Latest posts by James D Ollero (see all)
- Wonderful Looking Wonder Boy Remake Is Adorable - June 3, 2016
- Bastard Bonds Review – A Mature Game for Mature Gamers like Myself - May 9, 2016
- The Count Lucanor Review - March 10, 2016
Disclosure: the author was provided with a copy of the game by the developer for the purpose of this review
Bastard Bonds can be purchased at Bigfingers.ca and a free demo is also available
When you think of an M-Rated game, I’m sure your first thoughts are of a super violent bloodbath like Mortal Kombat or one of the millions of military shooters on the market. Maybe you might think of a grotesque horror game like Resident Evil or something saucy like Dead or Alive Xtreme. Or perhaps you might be thinking of a super deep social commentary like Grand Theft Auto. If you are a fan of any of these in a video game and own a functioning PC, then Bastard Bonds might be right up your alley.
Developer Geremy Walker (aka CaptainGerBear) began work on Bastard Bonds back in Summer 2014 and in the 2 years since, built and bug-tested a system, designed an extensive range of character and monster templates, laid out about a hundred maps, and fleshed out an entire novel’s worth of storytelling with lore, plots, and subplots galore before publishing the Tactical RPG on April 28th on his site.
Before moving to the real meat of Bastard Bonds, let’s start with the gameplay. It comes in 2 major parts: Exploration and Combat. For both parts, players use a mouse for general movement and interaction and on-screen icons or keyboard shortcuts to navigate menus. Two big examples of keyboard use is cycling between characters in Exploration mode and activating Risk in Combat mode, which I will get to later.
When players enter a map, they take a party of 4 to explore the area, looking for items, additional party members, puzzles to solve, or objects required to solve said puzzles. The 4-man band will either travel together or separately depending on the player’s preference. Clicking a tile with the left mouse button lets you move to that tile, or as close as your movement and collision detection allows you to get to that tile. If a tile pulls up an icon when you run your mouse cursor over it or otherwise exudes a golden mist, your character can interact with its contents with the right mouse button, assuming the character is within range. This can range from reading a sign, rummaging through myriad containers, or speaking with friendly or otherwise neutral characters. Encounter a hostile character or monster, however, and the game shifts to battle mode.
When one of the player characters has a hostile creature in his field of vision, a sharp sound effect will play, the music will change, and the game goes from point and click adventure to turn based strategy. Item use is restricted to potions and changing the point character’s equipment. Skills and equipment determine what a character can or can’t do and at which ranges, but in general, a character can move up to the limits of their movement range (indicated by white squares along the ground), attack nearby enemies, or end their turn in a defensive position. If a character is capable, they can fire a blast of magical energy with an elemental leaning dependent on their equipment. Non-human or orc characters all have a certain elemental alignment, and attacking a monster with one of two opposing elements will result in bonus damage while attacks of their native element will be reduced or outright negated. There are also lingering status debuffs that cripple units by reducing their healing capabilities, increasing the damage they receive, or making them take damage every turn. If you beat all visible enemies, then you revert to exploration mode, all status ailments are removed, and experience is added to the pool, which is given to the active party upon leaving the dungeon.
Turn order is treated in a relatively uncommon way in Bastard Bonds. As expected, characters more invested in speed-based talents will go before others. However, Walker adds a little twist to this standard formula in the form of Risk. By holding shift while ordering a character to move or make an action, that action/movement becomes a Risky action/movement, which allows additional actions/movements and gradually fills up an initially empty bar that resets back to empty. Other actions like standing by certain character classes, missing attacks, or getting attacked can also increase or decrease this gauge. The Risk Gauge represents a character’s chance to Fumble while taking a Risky movement/action, ending their actions for the turn and slapping a sizable defense penalty to boot. Fill up the Risk Gauge with an action, however, and your character will be rewarded with a defensive stance until the next turn as well as a party-wide experience boost. But sometimes risking character death because you wanted more EXP might not be the wisest decision.
