Nick's Gaming Blog

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Review

Editor’s Note: Please take heed that for this review I did not take into account the Multiplayer element.

De-facto Rule of Gaming #485–”just average” games made by unproven developers don’t get sequels.  Unless you’re an otherwise reputable studio having the occasional “off day,” or protected by one of the “Titans of Publishing” who’s keeping you around to please hardcore fans/parents demanding “family friendly” titles or whatnot, you’re getting the axe.  It’s a point we’ve talked into the ground, but overall, it’s the undeniable truth: video games are an industry that encourages very little risk taking.

More or less, the act of getting one’s “shit together” doesn’t happen in the game industry.

Yet, every once in a while, a game that’s resoundingly par, both in sales as well as critical reception, will be given a second chance.  And it doesn’t happen often, because few studios can turn things around.  But Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is an exception to the rule.  It likely won’t win any “Game of the Year” awards or anything of that ilk, but it’s a more than competent enough game that publishers might want to consider occasionally handing out a mulligan (don’t get any wrong ideas, that’s as deep as my golf knowledge goes) to studios every once in a while, instead of cutting them loose.

For those unaware, Bound in Blood is a prequel to Techland’s 2007 release, Call of Juarez, where an aging ex-gunslinger turned preacher, Ray McCall, attempts to hunt down the killer of his brother and sister-in-law, only to find himself up against a bandit leader named Juarez, who’s ravenously searching for lost Aztec gold.  It scored in the low 7s/high 6s, with most citing poor replay value, graphical glitches, and a forgettable multiplayer element as its shortcomings.

It's like...well...imagine if playing hookey to avoid school resulted in being hung. Unlike the public library's book club, or one's local Rotary organization, attendance in the army of the Confederate States of America was a bit less than optional.

Story-wise, Bound in Blood begins in 1864, with a younger Ray McCall and his little brother Thomas fighting for the Confederate Army, joining in the ultimately futile attempt to yield General Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” They’re about to assist in the retreat to Atlanta, when they get word that Union soldiers are looting their nearby family farm.  Fearing for the lives of their youngest brother William, and their mother, they desert the Confederate Army, forgetting to fill out their “time off” paperwork.  Unsurprisingly, armies (even officially disbanded ones) don’t take too kindly to those wanting a little “me time” and Colonel Barnsby vows that he’ll make the McCall brothers pay (re: “kill them”) for their ambulatory nature.  Figuring that the North probably won’t be too sympathetic to a pair of, up until late, “Boys in Grey,” they “go West…young man.”  Sorry, couldn’t resist.  And, as the title of the game suggests, one bad decision begets another, and they find themselves in the middle of a love triangle, a quest for the Lost Treasure of Cortez, and a perpetual streak of lawless shenanigans.

The game’s levels are preceded by sepia-toned sketches of events, while Ray and Thomas’ brother William narrates their collective fall into moral depravity, which he, as a preacher, hopes to lift them out of.  It’s a well thought-out way to tie together what would otherwise appear as fantastically designed, albeit disjointed set pieces.  With the competency of Techland’s Chrome Engine 4, the immersion of in-game cutscenes would have been better suited to the title, were it not for the jumps in chronology.  Every level begins with (aside from some introductory levels that force you to play as both) deciding which one of the McCall brother’s cowboy boots you’d like to hop into (William, sadly, is not a playable character).  Thomas is the speedier of the two, can use his lasso to climb to hard to reach places, and is more proficient with rifles and bows.  He also sports a wonderful mustache, which offers a 14% boost to “Manitude.” Ray, by virtue of being older (and the act of wearing a metal cuirass in the shape of a cross…OOH FORESHADOWING) can take more damage, and favors the close quarters “goresplosion” that only revolvers and shotguns offer.

Replace Thomas’ mustache with a sneer, a scar, and a predilection for dynamite (the retro hand grenade, mind you) and you’ve got Ray. Achievement whores, take note though, there are two achievements, one for completing the game entirely as Ray, and the other for Thomas, so you’d best keep this in mind when playing.  Aside from these minor attribute differences, the storyline one experiences will have minor alterations based on which brother you select, though we’re not talking “an entirely different” narrative or anything of the sort.  In some places, you’ll play as Ray who’s protecting Thomas as he ascends to a sniper position, while when playing as Thomas, you’ll simply play the aforementioned role of sniper.  Nothing earth-shattering, but a small way of “mixing things up.”

In this game, you'll blow up what very minimal infrastructure the American West has managed to eke out. Think of the game as a "Stars and Bars" antithesis of SimCity

The gameplay is that of your conventional shooter, assisted by amazing set pieces and a very fluid interface.  The controls have been intuitively mapped (aside from “reload” oddly being “Y”) and what really keeps the six-shooters firing is the small radial menu that appears when you hold down the right button, with six simple options, offering all of your possible weapon combinations.  For example, Ray’s are: each of his pistols by itself, (which speeds up reload time, and allows for zoom) the two pistols together (your Left and Right triggers controlling their corollary pistols on screen), each of the pistols with dynamite in the other hand, and Ray’s alternate weapon (shotgun or rifle).  Bound in Blood isn’t about building a weapons cache or a “Branch Dividian’s” worth of arms.  It’s about having quick access to which of the abovementioned weapon configurations best suits the situation and/or your play style.

In many ways, it resembles the lightgun arcade games of old; there’s a fairly linear route to levels, you proceed unscathed to the next “region” where guys pop out of windows, run out of side alleys, and appear on roofs at a rate only games of the Assassin’s Creed franchise can rival.  Your job is to find a remotely sufficient place to take cover (see: “stand up against side wall of building,” as the “crouch and tilt” cover system offered up is awkward, ineffective, and clumsy) and kill enough to enter “concentration mode.”  As you might suspect, this slows down all the enemies, highlights their locations, and allows you fling more than a couple fistfuls of lead their way.

