Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment (WBIE)
Genre: Action RPG
Console: PC (Steam/Chrome), Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
Hours Played: ~10-12 hours
Progress: Completed game with a good ending, completed all weapon challenge levels and fully upgraded most weapons
With the fairly easy availability of development tools for current generation of systems (particularly the PC), indie games are both figuratively and sometimes literally a dime a dozen. On occasion particularly exceptional indie games are picked out by publishing firms and given releases that rival that of AAA games in both scope and presentation. After being shown at the PAX Expo in 2010, Bastion became one of the lucky few as Supergiant Games struck a deal with WBIE that saw Bastion released on Xbox 360 as a headlining title for their “Summer of Games” promotion and on the PC soon after through both the Steam distribution platform and just recently as a browser game for Google Chrome. Does the final version of Bastion deserve the laud that provided it with a wide distribution and the full support of a large game publisher? Read on to find out.
Bastion’s story starts off as a mystery to the player and is revealed piece by piece as you progress. So as not to spoil too much, I’ll just provide a brief overview. An apocalypse of some kind called the Calamity occurred tearing asunder the city of Caelondia, leaving its remnants floating on broken irregular platforms and the majority of its inhabitants frozen as statues of ash. The player controls a character called The Kid who wakes up to see his newly fragmented world and decides to head to the Bastion, an area that people were supposed to go to in the event of an emergency. The narrative then follows The Kid as he tries to find other survivors of the Calamity and repair the fractured world by mending the power Core of the Bastion that once powered the whole of Caelondia with Core pieces that have been scattered across the region. Back stories for the characters are revealed in a unique way too. There are four special items that can be found throughout the game that activate a trip to a place called “Who Knows Where” where The Kid fights increasingly daunting waves of enemies and is rewarded not only with a lot of in-game currency, but also with snippets of the stories behind various aspects of and characters in the game.
Bastion‘s graphics really are superb. The isometric (2.5D) view is complemented by lush and unique landscapes in each of the areas that The Kid explores in his journeys. Fire, smoke, and other various particle effects are masterfully done, giving life to the weapons and environments. The game’s colour palette is also worthy of note. Bright, vibrant colours are used in almost all instances throughout the game. If the colours are ever muted or altered it serves to highlight a change in the environment (like in the aforementioned “Who Knows Where”), and is always very striking and effective. Each of the areas that The Kid explores through the game has its own unique visual spirit that encompasses not only just the scenery, but the enemies, weapons, and characters native to the area as well. Everything is well-animated and moves in a believable and fluid way, which was a relief as one area that indie games frequently miss-out on is proper animation. The enemies in Caelondia all have very original and unique appearances which make them not only easily and quickly identifiable, but also much more engaging to fight. The only graphical design decision that I would question in the game would be that of the characters themselves. While they are themselves of singular appearance, they are nowhere near as animated as the enemies and world around them (with the natural exception of The Kid who by nature of being the player’s character has plenty of animations). This lack of character animation that is even outclassed by 1996’s Super Mario RPG could be said to highlight the characters, separating them visually from the world around them, or even perhaps to serve as a commentary on their stoic nature regarding the fact that their entire world is crumbling around them, but I found that it just separated me from the characters making them seem more like little chess pieces serving as avatars to the fairly well-developed personae that they were meant to represent.
Sound is one of the biggest problems weighing down modern games. Most games that come out, no matter how hard they try, end up with very generic soundtracks and sound effects. There are only so many sounds that a sword or gun or footsteps can make one could argue, well Bastion throws that notion back into your face and says “Boom! There it is!”. Simply put, Bastion is an aural delight. I don’t think an original game has had such unique, recognizable, and memorable sound since Portal. While you could argue that the only truly memorable song from the game is the one featured in the opening screen, the sound effects coupled with the still well above average in-game music earn Bastion the gold standard for sound. Of course, the game’s sound cannot be discussed without mentioning one of the year’s greatest achievements in video game sound, the voice of Logan Cunningham who provided the pipes for Rucks, the game’s dynamic narrator. Dynamic narration has been tried in several non-sports games, the ones that stand out the most in recent memory would be the two Crackdown games where the narrator would say things like “Burn baby burn!” when you were blown skyward by grenades, but to the best of my knowledge it has not been implemented as successfully in a non-sports game as it is in Bastion. Almost everything interesting the character does in any given area will earn a comment from the narrator’s underwear-meltingly gruff voice. My absolute favourite moment with the narrator occurred very close to the start of the game. While you’re navigating the crumbling world of Caelondia, you’re basically guaranteed to fall off a platform or two and when you fall off a platform for the first time the narrator’s description of this event provided me with one of the purest moments of gaming joy that I may have ever experienced. Of course you don’t want to be falling off platforms willy-nilly, but when you accidentally do for the first time, you’re in for a treat.
