The kid thinks you should play this
Bastion is a beautiful 2D fantasy game with a unique storytelling method of an ever present voice narrating the story as it happens. The voice’s register hovers somewhere in the vicinity of Sam Elliott and Ron Perlman and serves as a constant companion that elegantly toes the line between pure exposition but also a character in the game itself. In addition to this unique conceit, the game itself is a fun action-RPG with great weapons, upgrade systems and a lot of well thought out gameplay design.
The story follows The Kid who is a white-haired chibi style character and a survivor of a recent catastrophic event known only as The Calamity. During the course of the game’s 8-10 hours you’ll learn more about the world of The Bastion, the different races of people and cities surrounding it. In many ways, the story of Bastion literally unfolds as you play it. The world first appears empty until the ground literally pops up from under your feet and the narrator tells the story like a parent telling a bedtime story.
You’ll meet a few characters on your journey, but for the most part the narrator is the only voice that you’ll be hearing during the game. Reportedly they recorded over 3000 lines of dialogue for the entire game. Somewhere out there exists a spreadsheet all the different scenarios they decided should have accompanying narration. Most of it is for story, but an impressive amount is contextual. Sometimes it directly relates to actions you take in the game like destroying environmental objects or even your choice of weapons that you use in each level.
It might sound like a gimmick which it totally is, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It’s easy to see how this idea could’ve gone horribly wrong, but it’s implemented incredibly well and never feels unnatural. While playing you can tell that special care was taken to prevent the narrator from repeating himself or to have anything interrupt the narration, whether it’s a pause screen or when story and contextual narration have to happen one after another. Also some narration is reserved entirely for the New Game Plus second play through which extends its replayability. As of the writing of this review I’ve beat the game twice, and I’m still convinced that there’s a lot of narration I still haven’t heard.
Okay so the narration is really cool, but how does it play? The game is seen from an isometric perspective and The Kid will be shooting and hacking away at enemies large and small. The Bastion itself serves as a hub world from which you’ll fly to each new world discovered. It’s essentially entirely linear, but you have the option of going to training levels or taking other challenges to increase your skill before moving on. Bastion is a tad Diablo/Deathspank style with its damage numbers and critical hits, but not a straight up button masher especially at the higher difficulties. In addition to hitting and shooting, you can roll out of the way and counter using your shield. The control is precise and responsive which makes things like dodging and evading very easy.
What really separates Bastion from Diablo style action RPGs are the variety of weapons and their properties. The Kid has at his disposal a choice of two weapons and one special skill. There are eleven weapons total which you gradually discover and also a large number of special skills to unlock as well. Having played with all the weapons it’s surprisingly tough to pick favorites. Each one has very different properties, uses and scenarios where they work best. They boil down to melee and projectile weapons, but all handle quite differently in terms of range, strength, speed, area of effect and accuracy. I was skeptical of the variety at first because usually there are clear favorites, but the game really lets you customize your arsenal to your play style. I would encourage you to change things up every now and then in order to play the game differently.
When you destroy objects and kill enemies you receive experience points and currency which can be used to purchase weapon upgrades. Each weapon has five levels of upgrades with a choice of two on each level. One nice touch is that upgrades can be swapped at any time after purchase which adds even more variety to each weapon. Another passive upgrade come in the form of “tonics” which are different buffs that The Kid can equip that affect things like health, percent chance of critical hits, damage and a number of other properties. The higher your level, the more tonics you can equip at one time making your character even stronger.
Another way to further your weapon skills come in “Proving Grounds” one of which exists for each weapon. These are like training areas where you must accomplish a specific goal using a particular weapon and based on your performance you’ll receive rewards. At the highest reward you’ll receive a new special attack for that weapon, but very few of these can be achieved without an upgraded weapon. There’re also in-game achievements for which you receive money that you can put towards more upgrades.
With all these upgrades it sounds like you’ll hit a wall where you’re just too powerful for everything around you which is why they added a special way of increasing the difficulty of the game. There is no Easy, Medium and Hard mode in Bastion. Instead there’s a shrine where you can invoke idols of certain gods in order to increase the challenge and receive more experience points as a reward. There are ten gods in total and even invoking only a few of them can dramatically change your experience. Some modifications include: faster enemies, stronger enemies, regenerating enemies, damage from touching enemies, enemies that randomly deflect attacks and exploding enemies and more. If you’re not quick on your feet you can find yourself dying very quickly the more idols you invoke.
The art in Bastion is gorgeously realized with a broad color palette and beautiful painterly strokes for everything from the characters to the random boxes you’ll smash in a level. The paint style recalls Braid, but there’s much more detail and variety to be found. The saturation of color really makes everything pop out of the screen. It’s a nice and rare treat nowadays to have a 2D game that makes you want to stop to appreciate its artwork. Even more impressive is that it’s all the work of only one person out of the very small team.
Plenty has been said about the narration, but it’s still worth noting just how seamless it works into the game. There are times when the next bit of narration won’t happen until you finish a battle, but somehow the pacing always seems to work. I wish I were more versed in music so that I would have the vocabulary to describe the music from Bastion, but it’s a great soundtrack and complements the game wonderfully. Sometimes it’s the slow leisurely strumming of a guitar and others it’s the urgent stringing of violins. It’s a short enough game that the music never gets repetitive, but even if it were longer I still don’t think I would’ve minded. There were even some musical beats that I wasn’t expecting to find in such an indie developed game, but worked great for the story.
If there were one criticism I would make about Bastion it would be the sound effects. I’m not sure if it could simply be a matter of mixing the weapon and impact sounds up a bit more, but I felt like they could’ve had more punch. Even though I loved using all the weapons in the game, they didn’t feel as satisfying as I wanted them to be when either the shot of a rifle went off or the slash of the machete hit an enemy. The impacts, shots and slashes are pretty understated and I wished felt more tactile than they did. I’m sure it’s tough finding just the right sound especially when it’s something that will be heard thousands of times in quick succession, but I found it a little bit lacking. Another minor quibble is that there are a lot of loading screens, but there are a lot of contextual story bits put there which make them less annoying.
Any complaints I have are only minor nitpicks, because Bastion is still a great game that should be played by anyone with an Xbox (and later PC). The gameplay is really well designed with several small considerations that streamline the experience. For example, when you equip a new weapon, that weapon’s special skill is automatically sorted to the top of the list. Another nice touch is that in the game’s version of wave based challenge rooms they make the experience less monotonous by having story narration in between waves. A lot of thought has been put in to make the game inclusive to all manner of players. From the most casual to the hardcore in search of a bigger challenge.
There’s a lot to do in Bastion and it’s well worth the 1200 MS points (or $15). As of the writing of this review is not yet available on PC but will be later in 2011. It’s a unique and fun experience and well worth your while. Highly recommended!