in an exuberant dance, suddenly forming colorful ribbons that flutter around her and deflect any threats or dangers that seek to stop her in her tracks. Once again, Bound contrasts beauty in the midst of fear and adversity.
Each level culminates in the princess overcoming one of these fears. In these moments the striking visuals and beautiful score join together as the princess’s expertly animated dance causes all of her fears to crumble. Once the dance is complete and every danger fades away, a red carpet, stretching from the end of the level all the way back to the start, appears and carries the princess out of the level. As the princess glides across the carpet and looks at the environment below, all of the hazards that once stood in her way disappear, giving both the princess and the player a sense of accomplishment over the level.
Overcoming fears not only affects the end of levels, but it also affects the way you play later levels. Once a specific fear is conquered, the hazard representing the fear no longer poses a threat to the princess. These hazards oftentimes block secret paths and shortcuts through the levels. Furthermore, Bound’s levels can be played in any order, and the order you choose reflects which fears you conquer first. Since conquering fears open up paths that would otherwise be impeded, the order in which you play the levels can drastically affect the way you experience the game. This dynamic adds a decent amount of replay value, as you can go back and explore the many different ways you can play and experience Bound’s levels.
Although taking the straight and narrow path through each level presents little difficulty, these shortcuts and alternate paths can be very difficult to traverse, as they require precise timing and quick maneuvers. Being of the high-risk, high-reward nature, taking these paths adds a much needed amount of challenge. Pulling off daring leaps by rolling to gain speed then jumping to distant platforms can be good fun, but with ultimately little level variety outside of these hidden paths, Bound’s gameplay can quickly turn into a tedious slog of walking, jumping from platform to platform, and dancing at any sign of danger.
Despite the shortcomings of Bound’s repetitive gameplay and predictable storytelling, I kept coming back to its gorgeous world to find the next piece of the puzzle in its emotional story and the next secret hidden away in one of the game’s many artful environments. Although Bound doesn’t quite hit the emotional peaks of games like Journey, Plastic has created a truly unique experience that is an invigorating breath of fresh air.