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Aug 19 2011

Review of Bastion

Finishing off the week we have Bastion, which was the first game of this year’s Summer of Arcade and was just released on Steam which is where we reviewed it. This is the first game made by Supergiant Games, a small studio headed up by Greg Kasavin formerly of Gamespot fame, however it’s clear to see this is more than a stumbling first effort. This game has deservedly been given heavy focus lately and has received a lot of praise from many of my colleagues in the press whom I greatly respect. However no one has really seemed to be able to adequately explain just what this game is in most cases; so I’ve to cut out the middle man and found out for myself just what this game is about. I’ve sat down, played through it, and now I’m going to do my best to explain it to all of you.

He's going to be real pissed when he wakes up and realizes his bathroom is gone.

So the basic premise of the story here is that you’re a lone child simply named “The Kid” who wakes up one day to find the world around him is gone and he is left residing on a floating chunk of masonry, as he moves forward though the world comes up around him. This turn of events is due to a disaster called “The Calamity” and now you with the help of a mysterious stranger/narrator must seek out several magic crystals (some clichés die-hard) to restore the titular home base “The Bastion” and therefore save the world. On the face of it may seem somewhat rote (I mean how many times have we all saved the world via a set number of magic McGuffins before) but once you scratch the surface-even just ever so slightly-the sheer quality of the story opens up. Despite how the game just drops you in, this world has a very deep back story and lore that is told better than any other game I’ve seen.

Wonder who those statues are? The narrator will tell you.

Rather than having you read endless codex entries or stopping the game so you can watch a cut scene or listen to a long winded audio-log the game just explains things as they come up in the context of the action while you’re playing. You see the narration in this game is dynamic and constant, explaining and adding depth to everything you do and whatever you encounter. There is a surprisingly large amount discussed in the narration and the amount of possibilities the narration covers are immense. Not only are large events like finding a new weapon covered but even tiny things like destroying a certain set piece in a certain fashion in a specific level have unique quotes; this really helps create the idea that the narrator is more than an NPC there only to drool out exposition but rather a true character watching the adventure unfold with you and giving his thoughts on the matter.

Though The Kid isn't voiced he's not silent, his words are referenced and retold.

All this wouldn’t work though if the sound design for Bastion wasn’t one of the most spot on perfect things I’ve ever heard. Most importantly the narrator is  exactly what you’d want in a voice you have to hear for long periods of time; it’s soft and deep so as not to intrude but it’s also relaxed yet distinct and slightly gruff meaning that for as much as it sinks into the sound design as a whole you still hear every word he says. Put simply the narrator sounds like Sam Elliot but even dustier and more lonesome, it gives the “man against the world” struggle the perfect background. The music also really works but in a way I wouldn’t have expected. For as much fantasy as the game is, in much of its story but even more it’s music it’s a western. The soundtrack is filled with the twang of banjo and acoustic guitar with long mournful notes drawn out to emphasize the journey. Even track in this game exemplifies not only the level but the trek taken up to that point. Now I’m not normally one to praise music-my talents were always in writing and my ear for music is less than refined-but what’s on display here really spoke to me; I even downloaded the soundtrack which I’m listening to as I write this because I can’t get enough of it.

You definitely get some nice big enemies to fight in this game but I never really ran into any real "bosses".