The brothers handle this in different ways: Ray’s mode has you using the R stick to paint up to 12 targets on your enemies, which when the countdown finishes, unleashes all the rounds in rapid succession.  Thomas favors the single pistol approach, pulling off that “hammer-fanning” technique you’ve probably seen on those speed-shooting competitions on Discovery or whatever “you might actually learn something” channels you watch on cable television.  Here, the reticule will automatically switch from enemy to enemy, forcing you to flick the R stick for each one, to imitate the quickshooter action.

That's (from left to right) Ray with the perpetual sneer, Thomas with the general look of resigned apathy, and William with the foolish ideal that he can help his brothers "see the light." Here's a hint, William: when your brothers can violate all of the ten commandments faster than you can preach the Lord's Prayer, there's a pretty good chance they aren't reformin' any time soon.

The ability tends to regenerate fairly quickly, taking only five or six kills to regain it, but considering that you can have vultures divvying up your corpse relatively easy in the later levels, you’ll never feel like you’re abusing the game when you deploy it.  There’s a timer that begins a countdown once you attain the requisite kills to use the ability, which when it reaches 0, removes the power-up of sorts.  This, interestingly creates a tactical quandary; do you use the ability when the timer is full so you can get all the shots off, even though the number of enemies might be low (though that does mean you’ll put enough in each to ensure they’re dead) OR do you hold out that a saloon-full of bandits will be around the next dusty bend, even though you might have to rush the act of “capping” them all?  It’s a nuanced mechanic that requires more thought than the “requisite slo-mo” feature, and forces one’s play style closer to the run-and-gun style of the West.  Adding to the strategy is the occasional merchant, (who, like any good merchant in the West, only sells firearms) who will generally sell the next improved tier of weapons, which is largely a “brain not included” activity, aside from weighing the slower/high damage pistols against the weaker/quick reload pistols.  Level variety spans from the trenches of the Civil War, to a Navajo village, to Cortez’s secret treefort of gold, gems, and whatnot, and that’s just the shortlist.  Mission goals are equally varied, allowing a break from the gunslinging to man cannons fending off Union rafts, escort wagons on horseback, and hunt down the occasional bounty.

Did I mention all the explosions in this game? Like, instead of handing out toy trucks and dolls, were children in the Wild West given dynamite? It looks so good though *channeling James Franco in Spiderman 3" "SO GOOD!"

The only sizable shortcomings include the attempt to provide an “open world” experience in two of the levels, each of which allows you an optional opportunity or two to help a rancher/protect cattle/etc.  These don’t weave into the storyline well, and, if anything, make your characters resemble cherubs who don’t mind taking on low pay/charity cases, instead of being “six degrees removed” from Satan.

Other than that, the near-obligatory duel that caps off every level/main objective is borderline infuriating, (as is the fact that two lawless individuals would probably be more inclined to pull a “Han Shot First” instead of a “Let us meet on the fields of honor!”) that neither the game’s manual or intro level can clearly explain how one goes about “Aaron Burring” one’s foe.  Are you pulling the trigger?  Just moving the R stick toward your holster?  Do you have to flick the stick, or can you already have it resting close, etc?  By the end of the game I still wasn’t certain just what I was doing wrong/right, and I had reincarnated the McCall brothers enough times that they both should have arrived at Nirvana, were they not utterly abhorrent (morally and aesthetically) human beings.

Bound in Blood more than holds its own in the audio/visual department.  The character models are fairly detailed (despite having the faces that only a blind mother could love) if slightly inexpressive, and the facial animations could use some work.  It’s one of those games where the characters strive to move their mouth as little when speaking, and the syncing seems a wee bit off, but we’ve all played a couple that work like this.  The style favors exaggerated features over realism, which is endearing and fairly loyal to the “Wild West” feel, up until the depiction of the Native Americans, which semi-borders on being a caricature of their culture.  What stands out above everything else are the environments/locales.  Hardly ever has a “point to point” title managed to give such a successful illusion of sprawling wilderness for miles on end, especially the levels in Comanche and Navajo territory, and the detail spent on the rocks, trees, and streams could have me gushing on the topic for days.

There’s an overall attention to detail, props, and atmosphere in Bound in Blood that most other developers in the “run and gun” shooter market ignore, as they figure nobody’s going to “sit still” long enough to appreciate any of it.  The explosions are some of the best I’ve seen, and the guns, especially the pistols, are rendered with a fairly good level of detail to them, especially the reload animations.  Voice acting on the whole is competent, but both Ray and William can be downright annoying on occasion, though I’d venture to say that the latter is not an accident.  The music appropriate enough for the theme and period of the game, but isn’t particularly memorable, riveting, or something you’ll find yourself humming along to.

All in all, Bound in Blood is a beautiful, but buggy, narrative of the “Old West” that clearly demonstrates that, sometimes, just sometimes, a studio is capable of improving things.  Sure there are some technical glitches (my game tended to freeze quite a bit when I tried to access the “Options” menu when I paused the game) the weapons upgrade system is slim pickings, and the voice acting varies from average to possibly racially insensitive, but this is just splitting hairs.  If you’re up for a stunning and affordable stagecoach-chasing romp, leaving a trail of broken bar stools and hole-riddled bandits in your wake, then you should consider riding off into the Sunset to purchase Bound in Blood.

1 Comment

    I think that the tutorial part of the dueling sections were well explained in the demo. I can’t remember exactly to what extent they’re done in the game itself, but it was pretty clear to me from the demo’s wording of what to do.

    I really liked the dueling aspect personally… guess i din’t play the game enough to get to the part where it got monotonous.

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