The difference between clever and cunning.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bastion Review

Bastion is a top-down, 2-D action game with light RPG elements and an amazing fusion of non-conventional storytelling and world building. The music is pretty good too.

Bastion doesn’t kick off with any sort of background exposition or introductory cut-scene. The protagonist, a white-haired and capable young man referred to as The Kid, wakes up one morning to find the world has been destroyed. What ground remains now floats in the sky, each individual piece rising up to form the way forward in a striking and unique visual effect. 

Bastion's art would be right at home in a children's book.

The art is bold and colorful, mostly slightly cartoony 2-D images. Characters are lightly animated, although enemies do broadcast when they’re about to attack. Atmospheric effects like rain, falling cinders, and clouds drifting below the floating ground help bring the world to life. 

A Proper Story

From the moment the game begins Bastion is not just experienced, but narrated. Every action The Kid takes, every obstacle he overcomes, and every area, creature, and object he encounters is described and commented on by an unseen Narrator with a voice like honeyed whisky. The Narrator’s constant stream of commentary and advice fit seamlessly into the game, slowly building up a world we know nothing about into a place rich with history and flavor. 

 The Narrator blames the destruction on an event he calls The Calamity. His understated, sorrowful descriptions of the now obliterated city of Caelondia and the regions beyond bring the world to life and make the destruction of a world we’ve never seen before actually mean something. Close listeners may catch on that the Narrator may not be giving a completely unbiased description of past events, but there is no denying that his voice defines the game.  

The Narrator gets a bit morally suspect as the game progresses. He has his reasons.

Bastion is mission based, with the Narrator directing the Kid to surviving locations of interest. Each mission is a digestible twenty minutes or so of exploration and combat. It’s not possible to save in mid-mission, but they’re never long enough to become tedious. Successful completion allows you to improve the central hub, the Bastion itself, constructing buildings like workshops to upgrade your weapons or a memorial that unlocks lucrative in-game achievements.

(Note: Bastion is the name of the game. The Bastion is the game’s central location and the focus of much of the story.)

“A Cross Between a Zoo and a Prison Break.”

While the people of Caelondia were destroyed by the Calamity a great many creatures, security systems, and other hazards remain. Combat is fast paced and finely tuned, rewarding both good reflexes and intelligent tactics. The basic lock-on system is handy but not critical. To defend himself the Kid can carry a mere two weapons at a time, plus a single special ability. Weapons range from more primitive gear like a fast-striking machete and sniper bow to surprisingly advanced tech like a short range flamethrower and devastating mortar.

Anklegators attack from below. Keep moving.

While all of Bastion’s weapons are useful considering the right load-out for the challenge at hand is critical. The bow or carbine are great for clearing a field of turrets or thorn-throwing Pincushion plants, but won’t be much use against a swarm of fast-moving flyers. You can’t change your equipment on the fly, though new weapons are introduced just when needed. Both The Kid and other creatures can be sent hurtling over the edge into the abyss, though the Kid always lands back on solid ground with minor injuries.

On the defensive the Kid has an extremely handy evasive Roll and an indestructible shield that offers near total protection in whatever direction you’re facing. You can’t attack while shielding yourself, but you can still move at a reduced rate and bring it up just as an enemy is attacking to reflect the damage back in his face. Quick and skillful use of both abilities will let you avoid most damage.

“A Mighty Fast Learner.”

Special Skills are powerful, often enough to function as a panic button, but consume one of a limited supply of Tonics when used. Some are tied to specific weapons and let them perform unique and even screen-clearing attacks. Others grant more general abilities like summoning allies or snaring nearby enemies in place. The one Special Skill at a time limit feels a little strict and means many will never see use. A limit of three hot-keyed skills at a time, all pulling from your same limited stock of Tonics, would have been fair while allowing more diverse tactics. 

Each weapon has a bonus level that tests your skills. Here The Kid must defeat enemies with only the Shield.

Bastion isn’t quite an action-RPG in the vein of Diablo but you do earn XP and level up, slightly increasing your health and increasing the number of slots allowed for passive perks. Amusingly enough these perks are granted by various alcoholic drinks from the Bastion’s distillery, implying The Kid is constantly wasted through his entire adventure. With enough money and raw materials weapons can also be upgraded through several tiers of mutually exclusive improvements. Your choice of upgrades and alcoholic perks can be freely changed between missions, so if one is giving you trouble tuning your load-out and trying again is an entirely valid. 

“The Gods… they’re all Undone.” 

By default this is a forgiving game. The Kid’s defensive abilities and stock of healing potions will see him through most battles, and for those only interested in the art and story there’s a “No Sweat” mode that allows unlimited continues. The focus is on delivering a diverse rather than a grueling array of challenges. One mission has you racing across a series of collapsing pathways, while another has you fending off ambushes in neck high grass. There’s always some new weapon, enemy, or mechanic to familiarize yourself with, right up until the very end where many games have long since emptied their hand. 

The Narrator has something to say about everything you find.

For those who crave a greater challenge Bastion has a surprisingly elegant system that lets the difficulty to be tuned to taste. As you upgrade the Bastion you eventually construct a shrine, containing idols to the various gods of the Caelondian Pantheon. Each idol you invoke grants a stacking bonus to money and XP rewards, but also grants enemies a specific power like increased speed or exploding on death. Invoke the aid of enough gods and Bastion starts to become an altogether more brutal game. 

The battle hungry can also tackle a series of optional arena-style dream sequences. These pit The Kid against waves of monsters to earn yet more money and XP, while the Narrator explains a character’s back-story in greater detail. These sequences aren’t necessary to complete the game, but they’re a good place to test different weapon load-outs and the secrets revealed add much to the characterization of Bastion’s small cast of Calamity survivors. 

Coming Home

While I can’t fault Bastion’s gameplay and combat it is ultimately the story and world that make the game a unique and memorable experience. Before the Calamity this was a world of bold pioneers, vast, hostile wilderness, terrible ethnic conflicts, and reckless technological advancement. Western and Steampunk elements blend cleanly into the narrative and art. The handful of characters are well developed, likeable, and believable, even if you never hear most of them speak. The game is a triumph of non-traditional storytelling and world building.

Rare voiced illustrations help bring the cast to life.

The Soundtrack is a stand out and well worth a listen. It makes good use of guitar and harmonica to give a Western flavor while maintaining a distinct identity. The few songs with vocals are used to great effect during the game and final credit sequence. 

Finally it’s worth mentioning that Bastion has an excellent New Game + mode to help extend its playable life. You’re unlikely to reach the maximum level or be able to afford all upgrades the first time through, but you can bring all that progress with you on restarting the campaign. There are multiple endings to experience, and the second play-through gives you a few extra options and perks that weren’t available the first time around. 

Reasons to Play: Vivid, unconventional world-building. Satisfying and tightly tuned isometric combat engine. Clever adjustable difficulty mechanic. Constant stream of new weapons, mechanics and challenges. Excellent Soundtrack. 

Reasons to Pass: Intense fear of falling off the world? None, really.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.