Death is also handled in a relatively uncommon fashion. When your main character dies, the game is over and you have to either return to the title screen and lose all unsaved progress, or restart at the beginning of the dungeon and lose only the progress you made on that dungeon. Pretty standard fare, but if one of your band loses all his HP, they merely become injured. All equipment and held items scatter along the ground where they stood and they’re rendered out of commission for a period of time. Every time you leave a dungeon and receive EXP, the game presents you with a board where you click on a spot. If you get a cross, then the injured character is back in action, but if you get a skull, then you’ll have to wait until next time to try and bring him back. Each time you try, you get 1 added attempt, so on your second attempt to revive, you get 2 chances to find a cross, 3 chances on the third attempt, and so on. The possibility of losing your only tank for 5 or more dungeons is a very dire situation, which is why maintaining a large stronghold is very important in Bastard Bonds.
When you have 4 characters in your band, you cannot recruit any more into your ragtag group of misfits unless you set up a stronghold. In order to set up a stronghold, you need to secure an area by exploring it from the top-down and either solving a puzzle, routing any enemies around, or some combination of the two. Once you secure an area, confirmed by a distinct chime, you can exit into the world map and if the area is defensible and you have enough manpower among your group to afford the Upkeep cost, you can make the place your stronghold. As expected, areas with higher Upkeep costs gives the player the right to recruit more units, either by picking them up from the road or threatening an enemy and forcing him into your cause. However, there are reasons to not just load your town up with recruited characters. These come in the form of added services.
In its most basic form, a base provides space for excess recruits along with a mini storage where they can leave unneeded items, but if the player has excess manpower and space to accommodate them, then he can request labor services of various NPCs. These NPCs can provide a variety of conveniences like significantly increased storage space, the ability to buy/sell items and extra storage in dungeons to name a few. Just like Combat with Risk, the game forces the player to strike a balance between laboring units, combat-units, and services to make the most of their Manpower within the confines of their available space.
The gameplay for me is pretty engaging, but after the hours-long session you will inevitably find yourself getting sucked into when you open up the game’s exe, you might feel yourself exhausted and fatigued from the at-times monotonous combat. Don’t mistake this complaint with dissatisfaction; I enjoyed the combat system, especially at the early stages. However, once I gained enough levels and acquired strong enough weapons, I quickly found myself running through the same basic strategy for every single battle – even boss encounters. Not too much of a bother when I played, but something I noticed as I stepped back. I also loved the Stronghold system, if for no other reason than being able to set up camp in a dungeon I had just conquered.
However, there are a couple of points about Bastard Bonds that bothered me. The first one is the presence of some game-breaking bugs. As expected of a one-man operation, the Captain can’t find every single wrinkle in his game’s code. As I write this, customers and fans of his work continue to point out glitches and bugs in Bastard Bonds and as fast as he can, the developer continues to work on patches, but they are still out there, they may creep up on you, and they may soft-lock your game, undoing all of your unsaved progress. As scary as I may make this sound, in reality, I only ran into 2 major bugs through my 36 hours of gameplay of an older build. Many of the bugs pointed out so far weren’t even a problem for me. Still, I’m sure these types of games have taught you to save often, right?
On that note, Bastard Bonds is not for those looking for a light RPG. For one, it expects you to have read the tutorial and have a full understanding of its mechanics to make it past even the initial stages. Though the developer provides an in-game tutorial that players can access at any time, unprepared players who don’t take the time to look at this helpful screen may spend more time seeing red. Another thing is that it expects you to pay attention to any text it provides you. For example, a look at a pile of bones may give you a clue about the nature of its killer which may be waiting around the corner. Skip past all this important information and this might happen.
Once again: This is not a complaint, but something for customers to be aware of before considering their purchase.
If there is something worth complaining about, it’s Bastard Bonds‘ world map navigation. In the world map, the player clicks on a place icon on the map and the game moves the player’s icon to it. It’s simple enough, but there are two caveats to this, one that is perfectly fine, and another that is just annoying. The first condition is that you need to have unlocked a way to get there (i.e. secure the areas from point A to point B), which is common sense. The other condition makes sense on paper, but frustrates me in practice: You can only move one space at a time. This means that if going from point A to point B means you have to pass by points C, D, E, F, G and H, then you have to click all of those points one after the other to reach point B. The only exception to this is your Stronghold, which you can port back to from anywhere on the map with a single click. I understand that this tedium is there to justify the existence of all these shortcuts, but I still feel like just getting from point A to point B was enough of an ordeal that this problem could have been left out without missing anything.
One more aspect that I should commend the developer on is his stance on post-release content. As stated in this interview, CaptainGerBear detests the concept of Paid DLC and as a counter to this trend, vowed that any additional content that he makes will be released for free on a link in his site. Who knows, maybe my above gripe might have been resolved by now.