Even though I played Bastion through Steam on a PC, I utilized my wired Xbox 360 controller, so I can’t really comment on either of the two types of non-controller PC controls. I’m sure that they’re serviceable, but I would suggest doing yourself a favor and just using an Xbox 360 controller if at all possible. The controls work as one would imagine for an isometric action RPG, but what’s really handy when using the controller is that there is an auto-aim mechanism in place that helps you properly aim at distant enemies. While aiming with the right-stick is quite accurate, it’s nice to have the extra little bit of help. The only issue I had with the game’s controls occurred when I was trying to complete the challenge level for the Bullhead Shield. While I was trying to block enemy projectiles, the auto-aim function would continually kick-in and aim my shield at the nearest enemy instead of at the projectiles I was trying to block. I was able to get around this by ensuring that I was the closest to the enemy whose projectiles I wanted to block, but it was a needless complication that could have been solved by either lessening or optionally disabling the auto-aim mechanism when using the shield.
Gameplay is arguably the most important factor when judging any game, and again a place where Bastion shines. Battle mechanics are sound and with all of the weapon/ability choices the game experience is actually quite customizable. Once I acquired the War Machete (a fast melee blade), I basically didn’t use any other weapon unless a particular level required me to switch. With weapons that vary from fantasy-themed flamethrowers, carbines, and muskets to pikes and a shied that can be used to counterattack most enemies, there are a lot of different ways to approach your enemies. The effect of most areas building in front of you as you walk encourages exploration and doesn’t hamper character movement at all. I had reservations about this effect when I was looking at game trailers for Bastion before I bought it because I thought it would be more similar to Super Mario levels that use a similar gimmick that usually impedes your platforming instead of enhancing it in a meaningful way. Luckily, though, the effect becomes second nature within minutes of playing the game and only serves to make you more careful in your exploration lest you should miss any of the secret bonuses or items that are scattered liberally throughout the levels.
Collectibles play a big role in Bastion and luckily most of them are useful for something aside from looking pretty. There are various materials that can be found inside story levels and earned by completing the weapon challenge levels that are used, along with a bit of the game’s currency, “Fragments”, to upgrade weapons. There are a few unique aspects of the weapon upgrade system that makes it stand-out. Firstly, the materials that you collect to enable weapon upgrades are fairly rare. There is only as much of them in the game as it would take to fully upgrade said weapon, so it’s not something that can be farmed or boosted, but rather a reward for good game performance or attentive adventuring. Secondly, once you have the material to enable you to upgrade a certain weapon, and enough Fragments to pay for the upgrade, you have to choose between two kinds of upgrades at each upgrade level. For instance, when upgrading you will have the choice between upgrading the weapon’s damage or it’s rate of fire, so you have to think about which option is best suited to your play style. Thirdly, and most importantly to me anyways, is that all upgrades to either weapons or yourself can be changed any time you are at the Bastion. If you play through a level and die, you can go back to the weapon upgrade shop in the Bastion and upgrade your weapon differently to cater to whatever specific challenge you’re facing. I love being able to change my mind about upgrades in this fashion and find that far too many games make you upgrade some weapon or skill permanently and heartlessly leave you to regret your decisions for the rest of your play time. Games like Skyrim particularly, could benefit from enabling the player to take back even some of their skill point or leveling assignments if they find out that things didn’t work exactly as expected or that something else requires buffing now far more than what was upgraded in the past. Players can upgrade The Kid as well as he levels up. After so many levels are acquired, new slots open up that the player can assign certain alcoholic beverages (that can be either bought with Fragments or unlocked through leveling) that buff certain attributes like increasing critical hit percentage or adding addition health to the heath meter. It bears repeating that these buffs are also not permanent, but can be changed at the Bastion at the player’s will as well.
