Bound takes the simple act of our own personal creativity, and gives us a story in which fighting one’s own demons can be best done in the abstract. It does so by blending a bit of reality with a fantastical world in which dance is not an escape, but a way to overcome. The player takes the role of a princess who is the ballet incarnate, it shows how one might conquer the things that haunt them most. Piecing together fractured memories not to forget, but to understand.
The story of Bound is told through a simple fairy tale format, but without the fairy tale consequence. Playing as the princess of a kingdom rife with conflict between her and her loved ones, the player travels through unique levels in pursuit of a monsters that seems to be the cause of her world falling apart. While it fractures around her, she can only hope to keep it all together through the power of dance. The sense of the world falling apart doesn’t quite hit the mark though, and it would have been nice to see more cause and effect. Yet, this game is more about the dance than it is about the personal story at the heart of it.
Needless to say, developer Plastic Studios did a superb job in bringing the ballet to life. Bound is not so much a game as it is ballet in game format. The game presents a simple platformer which is easy to digest. From the moment you are dropped into the world, it becomes immediately apparent that all one should do is dance. It’s unfortunate then, that while movements the princess makes, from walking to jumping can feel amazing, they can also feel quite underwhelming. I thoroughly enjoyed moving through this world. It is immediately apparent the sense of strength the princess has in her ballet, and herself (I wish there was more ribbon dancing). This in turn led me to want to constantly be dancing every step of the way. Yet, once one begins to dance it’s soon made obvious how limited her move set is. She can adagio with the best of them, but that’s only when she is stationary. Once one starts moving through the world, leaps and pirouettes don’t create the same sense of wonder as they first did. If someone wanted too, they could beat the whole game with the most minuscule amount of dancing. If Bound instead combined both her adagio and moving through the world I imagine I would have felt more like I was in the ballet that is her life.
I found the best times to soak in the ballet that is Bound is each time I was introduced to a new princess. Not new in the sense of a different person, but new in her style of ballet. It was a joy to hold down the R2 button letting the princess fully express herself in whatever context of the level, this is her adagio. It was also fitting that each level presented not only a different memory of the reality of the game, but also how the princess was dealing with these situations through dance. Each dance felt appropriate too that level. Juxtaposing her adagio with the memory was beautiful, but might have had more impact if I could have actually moved through the level using whichever unique dance the whole time.
The game is not out to punish the player by any means, but even a little conflict would have been nice. The cast of characters in each level represents someone from the nuclear family the character is a part of. And each level is a representation of a memory that the princess is processing. This is why it would have made sense to have even a little conflict in the game in general, so as to better represent the ballet, as well as the story presented. Relationships aren’t perfect, and conflict is going to come up, and when it does no one walks away unscathed. The princess though is able to freely dance to her heart’s content and overcome any of the obstacles that might harm her. I enjoyed the narrative being presented, but it didn’t hold the same weight because of this lack of conflict. Instead the game seems to want you to soak in the beauty that is Bound.
Artistically the game soars, if it’s not obvious from any of the screenshots one might see, just play it for even a moment and you’ll understand. Bound captures the abstract that is memory in the best of ways. Memories are fuzzy things, and the idea that memories play out more like fractured mosaics than fully realized worlds speaks volumes. Not only is each world you play in constantly breathing in a sense (building itself up only to tear itself down), but everything the princess encounters seems to be tearing apart, aside from her dance. With each step she takes the ground splits in different directions even while she maintains solid footing, walls break apart around her and it creates for some unique platforming game play.
Combing both the artistic visualization with game play is were Bounds strength lies. I found myself enjoying the game particularly when I had to use the environment around me to proceeded through the level. I had an especially joyous moment, when I was collecting mosaic pieces scattered through each level (an optional thing), and realized I could jump on gumball looking set pieces that I thought were for show only. Defying gravity has never looked so good, and fits the abstract setting perfectly. The game encourages exploration while taking it all in.
I am so glad they included a photo mode for this game, because I’ve gotten some of the best looking screenshots to come out of this year. It’s especially cool that once you beat the game you can set the photo mode too permanent so it plays with whatever settings have been placed. Want to play the game in black and white? Go for it.
To Sum Up
Bound is a beautifully unique game, while drawing from games like Journey or Abzu. It wants the player to be fully absorbed in the ballet presented, while being an allegory for the game at heart. Bound is most enjoyed when dancing, while succeeding in presenting everything that is ballet it falls just short of being an exceptional ballet. Ballet has always been about the drama of the story at hand, unfortunately the impact of this can be hard to get across when going back and forth between reality and the princess world she has created around her.
Bound is out now on PS4 for download.