Strong, but not Sticky
It only took 16 months and 22 hours, but I finally beat Bastion. In a world where you can buy a dozen games for a dollar it’s easy to stack a backlog longer than your lifetime. Far too many games slip between the cracks and, frankly, Bastion was about to. It was the trailer for developer Supergiant Games’ upcoming Transistor that urged me back to the falling tile world for the umpteenth time. Since the wiki is a click a way, head there if you're looking for a description of the game.
Bastion is not a long game. You can bookend it pretty easily in 6-8 hours and I hear the current speed run time is somewhere around 2 hours. On the normal difficulty there isn't much finesse required and the gameplay largely consists of hitting the attack buttons until you don’t die – so, what was I doing for 22 hours? Starting. Restarting. Failing to get high scores in the weapon arenas. Now the fact that I ain't good at games isn't new. And Bastion isn't hard, not at all. In fact it’s a little easy. But the game does a have a flow. And when you break your playtime into half-hour chunks (mostly) spread so many months apart, it’s pretty hard to keep the flow going. What stopped me from ever just sitting down and playing through the game, really diving into it, was the combat.
I loved the hook of the game – getting cores to upgrade the Bastion and build facilities – and of course it looks beautiful, but the combat, regardless of the large number of weapons Supergiant throws at you, feels largely monotone throughout the adventure. The problem might be with the enemy types, rather than the weapons (which are fun & interesting to use individually). Though you have a shield and can block/counter, I found my roll effective enough versus the enemy’s speed to make the shield option mostly obsolete The exception to that are the enemies who attack with a long stream of long-range attacks. Because the exception case list is so short, and the attack type so common, these “shield-enemies” tend to be much less interesting to fight than the rest. Other than this case, there’s rarely any reason to adopt a different play style. Probably this is why I loved the arenas so much, though I wasn't much good at them. Their puzzle nature brought something of a balance to the weapons. If only the plot-levels incorporated this puzzle layout of enemies and traps! The fact that you can use any combination of weapons/abilities for any level/enemies is nice and creates less burden for the player but also gives little desire to specialize or upgrade any of the weapons. Which is too bad. The individual weapon upgrade trees are pretty cool, and the upgrades sound meaningful, but they’re ultimately a carrot you don’t need. You just want to need it, which at least speaks to something addictive in the game’s design.
I'm sure, like every other game before and after it, much was left on the cutting room floor, but damn if Bastion doesn't feel like a cohesive vision. The presentation here is sky-high for any level of game, A, AAA, B-, D+, whatever. All of the game elements (abilities, weapons, items, achievements) are very nicely contextualized within the buildings that make up the Bastion and the beautiful designed menus that represent them (that’s right, beautiful menus). If you want a great example of in-world, narrative-sensitive menu design, than this is your prime pick right here.
Still, however nicely the package was wrapped, something at the core disagree with me. The game just wasn’t sticky – if you’re only a half fan of the hack & slash genre than you might experience the same thing (yes, Bastion is an action rpg too but my whole beef is that the rpg elements are too thin to matter more than basic button presses, hence: hack & slash). While the story and the now famously awesome narrator are definitely strong points too much of the narrative is back loaded for the threads to act as a propellant for players. The “twists” of the ending fell a little flat for me as I cared far less about the characters than the game hoped I did when the time came – while the structure of the ending is interesting, surprising, and worth seeing, it’s the only peak in what is otherwise a flat plot. While I appreciate the subtle approach to story, in this case it’s too light to execute it’s own mission.
Bastion is a remarkably well-put together and tight-feeling game. It has the mark of something that was well-loved and dreamed of for a long time. Though the combat, especially with the tweaked difficulty offered by New Game + and the Shrine, can be exciting, I found it unsatisfying in broad strokes. In moments and waves I did have fun blasting hoards of squirts with the blunderbuss or pulling off the Final Fantasy-inspired dragoon dive, but all too often I was exasperated by the action. Though I wasn't totally taken by its charms, I know Bastion is good game and I recommend it still, faults considered. Both the action & the rpg leave a little to be desired but if you're more interested in the former than the latter and you're the type of player who likes the groove of elegant button mashing than this could be your jam.