As the player progresses through the game going from the hub-like Bastion to the various levels collecting Cores, each of these cores is used to upgrade the Bastion and unlock/build/upgrade a new structure that enables various features. The buildings are available to be unlocked/upgraded in whatever order the player chooses and include the: Arsenal, Forge, Distillery, Memorial, Shrine, and Lost-and-Found. The Arsenal is used to choose which two weapons and which one special ability to want to have equipped, the Forge is used to upgrade weapons, the distillery is used to equip various stat-buffing beverages, the Memorial provides challenges, like killing so many of a certain enemy, that are dedicated to those you died in the Calamity and provide fairly large sums of Fragments when completed, the Shrine houses idols to various gods that can be insulted thus bringing their wrath upon the player and increasing difficulty as well as the amount of Fragments and XP earned, and the Lost-and-Found where materials for upgrading weapons, new idols for the Shrine, new special abilities, and new stat-buffing beverages can be purchased with Fragments. This hub/level-select system works well for Bastion and does nothing to harm the experience.
Overall, with the plethora of customization options for most aspects of gameplay, any gamer should be able to make Bastion their own kind of action RPG. The rich storytelling is supported in every way by the tight battle system and very forgiving and engaging upgrade/unlock systems making Bastion a game with gameplay that is not to be missed.
As with any game, one of the biggest questions that has to be answered in the gamer’s mind before they purchase a game is “How much gaming am I going to get out of this for my money?” At a maximum of $14.99, pretty much every gamer is bound to get much more than their money’s worth out of Bastion. A good play-though of the main story, along with the completion of the weapon challenge levels and attempting to complete various challenges from the Memorial should take the average player around 10 hours, which honestly more than most gamers get out of many of the $60 non-indie games that have been coming out recently. Replayability is added to the game in several ways as well. When you come to the very end of the game you have to make a big and difficult decision. Wanting to see both endings is reason enough for many to warrant a second play through this great game. The New Game + mode allows you to bring your level, weapons, and abilities over from your first playthrough and experience the game again along with some occasional changes to what the narrator says. On Steam, there is free DLC for the game that gets downloaded automatically as a game update that adds a new “Who Knows Where” challenge sequence called “The Stanger’s Dream” as well as a Score Attack Mode that removes all of your earned upgrades and instead replaces them with having all of the Idols and character-buffing Spirits unlocked in addition to grading your performance and efficiency on the levels you play.
For its low price tag, Bastion offers an astounding amount of content at a very high level of quality. There is nothing in Bastion that screams “Indie” or “this studio’s first game”, but instead feels like a very competent release from a AAA development team. There is more fun minute-to-minute in Bastion than can be found in almost any other game released in the last five years. The phrase “instant classic” shouldn’t be used lightly in the game industry, but it really does apply in this case. When future game developers are looking over the history of gaming for the tightest, most well-executed action RPGs ever made, Bastion will be right there along with The Legend of Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, and the Tales of… Series as a shining example of just how good a game of any kind can be when it’s made by a passionate team that truly cares about the quality of the gaming experience they are creating.
+ An engaging and interesting story. What caused the Calamity? What can The Kid do to fix the broken and crumbling world?
+ Use of dynamic narration and challenge levels that provide back-story are an original and refreshing method of storytelling
+ The writing in general is quite brilliant, especially regarding the narrator’s dialogue
+ Environments and effects are living and natural even as they crumble beneath you
+ Having the world build around you as you walk works wonderfully and looks awesome
+ A usually bright colour palette makes the game vibrant and engaging
+ Enemies are unique and easily identifiable
- NPCs and human characters are strikingly inanimate compared to the world that they inhabit
+ Music is recognizable and original
+ Sound effects are very apt and stand out when compared to other recent games
+ The narrators voice is like a warm hug from an enormous fat cat crossed with Chuck Norris
+ Standard fare for action RPGs, button layout is straightforward and doesn’t hamper gameplay at all
+ Auto-aim feature when using the Xbox 360 works great when using weapons…
- …but can seriously impede precise blocking with the Bullhead shield
+ Engaging and varied combat throughout, doesn’t fall victim to hack’n’slash tedium
+ Customizable in many ways letting the player decide how they want to play
+ Superb upgrade system that gets the player to make tough decisions, but allows them to change their minds should the need arise
+ Offers a good New Game Plus mode that lets the player feel powerful and potentially choose a different ending
+ Free DLC on Steam adds a Score Attack Mode as well as some additional back-story in New Game Plus mode
+ Multiple endings encourage the player to see the consequences of both decisions.
- A single playthrough lasts only around 10 hours or less