This review concerns a game that is intended for mature audiences.
We’ve all heard the standard rhetorical question of “What if men in video games were dressed like the women in video games?” It’s usually meant to seem, and maybe it has a point, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen game actually sincerely do exactly that—and it works!
Because the first thing I should tell you about Bastard Bonds is that there’s a lot of bare skin, and a lot of it is on men. There’s adult material in this game, and I completely understand that that’s not to everyone’s taste.
That’s kinda the point, isn’t it? Video Games are full of titillating material meant for Heterosexual Males: Dead or Alive, Tomb Raider, and Every Outfit for a Female Character in Pretty Much Every MMO Ever. If it’s OK for them to have it, then it should be OK for me (a gay man) to have some too, right?
(By the way, if you’re squeamish about adult content, you can opt-out, in-game, from pretty much every piece of actual adult content. You can play all the way through seeing nothing more than pixelated nudity and reading a few things less lewd than a comment thread on Reddit. If your personal speed limit is “Men with no shirts and the occasional crude anecdote” then that’s a speed the game is completely comfortable cruising at.)
This is a game created from a queer perspective, FOR a queer perspective, and it’s nice to have explicitly non-majority perspectives in the gaming world. Video games need to be able to have more of that and still be fun (they’re still games, after all).
Yeah, interactive storytelling can and should explore topics like depression and identity questions, but there’s a presupposition that that’s ALL that non-straight, non-male, non-anything-normative games can do. That’s a problem; and while Bastard Bonds isn’t the whole answer, it’s a step in the right direction.
Now that the elephant is out of the room, let me climb down off this soapbox and actually talk about the game.
The Game starts with you being sentenced to a remote island penal colony. You chose what you’ve been charged with, how you plead, and whether you were really guilty or not (all of which influences your stats, abilities, and the first party member you recruit). As you explore the island, you recruit other prisoners, enemies, outlaws, and even the monsters native to the island and try to forge the titular Bonds of trust between these Bastards. But as you explore and become more powerful, you begin unearthing disturbing hints about the island’s past, secrets that may make escape all but impossible.
The main story is compelling: it’s pretty rare for me to play a game all the way through more than once, and I’m currently on my fourth run. Even Undertale only got two playthroughs from me.
The side stories are just as fascinating as the main story! Plenty of the recruitable characters have their own back stories—why they ended up here, how they’ve survived on the island, what kind of life they think they can build now that they’re here—that you have to earn their trust to see. That’s what’s keeping me playing right now. I need to know who the Orc lumberjack used to be, or where the werewolf in the mountain pass was trying to get to, or why the shy mage was branded a conspirator.
Bastard bonds is an old-fashioned RPG with a twist. You recruit characters, you lead a party of four through dungeons, you level them up, etc.—familiar ground. What makes it ingenious are a number of twists.
First, combat is all about something called ‘Risk’. You either get one action per turn, or you can hold down SHIFT as you act to do as many risky actions in the same combat round as you can. Each risky action fills your risk meter. The higher the risk meter, the higher the chance that you fumble, take a huge penalty to your defense, and maybe get one-shotted the next time an enemy takes a turn. But luck out and fill the risk meter completely and you’ll not only get a defense bonus but an experience bonus as well.
Second, leveling up is almost a game in itself, due to the way the stats work. You have a nine by nine grid, with related stats on each row and column. Choosing one to improve also improves the others on its X and Y axis, which means finding the right combination of skills for each character that uses your experience efficiently. Level Up ‘Fight,’ and you’ll get a little bit of progress in ‘Guard’ but not in ‘Dodge’. This means that getting a balance of skills is more about having different characters support each other than trying to get one guy who is good at everything.
Third, all the dungeons you explore? Keep an eye out for ones you like, because your outlaw band needs somewhere to sleep. Depending on how much manpower you have, which is the total of some of your total bands’ stats, you can claim and defend a stronghold after you’ve cleared it. More manpower means larger strongholds, which means more space for recruits, which means more manpower, which means a bigger stronghold, etc.
All the twists not only make the gameplay a real expression of the setting and premise—it’s a game that really feels like leading a band of convicts and misfits who have nothing but eachother—but they make playing the game simple and easy, both familiar and unique. It plays like a combination of Fire Emblem, Don’t Starve, and Exile: Escape from the Pit, an old shareware favorite from my childhood that I honestly didn’t expect to ever be reminded of again.
The Graphics are good old-fashioned pixels, with the 3/4ths top down isometric perspective and the limited color palette that makes you feel like you’re back in the days when CD-ROM was the hot new thing. It also keeps the nudity tasteful and the character designs memorable. Occasionally, you will see a more traditional style, usually when a character is telling you their backstory, but most of the game is made up of the pixelated sprites.
When I say “most” of the game, I mean more “most” than you think. The Graphics are more than just the graphics—they are your save file: everything about your progress gets encoded in the background of a character portrait that can be posted, shared, and loaded by other people. What’s more, putting someone’s save PNG in your roster folder will make that character show up as a recruitable NPC somewhere randomly on the island.
The Bottom Line
Bastard Bonds is a game designed, programmed, and drawn all by a single developer. It presents an unabashedly queer perspective—in a genre that has still too few of those—and defies the conventional wisdom about such titles by being fun in a way gamers are well used to. It has an inventive combat system, base and town management elements, and uses its graphical style to full potential. If you don’t have a problem with nudity or mention of mature topics, then I fully recommend it.