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On 07/28/2011 at 02:30 PM by Jason Ross
It's like ice cream in video game form.
For anyone who plays video games outside of the sports genre.
In a world devastated by “The Calamity,” a mysterious and catastrophic event, we find the Bastion, a powerful and mysterious place, and namesake of Supergiant Games' XBLA title. With a small cast, the first acting as the avatar of the player in the world, and is simply known as “The Kid,” Bastion feels like something truly special in the video game world. Part of the reason is the second character Rucks, who doubles as the narrator. Brushing beyond his role for a moment, understand there are only two other real characters in all of Bastion; The Calamity appears to have razed all other human life in the kid's homeland of Caelondia. Don't misunderstand, there are survivors. Unfortunately for the people left, those who survived the Calamity are more of the angry, confused, enemy monster type than they are of the human variety. These monsters remain to assault the kid, but as he begins his journey through the Bastion, Rucks promises completing his quest will help to fix all of Caelondia.
The most overtly impressive feature in Bastion is the narrator. From the very beginning, the narrator details the actions of the kid, describes the environment, and outlines the plot. With a smooth, clear voice he breathes life into a world in which nearly all life has been lost. What's important is that he's there the whole time, telling the story of the Bastion. Still, I think it's important to note that Bastion's story itself would stand strong on its own legs in any other game. The events surrounding the Bastion, the calamity, the characters, and Caelondia could stand alone in the development of a rich story. In this sense, the narrator, who reveals a morsel of story every few moments as the game is played, could be considered the cherry to top Bastion's sundae of a tale. Bastion does provide one more powerful, effective device for video game story-telling: choice. While Bastion only provides the player with one real choice at a critical point in the game, the timing is perfect, as are the implications. This choice blends perfectly with the game's narration, bolstered by the player's own empathy, to create a climactic crescendo before Bastion's conclusion.
Bastion is divided into many stages, and typically the kid traverses these places with the goal of finding an object needed to complete the Bastion. Every area has its own history, its own purpose to Caelondia, and many times, the story of the land hints towards the events that led up to the Calamity in subtle ways. Each area has a certain Bastion “flavor,” with a painted style and an isometric view, but at the same time, each level feels decidedly unique. Some areas are part of the town, where we see landmarks that resemble a bazaar, while others happen near freight lines, as the kid battles and travels down train tracks suspended, like all of Bastion's world, in the air. Most stages are fairly linear, though minor exploration will reveal a memento of the past or an item useful for forging weapon upgrades. It should be noted that in some stages, the edge of the platform can be a little challenging to make out at first, and players should expect to fall off the face of the land, but the penalty of a meager portion of health as well as the fact that falling players deal damage to enemies make up for this issue in practically every way.
Music within the game can be touching and heartfelt at times, but upbeat and pugnacious at others. During segments where several enemies appear, more aggressive songs with quick tempos play. At other, more emotional moments, softer songs with spoken lyrics are heard. There are only a few songs with spoken lyrics, but in the few areas where these songs appear, they have a profound effect. The music does have less of an impact on the feeling behind the game than the narration does, but do not be deceived: it flows very well with the story, the combat, and the characters involved. After the game's conclusion, I was disappointed to see there wasn't a sound test available, because I found I wanted to hear a few of Bastion's songs again.
Bastion's gameplay is surprisingly sophisticated for a game that only took about eight hours. Combat might best be detailed as an action RPG similar to the dungeon crawler niche. On the surface, there are eleven unique weapons the kid can use, with two equipped at a time. However, each weapon can be upgraded five times, allowing players a choice from five pairs of upgrades. Each upgrade can be switched to the other option, and there are a few repeatable upgrade choices which increase the effectiveness of an already applied upgrade. It boils down to a vast amount of customization available to how the player chooses to play the game. There's a weapon to fit just about any choice in playstyle, and for those who believe a good defense is the best offense, proper timing with the kid's shield deflects attacks back on the aggressor. Health potion capacity is limited, but players can use a health potion at the push of a button, so gameplay flows well, without any hiccups. The kid can also equip one of over 20 unique special attacks, some unique to particular weapons, while others work with any setup; as with health potions, the number of uses are limited.
As the kid levels up, he gains a little more health and unlocks a slot at the distillery, a place in the Bastion where different drinks can be equipped. The drinks often provide some interesting effects, such as the ability to regain health when attacking or even an extra chance (revive). This type of level-up system is reminiscent of RPGs, but since leveling doesn't directly make the kid stronger but rather gives an extra slot for a variety of bonuses, it feels fresh and can drastically change the game. While it's possible to give the kid some brews that pack a punch, it's also possible to set him up for a difficult challenge using the shrine.
The shrine allows the kid to choose a from a variety of idols to observe. Unlike most games where the gods of the land(s) choose to help the chosen hero, in Bastion, it seems the gods are on the other side: selecting any single or combination of gods provides enemies with a boost. One god can cause each enemy to drop a damaging bomb when it's killed, another can make enemies move and attack faster, and so on and so forth. While gods do let the kid gain more experience and crystal fragments, the difficulty added far outweighs the bonus. All in all, the drink and god system really separate Bastion from other games, particularly those with linear RPG-style progression and difficulty options. More than that, this system creates tremendous versatility that can really alter how players approach the lands of Caelondia as they guide the kid to prepare the Bastion.
For those interested in competition, Bastion does have a handful of leaderboards that score on a few unknown criteria. There are three sub-areas in the game, each a part of “Who Knows Where,” where the kid faces off against wave after wave of enemies while the narration describes the backstory of the kid and the two non-narrating survivors. I will say it's unfortunate that the criteria for gaining a high score is currently a mystery, but the game does suggest observing gods at the shrine while players attempt mastering these areas will increase the score. Likewise, the story of the game also has a scoreboard, but again, the events that raise the score are still a mystery.
While my issues with Bastion are few and far between, I do want to note that the auto-save emblem is difficult to spot when, and if, it ever comes on screen. While I'd often forget to look for it, I don't believe I ever once noticed it. I didn't have any issues with dropped saves while playing Bastion, but I would caution that it's a possibility, especially since there's no clear way to force a save.
If there's a title that has delighted me the most in at least this year, it is Bastion. The game's rich story meshes perfectly with the narrator's voice and pace. The narrator's words flow with the music as the kid explores lands and battles enemies. The enemies can be fought through a number of different customization options. The entire game is a solid package, where each element of the title layers on to the one before it in an awe-inspiring manner. Bastion stands a tier above most titles in its generation.