There’s a significant difference between “childish” and “child-like.” Childish is usually used as a pejorative term indicating that something is immature, simplistic, or stupid. Child-like is a positive term, focusing on the sense of wonder and simple joy of being a kid. To be sure, there is a great deal of gray area between these two realms. Bonded Realities exists in this gray area, but in the end just falls on the side of “child-like.” Simple, short, and fun, Bonded Realities is worth the minimal investments in time and money required to play it. Plus, there are dragons in it.
Bonded Realities is the first RPG produced by small Australian developer Red Crest Studios. As one might imagine, it is neither as robust nor technically advanced as some of the better console RPGs. But Bonded Realities has the charm and heart of something sprung from the burgeoning imagination of a kindergartener. And this is appropriate given the game’s central conceit. The game opens in a childcare center, and the main character is a young boy no more than six to eight years old. Once he steps into the sandpit to play with his three best friends, some mysterious incident occurs. And when the protagonist comes to, everything has changed. He’s now living a child’s adventure fantasy, transformed into an adult with blue hair and a sword. In this new world, he must find his friends and find a way back home. All the while, the fates of both this new world and his home realm rest on his shoulders.
I think it should probably be addressed early on that Bonded Realities borrows a number of ideas and design elements from the Mother series. As many of you know, Mother 2 was released in the West as EarthBound, the cult RPG hit and critical darling. Many aspects of EarthBound seem to be distilled and included in Bonded Realities. The battle system is a direct reflection of EarthBound’s, which is also shared with most other indie RPGs, RPGMaker RPGs, and the Dragon Quest series. Other similarities include a streamlined plot, enemy designs that are surreal and often comical, and wry pun-ish humor. Though the game at times borrows from EarthBound, it never steals anything directly. Red Crest does not plagiarize, and Bonded Realities stands on its own with an independent theme and characters. At the same time, a fan of EarthBound or any other Mother game should feel right at home playing Bonded Realities.
As the main character eventually rescues his companions, the party fills out to four members. The characters have precious little development, especially the poor token female who has zero personality to speak of. Nevertheless, Josh, who back in the real world pretends to be a dragon all the time, is a true joy when he has any lines. The few NPCs are fun to encounter, and character designs are above average. To be fair, I still wonder what kind of cat-bat-rat demi-human Liam is supposed to be. At any rate, there’s no depth to the characters or narrative, but in a game of this style, it seems hardly necessary.
Combat should be very familiar to anyone who’s played a turn-based RPG before. It is the straight-ahead, no frills-style found in many independently developed titles. Characters act in turn, with the usual selection of options: attack, defend, item, abilities, and run. Since the combat is so vanilla, it can come across as a bit boring and uninspired at times. This is especially true given that random encounters can take a little more time than I’d like for a token random battle. But the joy in battle comes from the design of the wonderfully odd monsters and the clever writing of their abilities and actions. And fortunately, there’s a large pool of these enemies to draw from. Whether it’s the Eye Phone or the Major Minor or worst of all, the Winter Spring (represented as a coil of wire wearing a fur hat), all the enemies are unique and have attacks and abilities that reflect their design. The Fireball seems odd and out of place early on in the game, as it’s one of the only enemies that seems “played straight”, but it pays off later when the party fights the dastardly and more difficult Palette-Swapped Fireball. That was probably my favorite part of the entire game.
I also want to applaud the difficulty level of the game; managing your PP (points that correspond with ability use) can be a challenge if the player doesn’t over-level his characters. But at no point does the game feel broken or unwinnable. It maintains a healthy balance between tough boss fights and a comfortable level of difficulty. Another big plus is the ability to avoid random battles after a certain point in the game, which makes solving the few maze-type puzzles less of a chore. Any time a game is designed to let me control the frequency of random encounters, I feel that the designer has built a game with enjoyment in mind. In addition to this, there are a couple easter eggs peppered throughout the game. Finding every treasure chest gives the player a nice reward, and there’s also a bonus boss near the end of the game. These few tweaks and gameplay additions serve to help separate Bonded Realities from the host of played-straight, sword-and-sorcery indie RPGs.
Control is fundamentally sound, meaning that the player should have no problem doing exactly what he wishes to do. That doesn’t mean there are a few very minor missteps in the menus and in combat, however. The item menu is a little clunky, and it requires perhaps a little more time than it should to perform the simple tasks of equipping or using items. Also, the combat system requires a lot of button presses to move through all the actions that take place in a round. Every action requires a new press of the A button, and given the previously addressed length of some encounters, this can leave a player with some serious thumb fatigue. Do yourself a favor, and knock out some finger calisthenics before firing up Bonded Realities.
The graphical style in this game is extremely simple. Characters appear to be hand-drawn and blocky, as if the whole world was crafted by the young children who are the game’s leads. This means wide swaths of single-color backgrounds in the field, and enemies that are sketched out without too much detail. In the end, this style is less of a drawback and more of an appeal to the idea of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. And though the backgrounds may be a bit painful to look at while delving some areas, the overall presentation is nothing to sneeze at. Besides, some of the enemy designs are clever or cute enough to make up for any major faults.
Sound in Bonded Realities comes across as cartoonish, without being unpleasant. The audio tracks work well, and the few sound effects are good without being repetitive. The one thing that jumps out is that the opening theme seems a bit out of place with the slapstick, slightly madcap nature of the game itself. Whereas other tunes fit the mood, with boss themes that capture the right amount of tension, the opening theme is serene and synthetic, and it doesn’t necessarily mesh with the rest of the game. Overall, there was certainly care taken in selecting tracks for the sound design. Especially for an indie title, Bonded Realities offers a pleasant sensory experience.
Bonded Realities is a noble first RPG effort that benefits from the diminished expectations associated with being an Xbox Live Indie Game. It offers a glimpse of what could be created with more resources at the developer’s disposal. But Bonded Realities seems to strive to be something that already exists: a Mother game. The real trick for this developer moving forward is to develop something more original. Until then, Bonded Realities stands as a package of mild chuckles and a few hours of fun.