Publisher: WBIE / Developer: Supergiant Games / ESRB: E 10+ [Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco] / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15 /
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I really wish I could just hand you a controller connected to an Xbox 360 running Bastion, a set of headphones, and tell you to “play this game right now because it is awesome.” That would be a much less daunting task than trying to describe what exactly makes Bastion so great. Sure, part of it is the surprisingly layered, heartfelt narrative and the totally unique manner in which it’s delivered. Another part is the satisfying and varied combat. The absolutely gorgeous art design and killer soundtrack certainly don’t hurt, either. But ultimately it’s the magic of these elements seamlessly married together to produce that certain “je ne sais quoi” that separates games with soul from games without it. Screw being one of the best downloadable games of the year, Bastion is one of the best games of the year. Period.
Bastion’s story lands somewhere between an awe-invoking children’s tale and one that subtly and respectfully explores a wide range of adult themes. It’s a line not many narratives can successfully straddle. At first, the game’s premise may seem deceptively simple. You play a silent protagonist, simply referred to as The Kid, who awakens to learn that his home land of Caelondia has just been the victim of an apocalyptic event known as The Calamity. You make your way to the Bastion, a refuge for the people of Caelondia, which The Kid must help rebuild. I don’t want to give too much away here since revealing the story is a huge part of the experience, but suffice it to say that what follows is a very mature, very heartfelt adventure. It might be a bit of a slow burn but as the events of Bastion unfold, the veil on the back story of The Kid, his companions, and the world they inhabit is slowly lifted. You’ll be surprised how much there is to take in about the world of Bastion. The game explores themes of friendship, loss, love, war, religion, racism, and a whole lot more. An appreciation of these elements is certainly not a requirement to enjoy Bastion but if you are compelled to invest the emotional energy to dig deeper, you’ll find plenty there to appreciate.
But maybe the most standout aspect of Bastion is the narration through which it conveys this story. Rarely do games fully embrace the potential of interactive storytelling like this. Bastion wonderfully marries storytelling and gameplay through the wise and somewhat mysterious narrator Rucks. His voice guides you through the entirety of Bastion. Oftentimes, his narration is completely contextual to your actions. For example, if you use up all your health potions he’ll say something like “The Kid ran out of health potions,” or if you fall in battle he’ll say “Ah, I lost my train of thought.” However, it won’t take long before you’re absorbing history lessons about Caelondia and how the current state of the world came about. By the end of Bastion, it was difficult for me not to feel totally invested in the story.
At its core, Bastion is a pretty straightforward action RPG. As you make your way through levels, you spend most of your time hacking, slashing, and shooting enemies. There are twelve weapons to acquire in total (some ranged, some melee), two of which you can carry at any one time. For the most part, each weapon is varied in both feel and function.
Along with the two weapons, you can equip one special skill. Some of these skills are tied to specific weapons but others, such as trip mines or grenades, can be used with any weapon set up. You pick up these special skills from a variety of different places. Some are learned from collectibles you scavenge in levels, some can be purchased, and some are earned from completing weapon-specific challenges. In fact, as you make your way through the story, you earn access to different weapon challenges. Some involve killing a number of enemies in a specific amount of time or taking out a section of targets with the least number of shots possible. Each of these is completely optional but may help you understand which weapons work best in certain scenarios. Think of them as in-depth, expert-level tutorials.
The campaign also features three different wave-based survival levels called “Who Knows Where.” These, much like the weapon challenges, are completely optional and aren’t required to finish the storyline. However, I can’t recommend enough that you take the time to complete them. Not only are they challenging and fun, but with the completion of each wave, the narrator drops some more detailed back story about the game’s main characters.
The Bastion itself is another appropriately important part of Bastion. The Bastion acts as your hub world that you revisit after each level or challenge. As you complete levels, you find cores that allow you to build new structures, each of which can change different aspects of the gameplay. For example, the Forge allows you to upgrade weapons, the Saloon lets you swap and add different perk-like tonics that provide The Kid with various upgrades, and the Shrine allows you to activate different idols that can increase the game’s difficulty by allowing the enemies to regenerate health or boosting the amount of damage they deliver. Having these idols active during the game grants an XP bonus. It’s probably good that they exist because one of my small qualms with Bastion is the odd challenge curve. The most challenging sections occur toward the start, before you acquire any upgrades. As you progress, the game becomes significantly easier and if you go through again after unlocking new game plus (in which all your upgrades and weapons unlocks will carry over), it’s almost too easy.
My other complaint about Bastion certainly isn’t game-ruining by any means, but occasionally the fixed, isometric camera angle can make it hard to tell if you’re walking on a platform or into a bottomless hole. There were more than a few occasions when I accidently fell off the edge of the world. Fortunately, the game is pretty forgiving, only costing you a few points of damage.
Bastion is gorgeous. There’s a hand-painted quality to the game’s water-colored, slightly anime-inspired look. The abstract representation of the world of Caelondia is an interesting and unique approach to a game’s visual theme. Ethereal backgrounds, strange creatures, and a color palette bursting with variety really help to invoke a dream-like atmosphere that is fully complemented by the game’s storyline and soundtrack.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the sound in Bastion. The game’s music is awesome. Perhaps the best soundtrack I’ve heard in a videogame all year. It features a pretty eclectic collection of different musical genres, from acoustic ballads and symphonic electronica to ambient post-rock punctuated by middle-eastern sitars. There’s one particularly breathtaking track. Trust me, you’ll know the one I’m talking about when you hear it.
Voice actor Logan Cunningham steals the show as the game’s narrator. His deep, soothing tones are not only well-delivered but are a constant source of the magical aura that permeates the game’s every facet. He’ll make you feel like you’re a little kid all over again with his storybook delivery.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live Summer of Arcade has quickly become synonymous with high-quality, original games. It seems like each year there’s one title to stand out from the rest. Braid, Shadow Complex, and Limbo come to mind. Maybe I’m jumping the gun a little bit here but I’m pretty confident in saying that, when all is said and done, this year’s gem will be Bastion. It’s once in a blue moon that a game this special comes along.