Again, stay away if you're even vaguely interested in playing, or haven't yet completed it. I'll also be talking about a lot of the permutations that one-time-through players may not realize, so bear that in mind too if you want to revisit it and try out other things.
A bit like Bastion itself, my knowledge of the game came in bits in pieces. Early on I was warned away from spoiling the game for myself by diving into the promotional materials, though I did skim a few thankfully tangential reviews when it finally came out. I never watched Building the Bastion, and I avoided the damned thing so well I'd forgotten about it, if I'd ever known it existed. The most I ever participated in the feed was Jeff Gerstmann's attempt to dethrone Brad in the "arena", with the narrator's voice down low and the subtitles off.
Now I've played through to the end, doubling back to finish the third of the back-story areas and seeing what happened if I reversed the damage instead of my initial choice, to move on and forge a new life. This new choice felt so melancholy to me that I decided to play the last part AGAIN to leave it where I wanted it, on the original ending I'd chosen.
A story told well does not have to be new, or even pretend it's trying to be new; all it has to do is honor the tradition of storytelling to become an explosion in the mind of the reader/viewer/player. "Less is more" is one of the keys to that, I believe, and Bastion does this very well, with its partial descriptions and hints that make the world feel bigger than the screen. There comes a point toward the end where I'd grown a bit tired of this, that I became a bit frustrated with what felt like red herrings flitting about, still, after things were so close to being done. I think part of the problem was that I'd heard that the narrator was unreliable-- it was something I'd already picked up on my own, but progressing further knowing this from someone who'd beat the game changed my perception of what was going on, having me wonder if there was still some other twist lurking beneath that would force me to re-assess what had come before. Didn't really work out that way, so there are a few things I'm still unclear on. I think I figured out the most, though, and despite my suspicions, it seems like most, if not all, of the characters aren't really related. I still wonder if Rucks and the Kid are connected somehow, and I wonder if the Kid was somehow connected to the Calamity itself, which is suggested by some cryptic mid-to-early game words from Rucks. Not sure, though. Maybe it'd be clearer if I play the game again.
I'd also learned that there were choices to be made, but not knowing where or what they were, I tried my best to make choices from the very beginning. I avoided scattering the ashes of as many of the dead as I could, to try to preserve them in case that would have some bearing on what happened later. During the last few areas the tone changed and I was asked to kill Ura soldiers... and I couldn't stomach it. Not sure if it was intentional but it worked well; and so I wound up avoiding as many of them as I could, especially at the end of the game when I got tons of use out of the roll, zipping past everyone to get the narrative, activate new regions, and recover the shard. Made me feel a bit better, though I did have to kill a few to stay alive.
One surprising effect that touched me was the death of two of the rescued animals when the Ura attacked. This was done very well, though I don't know if it's always fated to happen, and it's the only long-term consequence, at least that I noticed, that can happen as part of the action game itself. I was frankly expecting more of this, though it was rewarding that this was even a possibility.
Another moment, the exact moment when I'd been enraptured for a moment by the spell this game was weaving, was upon discovering Zia in the garden. John Walker from RPS had a similar reaction during that point which he mentioned in his review. It's easy to make a moment like that haunting if done right, but like I said, you don't have to pretend to be doing something new to do something right.
When the choices came, I saved Zulf, and got what I feel was the better of the two results on that axis. The game again asserted its narrative strength to me when the Ura let me live. And when I was asked to either rewind the world, or set that possibility aside and start anew, I felt the idea of possibly repeating things forever with no chance to change was a bit too horrifying to contemplate. Rucks had talked about the chance to do things right the next time, but I didn't feel it was strong enough a belief to base my character's future existence on. When a game has you digging into philosophy, I think it's succeeded on a level beyond visceral mechanics.
Those two choices combined may have doomed Zulf to a life of unhappiness, but it set Zia free, and meant that the world could continue in its own way.
That's what I've settled on, at least, but at the time I was rather annoyed that the game was asking me to make these decisions without knowing quite why I was making them, and what the consequences might be, though some might argue that the vagueness was part of the reason the restoration choice wasn't the obviously good idea. I wished a bit more of the running narrative's conclusions had been encapsulated somehow, so I didn't have to rely upon my memory and the interpretation of every word to hash out what I wanted to choose, though, especially since some of the narration was happening while I was desperately fighting to stay alive. Ultimately the two choices were satisfying when I put them in their respective contexts, and neither of them are wholly "right." Checking the other path, Zia was unhappy and Zulf was reunited with his fiancee, though who knows how long the couple would have? Would Zulf still lose her?
Playing a bit of New Game Plus helped me realize that there may be a bit of a renewal, an overlap, but given that you start with the Calamity all over again... yeah, I made the right choice the first time, I think :) Still, as John Teti said in what I think was the only review I read before I played, the endings are such that the player actually chooses what the whole game was really about. I couldn't have put it better.
The game mechanics themselves, now that I feel I've explored a good chunk of them, are fun, though I doubt I have the hyper-kinetic skill to be perfect at them. I gave up on the shield challenge, and didn't complete that bazooka challenge, but otherwise I'd at least beaten the 3 side-stories and all the other areas. I kept a few of the idols active, but found the game to be a bit too much for me with most or all of them switched on. Might be better if I start from the beginning with them on, just to ramp up the difficulty a bit better, but I predict there might be an ability ceiling waiting for me if I stubbornly try to play the whole game that way.
The difficulty system is quite elegant, like many of the features of this game, as is the weapon customization. There were times, though, when a new weapon was thrust into my hands, that I'd find my character a bit crippled, without a special move after its corresponding weapon was switched out. Not very fun to have to deal with that. And some of the side-story arenas were crazy frustrating at times, though since I've beaten all three it stings a bit less.
It's strange to be talking about an action RPG, and not mention the actual mechanics all that much. I'd say that this is a good thing, because they are the decent vehicle that the ideas ride on. I can't imagine this game coming together any other way, which is the definition of a classic.
But I don't think game producers need to rest on this idea, necessarily. I hope more and more people play this game and see its magic, but I also hope that it'll be an inspiration for us to take the next leap forward in how games tell stories. Bastion has its share of rough edges, but you barely notice them: This is a game that washes over you like rain.
Thanks to RagingLion