Review by Victar
Earthbound lite (and I mean that in a good way)
Bonded Realities is a short, moderately easy turn-based RPG available as a $1 Xbox Live Indie game. It has a "kid's drawing" cartoony artwork style, playful music, and a storyline that's more silly than serious. Anyone who has played Earthbound will immediately connect with the wacky, pun-inspired (and entirely original!) random encounter enemies and their bizarre antics.
Bonded Realities is not the most challenging XBL Indie game out there, nor does it have the best graphics, nor the most compelling story. What it does offer is a treasure among XBL Indie games... indeed, among all video games... a treasure colloquially known as "fun".
The high gameplay rating is by $1 Indie Games standards, of course. If the game cost even $3, its rating would be lower.
Bonded Realities' gameplay is straightforward, menu-driven, turn-based RPG exploration and combat, just like Dragon Quest or the first Final Fantasy. At the start of each round of combat, the player chooses what the heroes will do (even when the heroes are asleep - if they wake up before their turn comes then they'll take the action), and the round plays out between the heroes and their enemies.
There is nothing innovative about this combat system. There is no character customization. Random encounters are easy and the player is extremely unlikely to lose a battle (not that the penalty for losing is anything to fear, and the game does allow one to save anywhere). Bosses are only slightly more challenging, unless the player deliberately tries to tackle them at a low experience level.
Yet Bonded Realities keeps its combat genuinely interesting by supplying a dazzling array of unique enemies/bosses with amusing attacks. Most enemy names are grounded in a joke or a pun, and their actions are so funny you may find yourself repeatedly defending just to see what they do next - from the Ranting Raven who "complains that there are no raven heroes in RPGs" (I guess Rooks of Arcana doesn't count?), to the Polar Bear, who is a glasses-wearing white bear that "confuses sine with cosine" and "throws a 2x2 matrix at you". Defeating an enemy usually yields a final verbal twist, from "Gangland Gator ran away crying", to "Fighting Fruit was applesauce".
And if you tire of the combat? Bonded Realities gives you the power to turn random encounters on or off at will, very early in the game - a feature that all RPGs with random battles should have. This not only simplifies exploring the game world for hidden secrets, it allows the player to finely adjust the game's difficulty to personal taste. If you want to try beating bosses at the lowest possible experience level, you can.
Bonded Realities allows the player to save anywhere. Its menu interface for equipping and using items and abilities is inelegant, but not mortally offensive. Outside of combat, Bonded Realities has a handful of puzzles to solve, but nothing complicated. There is one optional boss, and the longest sidequest consists of finding all the treasure chests in the game, three of which are devilishly well-hidden. (It should be noted that the Xbox Marketplace code the game offers for discovering all treasure chests has been redeemed and is now useless.) The entire game can be completed in roughly 2-4 hours.
Not the game's strong point. The sprites and backgrounds are drawn in a style that evokes a child's painting magnetically affixed to a refrigerator. It's not especially unpleasant to look at, and slightly more detailed than the sprites of the 8-bit and 16-bit games that inspired Bonded Realities, but the main hero moves in an awkward, mincing, ridiculous manner, especially when walking from north to south.
Combat graphics are in the Dragon Quest style; the player doesn't see the heroes, just their enemies in a static pose (and the various monsters and bosses are easily the best-drawn aspect of the game). An interesting graphical touch is that the heroes' remaining health is visually represented by color filling a box listing their names and hit points/power points - as a hero comes closer to being knocked out, color drains like water from the box.
Nothing extraordinary here, and there's certainly no voice acting, but the various combat effects and musical themes get the job done. The offbeat exploration music tends to reflect the loopiness of the game as a whole, and who knew that royalty-free music like Alexsandar Dimitrijevic's "Power Surge" could make such a rockin' boss theme?
This "average" rating is by $1 Indie Game standards, especially since Bonded Realities' "normal people suddenly arrive in a fantasy world" story is a theme that has been done many times before. Four ordinary children are mysteriously transported from the sandbox of a childcare center into a fantasy world. In this other world, each child is inexplicably transformed into a (not necessarily human) adult and develops unusual powers. The four of them must reunite and work together to overcome the evil conqueror Haxor and find their way home.
The story's greatest weakness lies in the lack of characterization given to the four main characters. Only Josh, the "special" child who loves to pretend he's a dragon in the real world, has any noticeable personality. The rest are practically ciphers (perhaps to be expected in the case of the silent protagonist main hero, but even so). The sole glimmer of Maria's personality shows through her use of latex gloves a weapon to slap enemies, and the only memorable thing Liam does is cry. The bland heroes may be the most glaring failure of the game as a whole.
There is still a fair amount of amusement to be derived from the game's story, which despite its semi-serious moments mostly consists of playful comedy zingers. From the sign on the childcare center's wall that reads "We love your kids so you don't have to," to King David's daily passion of throwing garbage at prisoners, to a town populated by rotting zombies that complain their "brain food" doesn't consist of real brains, there is chuckle-inducing cleverness around every corner. The wry humor found in exploring surroundings and talking to people perfectly complements the gags of the ludicrous random encounters.
Bonded Realities' lack of a character-driven narrative would still warrant a "below average" story rating except for one thing... its climax. Without giving spoilers, the final battle is the game's "Crowing Moment of Awesome", both from a story and from a gameplay perspective. And is that a nasty hint of inspiration from Portal's GlaDOS I see in the game inspired by Earthbound?
Is Bonded Realities worth your $1?
If you enjoy uncomplicated, turn-based RPGs, if you ever loved Earthbound, if you just have three hours to kill, then the answer is an overwhelming YES. The game's greatest flaws (overly easy combat and lack of character depth) can be forgiven in the context of its overflowing humor, inexpensive price point, and all-around user-friendly fun.
Quality Indie RPGs like Bonded Realities, Cthullu Saves the World, and Aphelion Episodes 1 & 2 deserve all the support they can get, in the hope that their creators will not only make more like them, but also continue to improve and hone their skills as game designers.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Bonded Realities (US, 01/26/11)
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