A Boy and His Hammer
Most video games struggle to create a consistent sense of pacing, the medium isn’t really known for having amazing stories across the board, and adding player agency creates big challenges. Throw a narrator into the mix, like Portal, The Bard’s Tale, and now SuperGiant Game’s Bastion, and making a well-written story is that much more difficult. Having to decide how much dialogue the narrator will have based on player control isn’t something many studios dare try to tackle.
Thankfully, SuperGiant Game’s Creative Director Greg Kasavin has written a script that gives that narrator enough talk without getting too minute about every move players make. Instead, there is much more focus on character actions, fears, and native history: in short, things that matter. The independent studio’s final product is intimate in scale and draws from a pool of familiar tropes found in everything from Metal Gear Solid to Out of This World, putting hallucinatory and non-verbal cues together in semi-dynamic world that feels like it has existed for many years. Though there is only the narrator’s voice guiding the entire narrative—and at times you will question that rough, old man’s motivations—Bastion doesn’t feel barren, but rather heartfelt and personal. And the Narrator is so well voiced that you won’t miss having a larger cast.
Players begin Bastion as The Kid, a hammer wielding young man who finds himself marooned on a floating island where his house, and the ground it stood on, used to be. The narrator soon reveals that the world has been broken by the Calamity, a catastrophe that may have been natural, man-made, or the will of forgotten Gods. As players explore, the world literally and figuratively pieces itself together at their feet, giving both a nice visual effect and a mournful sense of how the world used to be. The Kid soon finds the narrator at the Bastion -- a sort of last hope for rebuilding society and the hub from which players venture out. Gemlike cores and shards, remnants of the old world, power the Bastion and players are tasked with finding them all. There are quite a few to collect, but the game is appropriately lengthy without overstaying its welcome.
Themes of loss, loyalty to kin, and sacrifice are in abundance throughout the story. The Kid, and by extension the player, is doing all of the dirty work for the Bastion, and the Narrator knows it. He expresses doubt about letting The Kid cross into the wild forests of Caelondia, feels guilty about using the boy for his own ends, and mourns decisions past. The writing really sells these themes with its succinct, western style. The Narrator never jabbers for too long, instead giving short quips that sound like they are coming from a whisky drinking, cigarette smoking Old West sheriff.
The western motif extends beyond the writing into the art and sound, melding euro-anime style with twangy slide-guitar riffs. It is a strange mix, but works to establish a style that is decidedly unique. The best part is that the narration, graphics, and music all work together well. SuperGiant wasn’t afraid to use the full range of the color spectrum, and music influences range from the Middle East to the Deep South. Action sequences are given a great deal of tension, as the Narrator waxes poetic, colors pop, and guitar riffs bounce. Presentation doesn’t often gel this well in indie games, and it makes the world coherent.
While the story, graphics and sound are outstanding, they cannot carry the entire burden; game design has to be a solid foundation to keep presentation from collapsing. Bastion is pretty solid in this aspect. The combat is essentially Diablo’s mapped to a controller, but rewards quick skill and careful upgrade choices instead of swapping disposable swords for better disposable swords. Controls are responsive, and a dedicated dodge button keeps things fast paced. You can only wield two weapons and one special attack at one time, and there is only a handful of both that you discover over the course of the game. Choosing the right upgrades—such as increasing the swing speed of the machete—and executing power shots that are timing based keeps combat from straying into loot hoarding and number crunching. And while it can get a little repetitive at times, I’ll take simplicity over convoluted loot grinds.
The Bastion serves as the hub from which you can access all the upgrades and buffs needed to make it through the decrepit side streets and untouched forest environments. I’ve already mentioned weapon upgrades, which are crucial, but there are also spirits that give health, damage, and physical modifiers, challenges that reward more exp for weapon upgrades, and a store that sells various spells and special attacks. These are all restored by players gaining more shards, and can be rebuilt in any order. There are also training grounds for each weapon which unlocks new abilities, but are quite a challenge to complete. Thorough players will have plenty to sink into for roughly 10 or so hours.
Once you reach the conclusion of Bastion, there is a New Game + mode that is almost a no-brainer. Cryptic statements and events become clear the second time around, and the story is definitely strong enough to withstand multiple plays. The combat also holds up nicely, though it may be tempting to dominate weak enemies with the gear that you ended your first game with. Fortunately, there is a twist to make it challenging again. Players can invoke Gods that give enemies various empowerments, but also yield exp bonuses. Chances are that you’ll still have plenty to upgrade during your second play, so the Gods are practically necessary to gain enough points to beef up your weapons. Having more than a few activated is pretty intense, but makes the skill based combat even more satisfying.
If you have an Xbox 360 or PC, I highly recommend that you play Bastion. Presentation doesn’t get much better than this, and the writing is superb. Considering that this comes from just a handful of designers just makes it even that more impressive, and sets the bar high for whatever SuperGiant will do next.