As my colourful and cartoony, almost JRPGish character plods through the surreal worldscape that opens Bastion, the gruff cowboy that seems to be narrating my adventure comments, “ground forms up under his feet, as if pointing the way. He don’t stop to wonder why.” I smirk at the down-to-earth description of the weird stone and mosaic level falling down from the sky in front of my avatar (‘The Kid’ so the cowboy calls him). Tentatively, I test the edges of the flying platform I’m standing upon, looking down at the kaleidoscopic images passing by in the distance beneath. Suddenly I slip off the edge.
“And then, he falls to his death,” says the cowboy.
I stare at the screen.
“I’m just foolin’,” he cracks, and my Kid slams down out of the sky above, face-first onto the gameworld I just fell from.
This running commentary is the cherry on top of SuperGiant Games’ Bastion, a solid-fun action adventure RPG with a unique sense of artistic direction. You play the Kid, one of the last people left in Caelondia, a land struck by ‘the Calamity’ (perhaps an obscure nod to Calamity Jane): an event that thrusts the nation, crumbling, high into the sky to form shaky floating islands. For the most part, players will be running around in Caelondia smashing enemies, collecting parts with which to upgrade weapons and the player’s abilities, as well as finding the cores that will upgrade the Bastion: the game’s hubworld and story centrepiece. And all the while your grizzly narrator will tell your story as if you were sitting around a campfire in the outback, commenting on your actions (“then the Kid just went crazy smashin’ junk for a while”), or filling in background information and plot, in a way not unlike Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’s retrospective storytelling.
Melee or ranged weapons are matched interchangeably to either X or B (360 version was tested), with a Secret Skill to the right trigger (basically weapon-based magic and gadgets). With this simple system, combat boils down to rolling evasion with A, blocking with a big shield – a la Zelda – using the left trigger, while strategically using your weapons to down foes. In practice, you’ll be hitting X or B like mad, battering foes to pulp in no time. The game itself doesn’t let things stay this simple. The level design is fresh enough that each battle feels pretty unique. Sometimes a race of creatures you helped earlier in the game will pop up and take part in the battle, other times the sheer pick’n’mix of enemies means half of them will kill each other anyway (making for a very dangerous battlefield).
So it’s like Diablo, but with more intelligent level and enemy design. Also with a brilliant old Americana folk soundtrack, and a frontier-oriented setting; so really more a crazy fantasy Western Diablo. Even the role-playing elements are generically twisted: if you level up in Bastion it is entirely to increase your maximum hit points (a little), and to add another slot for spirits. Spirits function like Bioshock’s passive ‘tonics’: they give you a passive effect; from adding damage resistance, to giving you an extra ‘chance’ (lives). You also collect ‘Something’s, which are materials used to upgrade collected weapons (about 11 weapons in total) at the forge. To get more special items for weapons, you have to complete ‘Proving Grounds’, areas for a specific weapon where they were used by age-old specialists. These are like challenge rooms, and they vary in difficulty and fairness. And that is essentially it for the character upgrading systems on the game. A more central one is the aim to upgrade and rebuild the Bastion after the Calamity; a process not unlike Assassin Creed II’s villa, in that it must be upgraded to provide more services as central game mechanics (as well as to further the story).
However, there is a certain detail SuperGiant have added to these systems that is really what makes Bastion stand out. The game manages to tie every one of these elements to the story. Pick up a new weapon? The narrator will give a brief, grunting account of the Caelondian guilds and factions that used and developed the weapon. What the people used to be like. What happened to them. Choose the ‘info’ option over a location in the game world, and rather than receive a wall of text telling a dull story, the narrator explains what it used to be like and how it is now; the descriptions somehow always interesting and humourous. This goes all the way down to spirits, from ‘Stabsinthe’ to ‘Cham-pain’, every item, enemy, location, and weapon ties into the game world’s story; the world of Caelondia, that has been literally torn from its roots in the events of the game. The sense of place is astoundingly well-developed, something few RPG’s have achieved as successfully.
And don’t let the game’s cartoony looks fool you; it goes to some fairly emotional places and takes the story in very interesting directions throughout, with little suggestions and twists in the narrative to keep you hooked. Only at times was the ‘campfire’ storytelling technique a bit vague: the game doesn’t flat-out explain that Caelondia is floating at all until almost the conclusion of the game. It could easily have been just a trippy metaphor. Some other spoilerish plot points are equally vague.
About two thirds of the way through the game, things also get momentarily repetitive. The Shadow of the Colossus-like grind of returning to the Bastion hubworld after every completed area begins to feel just like that: a grind. Combat starts to lose its lustre as, over and over again, more samey enemies appear for the bashing. The reason for this could be that in between the exciting first act and the exciting finishing act, things get momentarily samey; but I feel it could easily have been because I played the game for about 6 hours straight well into the night, and the experience is about 8-10 hours long, without taking your time and ignoring New Game Plus.
The conclusion of the game is rather good, and there are many reasons for more than one playthrough; there are far too many combinations of weapons and skills than you can try in one game. I resorted to a war machete and an excellent bow for most of it, but easily could have opted for duel revolvers and a flamethrower that looks like a fireplace blower. The sheer amount of options in the gameplay is pretty astounding, like Bioshock again there is a lot of scope for combining different strategies and abilities. Not to mention multiple endings, a New Game Plus option (which is fast becoming an industry standard) where you can keep all your kit and start afresh, and the ability to invoke or revoke different Gods at the temple, which act like Halo’s skulls to give you a tougher gameplay experience (with the reward of more XP and money).
All in all, Bastion is a really excellent package. It’ll tickle your RPG needs, your adventure needs, your bashing needs; and all of this abundance is tied to a pretty excellent story, witty narrative design, and only very minor quibbles in-between.
Platform: 360 (released), PC (TBA 2011).
Developer: Supergiant Games
Genre: Action RPG
Time: 10 hours (one playthrough, give or take two hours for each player)
Gripes: Occasionally repetitive gameplay design, slightly unclear story
Get it for the: Witty and unique dynamic narration, addictive Diablo-like action and gameplay
Full disclosure: Purchased a copy for 1200 Microsoft Points, completed it once and started NG+, was totally worth it, dude. (Purposefully didn’t tell much about the story in the game, it’s nice to discover if you don’t know where it’s going).