In this age of development teams numbering in the hundreds and multi-million dollar budgets, it still amazes me sometimes what a handful of people can do. The group behind the actual making of Bastion consists of a couple programmers, a designer, an artist, a sound guy, and a former game critic doing the writing. Greg Kasavin was always very likable when he worked at Gamespot, and it's cool seeing one of the many journalists who have switched over to the development side actually have a tangible, positive effect on a game. He contributes to one of the best combinations of story, gameplay, and presentation I've seen in a while in Bastion, despite it being a relatively small downloadable game.
At first the game seems like a fairly straightforward brawler with an interesting gimmick of a gravelly-voiced narrator, but it quickly reveals the depth behind everything. There are eleven different and completely distinct weapons available, and you can wield any two at the same time, giving you a wide range of options from both up close and far away. You combine these with special skills you can learn or buy at the shops do further broaden your choices in combat. Leveling up unlocks slots that you equip additional spirits, which give you a variety of combat bonuses, and you can buy more of those from the shop as well, and buy or find materials that let you upgrade your weapons in a number of ways and enhance their usefulness. Combine these with the idols that let you customize more difficult encounters in order for XP and money rewards, and there is a ton of depth to explore as you play and replay the game.
Along with the truckload of options available to the player, the game has solid controls and a variety of enemies that combine in interesting ways, making the combat constantly fun and challenging without getting overwhelming. If the game focused solely on this, it would succeed on the strength of the mechanics and the freedom they allow. The game views combat though as a means to an end, of telling a story that doesn't have a ton of dialogue or elaborate backstory spelled out in an encyclopedia in the pause menu, which is all the stronger for it. The environments you explore do a lot of the talking, really selling the idea of a world that's been torn apart by a horrible, unexplained event. Of course the narrator does a lot of the talking to, filling you in on what he knows and providing more than his fair share of wit. It's like a mix of hard boiled Noir dialogue and old timey folk stories, and the lines are all sold wonderfully by the actor. His is practically the only voice you hear in the game, but you never grow tired of it as he comments on what weapons or spirits you chose or how people react to certain mementos you can find in the game.
So you travel from area to area, searching for items you need to build up the Bastion, a special structure that can undo all the damage that's been done. There's a lot of fighting, although sometimes an area will take a break from that to try out a few other things that generally work very well. Eventually things start to get really heavy, and Bastion capitalizes on the idea of a game telling you its story through the act of playing it, with a few well considered and strongly resonant moments. There are a couple choices you'll have to make, and the game actually makes you think about them rather than just letting you decide whether you want good or evil powers, which I appreciated.
And I can't finish this without getting back to the presentation. I've already mentioned the visuals, which were all done by one person and give the game a sense of style it would be sorely lacking otherwise. There's also the music, which might be even more important, as it's definitely one of my favorite game soundtracks ever. There's some instrumental tracks that set the mood for whatever the occasion may be, as well as a couple full songs complete with vocals to help punctuate the biggest moments. Combine the music with the great narration, and Bastion is one of the best sounding games ever. It's pretty replayable too, as there's a new game plus to carry over stuff you unlocked to another run through and there's no way you'll fully explore all of the different items and skills in a single attempt. It's inherently a bit breezy because of the whole downloadable-game-made-by-half-a-dozen-people thing, but it's still an extraordinarily satisfying experience.