Take Me Away…
Dreams about the past can be devastating, or smile-inducing, or above all, enlightening. Our past “informs our present” and all that.
So as a pregnant woman sits alone on a beach, her thoughts get the best of her. She’s brought along a notebook filled with crude but specific characters: a monster, a faceless princess, and a noble queen. As she looks towards a lighthouse in the distance, her daydreams become a mixture of transportive visuals and static, haunting imagery.
The same can be said for BOUND, the latest from developer Plastic. The bulk of the game is controlling the princess from the notebook. This is the ballerina. She moves about an abstract terrain like a dancer with balloon bounces who pirouettes instead of merely jumping and walking. Fluidity is key here. I’ve never controlled a character quite like her, and I bet not many have either. When you’re the woman on the beach, movement is heavy, sluggish even, but ah, to be the dancer…
The goal of this three-hour jaunt is simple enough: defeat the monster plaguing the gorgeous landscape while piecing together the incidents of the woman’s past. In a somewhat non-linear fashion players can choose which section of the notebook to focus on that will send them to a determined level. By the end, BOUND‘s tale of loss and longing was quite touching.
The meat of the game is traversing the very modern art-looking areas. The PS4 is capable of a wide color range, but I’ve never been so entranced by the palette on display. The landscape can fold or peel in and out of reality, forming an infinite row of boxes or other distinct shapes. In other moments big, blocky swathes of color overwhelm the screen (sort of) like paintings from an abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. All the while the ballerina dances. Sometimes, you’ll be upside-down and not even know it; other times, you’ll simply flitter up a thin ribbon like an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil.
There are dangers, but mostly BOUND is about exploration not challenge. There are moments where strange shapes (accompanied by an atonal, disruptive sound) will ‘bound’ the player to the ground, limiting her movement. When this happens, holding down R2 is required to free her; it’s not a big deal, though. Alas, as this is primarily a platformer, too often I died by falling of a cliff or an all-too-thin walkway. These instances can frustrate and call attention to clunky design paths, distracting from the open, loose nature of the world.
As awe-inspiring as journeying these richly detailed places can be, it’s the very real, down-to-earth movement of the ballerina that completely engaged me. Real-life dancer Maria Udod was brought in as the mold and inspiration the ballerina. She may be a faceless (or “face-covered”) green-skinned being, but her twists and turns are beautifully organic. Earthbound. Every time you jump and land, it feels like a person, not a digital avatar. This is the most impressive feat of BOUND, that a place so imaginative and unreal is grounded so convincingly.
The music is also instrumental to the game's success. Peppered throughout are earthy strings, crisp piano keys, and more space-agey electronic basslines. The score is pretty much note-perfect. There might be a few times where certain segments can feel a tad overused, but that’s a minor issue.
The bigger gripes are sadly tied to the matters of value and replayability. At $19.99, a three-hour runtime might seem a tad steep if you only play this once. Journey can be finished in less than two hours, but I’ve replayed that over and over. BOUND is magical, unforgettable even, but I’m not really keen on returning anytime soon.
Part of the reason is that while the idea of players controlling a dancer is well-executed, there’s not much challenge or even variety to bring them back. Essentially, players will do the same 3-4 moves over and over. Plus, these moves don’t have much impact on how players interact with the area. At worst, this can make the dancing—no matter how stunning—merely window-dressing.
The other issue is that while all the sections with the woman on the beach might be intentionally clunky (control-wise/visually), knowing that doesn’t make plodding through those (admittedly) small sections very engaging on the initial playthrough, much less on a second or third one.
For those looking for a different kind of experience, though, these issues will matter little. I loved my time with BOUND. These are the kind of visual and conceptual offerings I want more of from smaller studios. I’m anxious to see what Plastic comes up with next. PlayStation VR Note: I was able to try this out at the Sony VR booth at E3. The final game is said to be 'VR compatible'. It was a little off-putting at first to move a third-person character in VR, but I warmed to it by the end. I don't think the VR option is a reason to buy (or avoid), but if you end up purchasing PS VR, and are in need of a stunning vista to lose yourself in, go for it.