Now I haven’t even touched upon what you actually do mechanically in this game yet besides collecting magic rock candy but that’s changing now because for as great as all the stuff I’ve mentioned above is it’s built upon a foundation of incredibly solid gameplay. At its heart it’s an isometric Action-RPG close to Torchlight to many ways but its deeper RPG aspects are nestled in different places. First off there isn’t really any loot, just exp and fragments (read: gold), how you become stronger is by upgrading yourself and your weapons via the systems of booze and scrap. The liquor system upgrades The Kid, for every level The Kid gains you can apply a drink that will give you a passive boost; there are a bunch of beverages to be found and they can all be switched out at will at the Bastion so The Kid himself is very customizable and adapts well to almost any play style. The scrap system is for your weapons, each of the 11 or so weapons can be upgraded 5 times by applying a piece of scrap specific to the weapon and some fragments; each upgrade has two paths both giving a bonus or ability that vastly improves the weapon and like the liquors you can go back and change which path you want at almost any time. These two systems combined with the sheer number of weapons and weapon combinations (you can hold two weapons at once) means that no two players will play the game the same way and the game happily lets you take the path you want to choose. You want to be the civil war soldier with dueling pistols and saber who darts in and out of combat, the sniper who picks off his enemies with a carbine but keeps his spear close at hand for when things start to close in, or maybe the destroyer with hammer and mortar at the ready that leaves nothing but fire and craters in his wake; if you have a way you like to play, Bastion obliges.

As you go on monsters seem to get pointier, like this anklegator here.

Most importantly there is a lot of stuff in the game for you to do that gives you both the opportunity and the impetus to experiment and figure out your play style. Aside from the straight campaign, which is about 6-8 hours, there are also a number of weapons challenges and dreams which are a wave based side mission sort of thing. The weapon challenges task you to do certain things each weapon is specifically tailored for within special parameters. These challenges are endlessly addictive and while their actual difficulty wavers (some I beat entirely in one go while others I couldn’t clear past second prize even with the weapon fully upgraded) the precision and familiarity needed with your weapons to complete them will have you coming back to finish as many of them as you can. The dreams are where some of the best non-main game content is though and it rewards you in not only with fragments but in back story. Each dream focuses on a character in the game and exactly what their lives were like before the Calamity, the whole story is told in between waves of enemies you have to fight so to progress the genuinely interesting stories to their ends you have to survive the twenty grueling waves.

Watch your footing as you dodge around, it's a long way to the ground.

Of course as I said this game caters to your play style and once you’ve got those upgrades tuned you can be almost unstoppable, thankfully though for those who want to make the game harder the game has a solution. Included in the game are totems and vigils; totems are optional rule changes you can apply that power up the enemies while providing multipliers to your exp and fragments. Vigils are extra achievement style challenges that provide a large chunk of fragments upon completion. This combination of systems means that even once you’ve mastered the game you can still fine tune it to keep you on your toes or if you want become many magnitudes harder than you can handle. This especially makes the game’s “new game +” option a viable and enjoyable reason for another playthrough. In fact the second I finished the game I immediately started my second run and turned on half the totems, the only reason I stopped is because I realized it was 4:30 in the morning and I had to be getting to bed.

Even the junk in this game is well defined.

Last is the presentation which is just as good as the rest of game and as wildly unique. The best references I can provide for what this game  looks like is Bioshock Infinite combined with Secret of Mana and then drizzled with a touch of Zenoclash. The wide open stretches of air and the dizzying height and are well portrayed even in the 2d world this game inhabits. The characters have a distinctly child like look to them and the world is very colorful yet softly so invoking a painterly look to everything. The design of the environment and tools though are anything but friendly looking, this is a world torn apart and much of it was savage and strong even before the Calamity, a fact well portrayed by the style on display. It’s a cohesive look and for as much variety as there is in the settings and enemies it all still felt connected to the logic of the game’s world.

Bastion is a game that needs to be played to be truly understood as the beauty and meaning of the game only really come alive when it’s in motion and all of its parts are moving together. That said I hope that with my meager canvas of words I have painted a good enough picture to at least get you interested and download the demo (available on both Steam and XBLA), this is one of the most striking and enjoyable game I have played this year and I pity anyone who misses out on it. The game is $15 dollars which is definitely on the high-end for indie games but in this scenario I would say every dollar is worth it; there have been plenty $60 disc based games this year alone that have delivered less content that was of inferior quality than what this humble games manages to pack into its slim downloadable frame. So for a stirring, thoughtful, and incredibly fun Action-RPG that I won’t soon forget Bastion gets a 5 out of 5 stars. This game gets my full recommendation, if you’ve ever agreed with me in the past go buy this game, you won’t be disappointed.

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