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Bound (2016)

"Complete my parts and show, 
How it is to swim alone. 
In the ocean that I've found, 
A place of different sounds."

- The Ocean that I Found by Heinali (feat Judy Leuven)

Bound is a 3D platformer released for the PlayStation 4 on August 16, 2016. The game was developed by Plastic as a single player experience for casual play. The game took three and a half years to develop, with the concept of a ballerina protagonist added a little over a year after development began. Games such as ICO, Firewatch, and Journey provided a great deal of inspiration for Bound's development. Though the game is primarily a third person experience, a post-release patch was added to Bound on October 13, 2016, allowing the game to be VR compatible.

Catching a glimpse of Bound's E3 trailer, the idea of having a ballet dancer as a player character piqued my interest. However, it would be several years after the game was released, during a PS4 holiday sale list that I was able to pick it up and give this light intrigue a chance to impress me.

It did, but on a much more personal level than I originally anticipated. The kind that makes your eyes damp and your throat burn. Where abstract fantasy can both trigger and calm difficult memories. But in the end, all that matters is what you bring to the story, and what you choose to take away from it that makes the experience special.

So let's dive a little deeper and see what makes Bound such a unique game.

Set forth by the Queen, the Princess must find a way to defeat the monster attacking their kingdom.

How does the gameplay tell the story?

From the outset, players are put in control of the Princess. A young dancer tasked by the Queen to subdue a monster with the help of an elusive savior. You guide her through a number of platforming obstacles to the end of the map and...well that is pretty much it. There are no enemies to really fight, save a few pesky obstacles to slow your progress. There is no lives system or checkpoints so when you plummet off a platform you will find that you respawn right in the area that you died. Bound is not a game that is designed to be challenging or difficult to play, as its own creators attested to. On the other hand, it sets the stage for a story that allows for a lot of interpretation on the part of the player.

Bound was designed with more of an older demographic in mind. People who have been playing games for long enough to need a break from repetitive mechanics (puzzles, combat, etc). With that mindset, Bound succeeds in the gameplay department with flying colors. It is a very easy game to pick up and play through in one sitting (in fact that is the recommended way to play this game) in order to soak in both the visuals and the narrative.

Warning! Light Spoilers will be covered in the upcoming paragraph! Leap down the next category if you wish to play Bound completely blind!

Though this is a personal preference, I love it when video games utilize the gameplay mechanics in order to reinforce the game's theme. It is a great way to get players invested in the story by actually playing the game, instead of being told in a cutscene why they should care. Bound has an excellent example of this as players interact with the Princess and the young woman in the real world who created her. The former representing the latter's childhood memories of growing up with her family. Each level is a manifestation of a childhood memory, collecting tiny shards of happy memories that are eventually overcome and shattered once again by negative ones. However, instead of fighting the memory, the Princess overcomes them through dance. Something we learn the woman herself was very passionate about. Having the strength to face those inner demons and overcome them is a brilliant message and it is all conveyed through gameplay.

Spoilers end here! 

The world of Bound is always shifting.

How is the animation unique?

Easily the strongest element in Bound is its visuals and animation. Not just from the protagonist, but the environment as well. Once again tying into the game's overall theme. The world that the Princess traverses always in flux. With structures and forming out of nothing then just as easily breaking down as you pass. This doesn't just apply to the immediate area either. If you take the time to look you see that this applies to even the areas you are unable to explore, such as the bizarre blocks that seem to roll and crash like ocean waves. As you explore you get the idea that nothing in this world is exactly stable, both adding to the anticipation of the platforming but also has a layer of excitement to what you'll see next.

From graceful leaps to delicate turns, the Princess' performance is spectacular.

As for the game's protagonist, each and every movement of her animation is some form of dance. While primarily ballet moves were used, the dances performed feel like a combination of both traditional ballet and modern dancing. In order to help the animations feel more fluid a contemporary dancer, by the name of Maria Udod, was brought on to the project to provide a motion capture performance for the character. Personally, I feel this was an excellent decision on the part of the developers due to how much Maria's performance brings the Princess to life. Having just the right blend of traditional and contemporary dance to help each movement feel familiar yet fresh at the same time. Most of my time playing this game, if not exploring the levels, was spent on examining each and every playful dance or movement the Princess could do.

What are the game's flaws/problems?

As I stated above, Bound is not a game to challenge players with complex puzzles or difficult platforming. Much like the games that inspired it, it is there to just be. That isn't to say it is without its flaws. The camera can be hard to maneuver at times, leading to some accidental deaths. Due to the sparse tutorial, inexperienced gamers might find themselves confused as to what the game's objective is since the game gives no you markers about where you need to go/do.

However, the worse flaw the game has could also be tied to its visuals. Due to the ever-shifting nature of the world, it can be hard to tell when a jump on a smaller platform will actually stick or if the PC will simply fall through to their death. I did not experience this problem very often so it didn't stick out to me as much but anyone who has had a lot of experience with elaborate level design will not be impressed by Bound. They may even be disappointed by how little substance the game truly has when it comes to actual content.

No matter what may come, never stop dancing.

Final Thoughts

As I stated earlier in the review, my experience with Bound hit a lot of strong personal notes that made my time spent playing it well spent. It takes inspiration from games that I'm already incredibly fond of (ICO and Journey) and told a story that I could relate to easily. Providing a short but sweet experience that I was able to have in an afternoon as opposed to days or months at a time. However, I understand that not everyone can or will enjoy this game as I did.

Bound is meant to be an open-ended experience. A story told in broad strokes and doesn't spell out what it is trying to say. Some may call Bound too "artsy" for this but I will never forget how this game was able to bring up emotions that  I had believed were long settled. Giving me another chance to confront them and have the strength to keep dancing.

If any of this sounds appealing to you, definitely give it a try the next time it goes on sale.

FORMATSPlaystation 4, Playstation 4 Pro, Playstation VR
FROM Plastic/Sony Interactive Entertainment

IN A NUTSHELL: Bound through childhood memories and see what lies beyond.

For the Fans:

- Check out Paul Tamayo's interview with Bounds Creative Director Michal Staniszewski at The Optional.com.