A classic example of "style over substance"
Ahhh, “games as art”. It is a debate that seemingly never ends. Bastion is the latest exhibit on the side of the “game are art” crowd. Unfortunately, though, what it really is is pseudo-intellectual faux art. It is a game whose simple story and mediocre action-RPG gameplay are disguised with buckets of style and unnecessarily cryptic dialog. There’s a word for that, actually, and that word is “pretentious”. Real art is original and creative, and it is only as weird or as thick as it has to be. Bastion, on the other hand, is weird and thick because it can be.
When Bastion hit the virtual shelves, the usual untrustworthy gaming outlets went ga-ga over it. But unlike Mass Effect 3, the gamers in their user reviews went ga-ga over it too. This is yet another game that makes me feel like I’m in some kind of parallel universe when I read nothing but nonstop, glowing, 5/5, A++ reviews that do nothing but call this game a masterpiece and ignore its huge flaws. This is yet another game that makes me question my reality and wonder whether my whole world is a great big test tube, and I am just the subject of cruel experiments. In these experiments, scientists feed me an endless supply of mediocre and ridiculously overrated games and then take note of my frustration and disappointment as I am let down by them. Or, maybe my world is actually a futuristic version of The Sims. If that is the case, then some sadistic child is giggling while clicking the “play overrated game” button repeatedly and watching my happiness meter go down.
Now that I have gotten that rant out of the way, let’s move on to the review, shall we? Bastion is a top-down action RPG in the vein of Diablo. If you compare the basic gameplay to the other games in this genre, however, some big flaws start to become apparent. The first problem is the game’s utter lack of customization. There is essentially no inventory in the game, which means that you can only select what weapons you are going to carry at a certain building in the game’s hub area (i.e. The “Bastion”). You cannot switch out these weapons in the middle of a combat area. So, if you get halfway through one of these areas and you figure out that you don’t have the right tools for the job, you have to either just trudge through it, or you have to leave the world without saving and go back to the hub world. Character advancement is achieved solely through elixirs. Elixirs, for all intents and purposes, function like wearable magic items. Every time that you gain a level, you open up a new elixir slot, which you can fill with bonuses like “extra damage” or “increased chance of critical damage”. There is also a simple weapon upgrading system that works kind of nicely, although the game doesn’t give you a lot of incentive to upgrade much more than a few weapons while ignoring the others.
I will say one big thing in this game’s favor. It has a wonderful presentation. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Taking some inspiration, perhaps, from Braid, the game is painted in bright water colors – with a palette that is very pleasing to the eye. The characters and monsters look great, although they aren’t animated that impressively. The best part about the game though, is the music. This is one of the best soundtracks to show up in a game in a long, long time. Continuing the recent trend of the best music showing up in indy downloadable games, Bastion has more than a few tracks that will have you humming them long after you turn the game off. It is one of the reasons that I kept turning the game on, even though its gameplay is sort of “meh”.
Since Bastion is, at its core, a top-down hack-and-slash RPG, its gameplay should be compared to the other games of this genre. How does it stack up? Not all that great. On the PC, at least, there have been so many “right click to attack, left click to use special ability” games that a new one has to offer something extraordinary in order to be special. Bastion does nothing of the sort. Combat functions, but it isn’t particularly tight. Animations aren’t very impressive and usually just involve a couple of frames. You can’t save in the middle of a combat area, but thankfully, they are pretty short.
By-and-large, I am baffled by how much the gaming populace is ignoring the history of this genre, and how Bastion fits into it. Kind of in the middle somewhere. Bastion’s story telling seems kind of cool for a while, but by the end, you will realize that it is a somewhat vanilla affair that looks deep or complicated because of the storytelling style. The narrator speaks of everything in present tense, which is essentially a gimmick. He also constantly drops hints that he is about to say something of huge significance – like he has some kind of great reveal that will make the story special. It never really comes. Bastion has a great setting, but it doesn’t do much interesting with it.
Bastion certainly isn’t a bad game, because if it had been, would have quit it without finishing. However, I didn’t find this to be the incredibly once-a-year “OMG look at what indy games can do” experience that was sold to me. Instead, Bastion is the once-a-year incredibly overrated “art” game, like Limbo. Games that people want so badly to be great art that they convince themselves that the problems that would sink most games suddenly don’t matter. I don’t have a problem recommending Bastion, but if you play it, you should be prepared for moderate disappointment.