As mentioned before, I found myself going through the motions in terms of combat after gaining several levels. The biggest thing to distract me from this feeling of sameness in battle was everything else going on around me. Having read all pages of the creator’s comic series Grant so far, I already had an idea of what to expect regarding dialogue and plot. Bastard Bonds‘ plot is relatively simple in comparison to the graphic novel thriller. As a convict recently broken out of your cell by a random (or not so random) savior, you explore the island of Lukatt holding you in an attempt to escape. However, all the lore wrapped around this game’s world just caught me off guard, dragged me in, and won’t let me go until it’s finished.
When most games tout a Mature Rating, they usually only focus on one of two aspects: Hyper-violence or Sexuality. Bastard Bonds is one of the uncommon titles that features both in equal abundance, and one of the rarer ones whose story wouldn’t have worked without these features. For example: Your created character, as well as almost every other human or orc in this game, could be guilty of any kind of crime from conspiracy to murder and even rape. Listening to one character talk about his crime made me question the kind of company I had been keeping with me, to say the least. Most of this island is out to kill you, and several locales are more than happy to show you what will happen if you don’t watch your step. On the gentler side, inhabitants of this island are no strangers to sex, and if you’re lucky (or unlucky), you might stumble into one of the game’s hidden sex scenes. While nothing explicit is shown or described in this game, the sound effects and the situations your character is placed in might be lewd enough for you to get your rocks off, and there’s something out there for everyone. I personally got a little kick when I made my vampire character take the ghost dick from an angry manor owner, and the little nuggets of text that appear as you uncover more treasure or even happen upon an empty chest are there to remind the player just how much care the developer puts into his work. I could gush on and on about all the bits of text that stuck out to me, but that might take me another two years.
This level of work is not lost in regards to the game’s aesthetic. From the exhaustive list of frills available for every single generic character model to the myriad environments distributed throughout the island, it’s hard to feel like CaptainGerBear missed anything in this game. Well, there is one thing Bastard Bonds doesn’t have: Animations. Given how many sprites and monsters exist in the game, and how long it took to develop already, it wouldn’t be hard to think that including animations for each character and monster would have turned Bastard Bonds into another Mighty Number 9 in terms of developer hell. To compensate for this time-saving decision, the developer employed a number of particle effects to represent attacks and status conditions. I think the weight of these effects does a good job of disguising the fact that the sprites themselves don’t do much moving, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.
On the topic of detail, another thing I loved about this game is its level design. Everything is where they are for a reason besides “lol it’s a video game.” For example, in a barn dungeon, you’ll find cow monsters hanging out in the stables. One dungeon that really sticks out to me in this regard features a number of small gatherings of lizardmen, and in each group, one lizardman will drop a torch when defeated. Further inside, the band will find a slew of torch holders, and when all torches are placed, they inadvertently complete the ritual the lizardmen were about to perform. As I said before, even the annoyingly slow movement around the world map serves to emphasize the convenience of the tunnel systems the original residents put in place. When it comes to making a world feel alive, the developer has this skill down to a T (or should I say M).
The sound direction also helped bring the island of Lukatt to life. Meaty sounds and death grunts make hitting and eventually defeating a monster feel satisfying, and a noisy succession of hits really drives in the chaotic atmosphere of a multi-man melee. The beeps and explosions that come with the success or failure of a field task accentuate the player’s pleasure or frustration/fear that comes with either outcome. The music also does a good job of drawing you into the game’s world. However, Walker wasn’t in charge of this part of the game. Instead composer Peter Olson took up the task of adding this last layer of ambience to the locales of Lukatt. With tense tunes that use a variety of unorthodox sound effects that feel appropriate for the dungeons they play in, it’s safe to say that the Captain picked a fine lad for his two-man crew. If you don’t believe me, you can listen to the soundtrack for free here: https://hammerspace.bandcamp.com/album/bastard-bonds-ost
With a solid foundation of a game system, an entire island’s worth of little juicy details to discover and draw out, and a distribution of these elements that follow a sound train of logic when you think about it, I believe Bastard Bonds ranks up there with Dark Souls in terms of cohesive game design. While Walker himself has stated that he didn’t make this game with everybody in mind, I think anybody interested in any aspect of game development should give this game a try to understand what to strive for in terms of large-scale projects. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time before you dive in to this intricately crafted world.