September 28, 2011

Bastion review: A proper story

The Bastion

When I first tried playing Bastion, I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about.  In fact, after I played the demo, I sort of shrugged a little, deleted it, and went about my day.  All I had really known about the game prior to its release was that it had a hand-painted look and that it was dynamically narrated.  While the demo indeed confirmed that the game featured both of these elements, the relatively brief slice of the game on display didn’t exactly leave me clamoring for more.  I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by what was supposed to be one of the marquee titles of Microsoft’s “Summer of Arcade” promotion.  I ultimately ended up purchasing the full game after seeing and hearing the overwhelmingly positive reception it had been receiving.  Once I began to really dig into it, I found my initial lukewarm feelings were completely turned around.  What I had initially thought was just a mediocre hack-and-slash affair turned out to be so excellent that it might just be the best downloadable title of 2011.

Bastion opens with “The Kid” waking up to find that a mysterious catastrophe, referred to as “The Calamity”, has devastated the world and that practically everything – and everyone – he knew is now gone.  Right from the start, a gruff, borderline-raspy male voice begins to narrate The Kid’s actions – and doesn’t stop.  Throughout Bastion’s roughly 8 hours (give or take an hour), this gravely voice will be your guide and your companion.  The ever-present narration strikes a perfect balance between story-telling and companion, providing an excellently-paced revelation of plot points while also offering up clever quips during minute-to-minute gameplay.  At first I worried that this vocal accompaniment would become grating over time, but ultimately, my worry was unfounded.   All told, it’s a magnificent monologue – always there when you need it, but never over-staying its welcome.

"The Kid wakes up"

As The Kid gets up out of bed and begins to move around, you’re immediately presented with one of the game’s many other interesting nuances – both mechanically and visually.  The ground around you rises up out of thin air to form the paths and platforms you’ll be traversing.  Bricks and tiles constantly zip in from off-screen and snap into place a few steps ahead of you.  This magically-assembling path serves as a great way of clearly delineating where you need to go while also providing just the right amount of obfuscation to the occasional hidden area you’ll discover.

Moments after waking up, you’ll find a basic hammer, which does a decent job of pummeling foes up close, but shortly thereafter, you’ll also acquire a repeater, for handling foes from a more comfortable distance.  By the game’s end, you’ll have amassed an arsenal of various melee and ranged weapons, of which you can equip any two at a given time.  A single special ability (from a choice of a handful), a shield, and a rolling evasion move flesh out The Kid’s full complement of weapons and abilities.  Each weapon has its own unique characteristics and the ability to mix and match your loadout lets you tailor your experience to your preferred play style.  I personally found myself using a dynamic mix of melee and ranged combat for most of the game.  Throw in a weapon upgrade system and it all makes for some immensely satisfying and intense combat.

Visually, Bastion is breathtaking.  Every aspect of the game has a hand-crafted, painterly feel – and for good reason – most of the assets were indeed hand-painted by the studio’s art director.  The world of Caelondia is filled with vibrant color, yet still manages to maintain an overall somber quality that helps to accentuate the mood of the narrative.  As I traversed the game’s various lands, I frequently found myself eager to see what sorts of visual splendor the next area would contain.

Aurally, Bastion excels just as much, if not more so, than it does visually.  The game’s music, which Supergiant’s composer refers to as “acoustic frontier trip-hop”, is absolutely world class and unlike anything I’ve heard in other games.  The soundtrack perfectly complements the story and the gameplay at every step, highlighting bouts of frenetic combat and bringing the mood down for its more dour moments.  It’s fairly rare that I’ll actively seek out a game’s soundtrack, but the music in Bastion is that good.

Fighting a Scumbag

The central narrative thread centers around making your way to The Bastion – in narrative terms, a safe haven which serves as a post-Calamity meeting place for any remaining survivors.  Mechanically speaking, The Bastion serves as the central hub.  To say much more would begin edging into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that The Bastion was also damaged in The Calamity and you’ll be tasked with visiting various locales in order to bring it back up to snuff.  While the overall story progresses linearly, at times you’ll be presented with a small group of levels and you’ll have the choice of what order to tackle them in.  Upon each return visit to the central hub, you’ll erect a new building of your choosing – an arsenal for swapping weapons, a forge for upgrading them, etc.  The story unfolds in a well-paced manner, revealing itself little by little, building to a crescendo, capping it all off with an intense finale.

The world of Caelondia is filled with vibrant color, yet still manages to maintain an overall somber quality that helps to accentuate the mood of the narrative.

Once you’ve watched the credits roll, there’s plenty here to keep you coming back afterward.  Challenge levels, combat arenas, and “idols” which augment enemy difficulty all provide incentives to keep honing your chops.  Once you’ve built the memorial building, you’ll also be able to keep track of your progress on “vigils” – rewards granted for meeting various milestones.  Bastion also includes a “new game+” mode which allows you to play through the entire game again with all your upgrades from the previous play-through still intact.

As much as I enjoyed Bastion, I did have a couple of very minor gripes.  Whenever you obtain a new weapon for the first time, it is foisted upon you, taking the place of whichever weapon you already had equipped.  I’m mostly willing to let this slide though, as the sections where this happens seem to be somewhat tailored to the particular weapon in question.  It would not have bothered me at all if not for my second minor quibble – weapons can only be swapped from the arsenal, a specific building found primarily only in the game’s hub section, though there is an occasional mid-level arsenal here and there.

Although it doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, almost every single aspect of the game is brilliantly executed and they’re all woven together into a complete package that is truly a modern gaming masterpiece.  The fact that Bastion was created by the 7-person team at ironically-named Supergiant Games makes this accomplishment all the more impressive.


Title: Bastion [Xbox 360, PC]
Developer: Supergiant Games (Twitter: @SupergiantGames)
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (Twitter: @WarnerBrosEnt)
Release Date: 7/20/11 (XBLA), 8/16/11 (Steam)

Buy it from the Xbox Live Marketplace
Buy it on Steam
Buy the soundtrack: Bandcamp | Amazon | iTunes

Score: 4 out of 5

4 out of 5

Recommended if you like:

* Hacking and/or slashing
* Pretty-looking games
* Torchlight, DeathSpank, SNES-era Action/RPGs

Highlights:

* Hearing what the narrator said the first time I fell off the edge of a platform
* Stumbling upon the fact that perfectly-timed shield blocks will counter an enemy attack
* The first time I heard “Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)”

 

Bastion was purchased for review by Matt Kernan. Played the story mode to completion on the Xbox 360 in approximately 8 hours. For more info on how VGH approaches game reviews, please read our reviews philosophy.

 

 

3 Comments.
  1. D.J. Ross says:

    Great review!

    I’m sure I have a lot of Bastion’s music yet to go, but a few of the tracks I’ve heard so far remind me of one of my favorite game soundtracks, Shadow Hearts. They both have the same sort of frontiers-y/foreign sound with a little rhythm and hint of danger added. I love when composers do something unconventional.

  2. freakyzeeky says:

    That was a very well written review! Yay Matt!

    The game wasn’t really on my radar, even after hearing the vghangover guys praising the game some time ago. After reading your review though, I’ll have to take a look at Bastion at some point, it looks like a very interesting game. :)

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