masterfaculty's Bastion (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

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On Solid Ground

In an era where gratuitous excess is the norm for video games, Bastion is a testament to the power of restraint in its design and execution. Rather than bombard the player with and endless stream of particle effects, one-liners, and nonsensical plot points, Bastion elegantly unfolds layer by layer, allowing you to savor each moment and absorb the richness of its world. Like a well-written book, you're compelled to fill in the blank spots with your own imagination. In fact, the protagonist doesn't even have a name.

One of several training grounds, specific to each weapon.
You are simply The Kid, awakened to find his world in ruin, and searching for answers on how to make things right again. As the player, you and The Kid share much in common. You've been supplanted to a world you don't recognize that's been stricken by a vague Calamity, with only the gruff, avuncular voice of a stranger to guide you on your journey. This is perhaps the game's greatest triumph. The narration is flawlessly integrated with the action onscreen so that when you do practically anything, from fighting enemies to changing weapon loadouts to just smashing everything in sight, the stranger will remark on it, literally telling the tale—your tale—as you progress. It's a powerful effect, and it doesn't hurt that the hundreds (thousands?) of lines of unique dialogue are recorded with some truly top-notch voice work. The narrator is wise, clever, brusque and, above all, world-weary for reasons that become obvious over time. It's truly impeccably written and performed, drawing you further and further into the reality of the game world, and it's a testament to the writing that it never, ever gets old.

At its core, the gameplay is nothing new. Bastion is an isometric top-down action RPG with a variety of melee and ranged weapons to take down foes both large and small, with some special attacks and defensive measures thrown in for when things get truly hairy. But it's presented in such a unique fashion that you can't help but feel it's like nothing you've ever played before. The world literally forms around you from below as you walk through this land in the sky, manifesting itself piece by piece as you venture further and further into the unknown. Rather than going with a 3D art style that could conceivably look dated in a few years time, Supergiant Games opted for a hand-drawn look that gives the game an astounding level of longevity. In ten years' time, the art design and color palette will still be just as beautiful and rich, finding a sweet spot that looks cartoonish without being sappy.

 A small portion of the Bastion, your fortress in the sky.
The namesake Bastion refers to your base of operations on your quest, your respite and hub world between missions. Over time, as you upgrade the Bastion itself, you can choose and upgrade your weapons and passive bonuses, buy items, complete in-game achievements, and briefly interact with a handful of characters. As you play, you also gain unlock various idols to the gods that inhabit this realm. These essentially act as Halo skulls, dramatically or subtly ramping up the difficulty and, thereby, the XP and money earned for vanquishing foes as you switch their effects on and off at will at the Bastion's shrine. In addition, the Bastion provides several wave-based proving grounds to test weapon and skill combinations to see what best suits your unique play style. Admittedly, there's a lot going on here, with a lot of mixing and matching of skills, weapons, bonuses, and idols, but that's really all part of the fun. Several times I obtained a new weapon that I initially found worthless only to upgrade it into a lethal implement of destruction and declare it the Best Weapon Ever further down the line. Certain weapon and passive bonuses combinations will reward the astute player with almost god-like power, giving wide room for player expression and creativity.

Aside from the consistently amazing narration, the rest of the audio is a mixed bag. The musical score is superb, a strange but effective hybrid of twangy, lonesome guitar chords punctuated by grinding, industrial hip-hop beats that ebbs and flows at all the right moments. Throw in some surprising right turns that just meld in beautifully with the arc of the narrative, and you'll be constantly kept on your toes. Unfortunately, most of the sound effects are pretty forgettable, but those aren't the star of the show anyway. So, you may not even notice that the explosions sound a little like a 5th-grader doing his nuclear bomb impression.

 A bar fight you can get behind.
Of the few other complaints I could level against Bastion, I found its difficulty to spike ridiculously in the final stages. The enemies go from being numerous but manageable to being fewer but downright aggravating. You almost have to be equipping certain combinations of weapons and upgrades to get through the final battles in one piece, and you likely won't know what's effective until you fail a few times. Yes, final levels are supposed to be hard, but I felt like Bastion threw encounters at me that I was cripplingly unprepared for, along with several brand-new enemies in the final stage that could fell me in a couple hits. You only get one extra chance per stage in Bastion, so if you die twice, it's back to the beginning. There were also some issues that arose from time to time where target lock on would either not work at all, causing me to defend in the wrong direction while being continually slaughtered by enemies at my back, or work too well, as when I had two ranged weapons equipped on a "moving" mine-cart level, causing me to shoot at the surrounding enemies rather than the upcoming level geometry that needed to be cleared. Thankfully, unlike in Mario games, if you get caught off screen in one of these stages it's not instant death, but it was still something of a nuisance. But, in all, these moments were quite rare and didn't diminish my enjoyment of the world enough for me to dock the game.

Bastion presents a fantastically realized and highly stylized world that's extremely rewarding to play through once, and then immediately again through New Game Plus. It tantalizes you every step of the way with its many audio and visual treats and expertly straddles the line between "game-y," big-budget productions and pretentious art-house un-games that are too esoteric for their own good. This is a world you want to know more about, doling out small morsels of its history and ecology for you to savor and ponder as you strive to right the wrongs of the past—if that's your destiny.
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