The word ‘gimmick’ gets a lot of abuse these days. It’s become shorthand in the gaming press for a feature that is being used to sell games which are otherwise utterly devoid of imagination. Bastion’s trick of constant, dynamic narration could certainly be called a gimmick. But instead of being used to cover up a lack of substance in the game, it only accentuates the sheer amount of variety and imagination on show. There are barely any cutscenes and no long, wordy exposition getting in the way of the action. Instead, gameplay hints, plot points and background information are delievered as you play, by an omnipresent narrator, giving context and colour to your actions without ever distracting you from them. This could very easily have been annoying, but thanks to some great writing, the narrator manages to remain a friendly companion, rather than a pest. And the story that he tells is definitely one you’re going to want to hear the end of.
Bastion‘s protagonist, known only as the Kid, wakes up to a shattered world. A devastating event called the Calamity has torn his homeland to pieces, leaving only islands floating in the air. From then on, you’re unravelling one mystery after another, whilst simultaneously trying to rebuild the titular Bastion – the one safe place in a world of chaos. All of this is tied together by the game’s gorgeous art style, which blends vaguely animé style characters with wonderfully detailed backgrounds, all in soft pastel colours. The screenshots in this post really can’t do it justice. The attention to detail is extraordinary, and is further fleshed out by the pockets of backstory delivered by the narrator as you go. It doesn’t take long before the city of Ceylondia becomes a place you really want to save.
Even if everything in it is prefixed with the word ‘the’.
The saving itself takes place from an isometric perspective, and is reminiscent of a Diablo-style dungeon crawler, with monsters to slay and slashes to hack. The Kid can wield two weapons at a time, which are acquired as the game goes on. The weapons themselves are pleasingly varied, ranging from the basic hammer and repeater rifle to duelling pistols, muskets and plenty more wierd and wonderful creations. Each weapon is individually upgradable in various different ways, encouraging the player to develop their own individual style. While some weapons are clearly better suited to certain situations than others, virtually any combination will be able to get you through any level – and as you select your tools, you will of course be rewarded by the narrator telling you what a good choice you’ve made. There’s also a unique challenge area for every single one, which reveals more about the backstory of the weapon, and those who wielded it, whilst allowing the player to hone their skills and unlock powerful new special abilities.
The emphasis on player choice is a real breath of fresh air in what would otherwise be a fairly linear experience. Weapon upgrades can be swapped out at will, meaning you never have to regret missing out on anything, as you can just go back and try it out. There’s also a series of ‘perks’ in the form of spirits, which grant abilities like increased critical chance, or an extra slot for a health tonic. Initially only one of these can be active at once, but more slots quickly unlock as the Kid levels up. The Shrine is perhaps the most interesting example of player choice, acting as a sort of in-game difficulty slider. With it, you can choose to pray to various gods, each of which will make the enemies tougher in one way or another. Your reward for this is an increased amount of XP and Fragments, the game’s currency, which can be used to purchase more upgrades, abilities and spirits.
As far as replay value goes, there’s a New Game Plus mode, which is accessible after completing the story for the first time. This lets you start the game again with all of your weapons and upgrades from the first time around, as well as allowing access to some more powerful abilities that are simply not available the first time around. There are even a few subtle changes to the narration. While most people will just ignore it, this is definitely a welcome addition to any game, and the ability to experiment with different loadouts and playstyles without having to restart the game is certainly something to be thankful for.
I haven’t even mentioned my favourite part yet – the music. One of the best things about the Steam version of Bastion is that, for a small fee, you can get the soundtrack edition. This is absolutely worth doing. Bastion’s music is consitently brilliant and unique, mixing acoustic and electric guitar with eastern melodies and energetic beats, and is employed to such effect in the telling of the story that, despite the music being brilliant, I would strongly advise against listening through the album before finishing the game, as to do so would definitely ruin a few great moments. But once you’re done, you’ve got twenty-two tracks worth of memories to relive.
I challenge you to listen to this and tell me it doesn’t make you want to have an adventure:
Now, as this is yet another game that first came out on XBLA, you’ll probably be expecting me to moan about crappy textures, low resolutions and shoddy keyboard controls, before grudgingly admitting that you’re probably best off with a gamepad. However, I’m happy to say that Supergiant have put a lot of effort into giving Bastion the PC version it deserves, when they could have easily pulled a Ubisoft and shat out a cheap and cheerful port. If anything, the PC version is clearly superior – backgrounds, objects and characters are far more detailed, and definitely benefit from being viewed up close on a high-resolution monitor. The artwork really shines in a way the 360 version could never match. What’s more, the game arguably controls better with a mouse and keyboard than it does with a 360 pad, as aiming the ranged weapons is much easier with a mouse pointer, and there’s even an option to make things more Diablo-esque with a mouse-driven control system – left click to move, right click to smash.
I have but one nit to pick with the control scheme; when you find a weapon out in the world, it automatically gets equipped into either the left or right slot, depending on whether it’s a melee or ranged weapon. There’s no option to choose where to put it, or even just to put it away and stick with what you’re already carrying. This was more of an issue for me on the 360 than the PC – I’m happy with left mouse being melee and right mouse being ranged, but for the gamepad I was more comfortable with my weapons the other way around from the default setting. This meant I was often stuck with two guns, or two melee weapons, when I really didn’t want to be.
So far, 2011 has been the year of the AAA game – Portal 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution alone would have made it so, let alone upcoming titles like Battlefield 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In a year like this, I really wouldn’t have expected a top-down indie hack-and-slasher to be a serious contender for my game of the year. But Bastion came along and it stole my heart, just by being different. The music and artwork combine to create a wonderful world, full of detail, fleshed out by the narration telling a story you won’t soon forget.
Bastion is definitely one of the most engaging gaming experiences of the year, and it’s absolutely worth your time and money. Even better, this is only Supergiant’s first game – and if Bastion is anything to go by, their second should be well worth the wait.
Bastion can be found on Steam for £11.49. It can also be found on the Xbox Live Arcade for some arbitrary number of Microsoft SillyPoints, although I would recommend the PC version as being superior. There is a demo available for both platforms.