The Kid Has His Day
Bastion is a meditation on the nature of human society, but it’s also a very fun, excellently crafted game. The first release of independent developer Supergiant Games, Bastion is kicking off Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade 2011, and it’s a prime example of why the indie gaming scene is flourishing. Despite having a small development team, this is a slick, professional production by industry veterans that gives corporate efforts a major run for their money. Most importantly, it’s a joy to play and will appeal to a wide variety of gamers.
The game begins with the player character, known only as “The Kid,” waking up in the middle of a ruined city. A mysterious narrator with an Old West twang describes what’s going on and reacts to The Kid’s activities. It seems that an event known only as the Calamity has destroyed everything and has turned just about everyone to stone.
As The Kid moves about, pathways fly together to form up at his feet, literally building the world around him. Monsters, who apparently once worked in the service of humanity, have turned ornery and attack at every turn. After a quick introductory level, The Kid finds the Bastion, which the narrator tells us is humanity’s last hope if it can only be fully built. The Kid doesn’t ask any questions, but sets about seeking out power cores in the great city’s remains and slowly building up the Bastion. The player has many questions, of course. Who is the mysterious narrator any why does he seem to know so much? What was the Calamity and why did it happen? All of these questions will be answered in due time, but first The Kid has a lot of dangerous work to do.
With the Bastion as a hub, The Kid strikes out on the mystical Skyways on his search for power cores, with new levels and minigame challenges opening up in a fairly linear fashion. With each core that The Kid brings back, he can construct a new building in the Bastion, all of which support the game’s customizable character and gameplay progression. The Armory allows the Kid to choose a set of two weapons and a special attack to take into any level, the Distillery gives him a chance to choose spirits that grant him passive bonuses, the Forge upgrades weapons, etc. There’s even a building that allows the player to optionally make the game more challenging, giving more money and experience to players who dare to give more power to their enemies.
Gameplay basics are easy to pick up, with the face buttons controlling dodge-rolls, the two weapons that the player carries, and health potions. The left trigger is used for shield blocking and the right for activating special abilities. That’s it for the basic controls, but the enemies and challenges that the player faces through the game are constantly changing. Each level is hand-designed with a different story, theme, and type of challenge. Where one level has The Kid fighting through flocks of angry crows, another has him riding mine lifts while being shot at by guardians. Still another has him fighting through his own dreams after being put to sleep by swamp gas. With the world in such a precarious state, the player can never be sure what’s going to happen next in a level, and must strike a balance between exploration and survival. Once a level is complete, there’s no going back, but a New Game Plus feature allows players to try again with an eye for the things that may have been missed on the first playthrough.
Fortunately, Bastion controls very well, with fluid and responsive action. The levels can be challenging but never feel unfair, as the many possible ways to customize The Kid’s weapons and abilities mean that a player who fails a level can always go back to the Bastion and swap things around in order to return with a different approach. The game’s weapon selection is particularly diverse, and each weapon is truly unique. The hefty hammer feels very different from the lightning-quick machete, just as the hard-hitting but scattershot scrap musket is a very different beast from the accurate, rapid-fire dueling pistols. Most weapons are interesting and useful, with only a couple that involve complicated aiming mechanisms that make them frustrating to use in the midst of the game’s quick action and constant danger. Weapon choice is both a matter of personal preference and strategy, as different weapons are more or less useful against different kinds of enemies. The game encourages the player to get to know the weapons and to try out different combinations.
Optional areas and minigames offer a break from the game’s main levels. The Kid can visit various “proving grounds” at any point in order to complete weapon challenges that offer upgrades and special abilities as prizes. There are also three survival challenges in places known only as “Who Knows Where.” Each tells the background story of one of the game’s few surviving characters if The Kid can successfully fight off waves of enemies long enough to hear the entire tale. Like the main levels, these optional areas contain stories that add interest and flavor to the game. There’s no padding here; everything is very deliberately crafted to give the player another piece of the puzzle that is Bastion’s now-destroyed world.
Bastion’s visuals and audio work are integral parts of the experience. The graphic design proves that it’s possible to present a convincing post-apocalyptic setting that is also vibrantly colorful. Everything in the game is hand-drawn in a lovely watercolor style, with each level of the game possessing its own visual identity to go along with its unique design and story. The game’s enemies are also well-drawn and animated, with personalities befitting their attack styles. The overall visual presentation is a breath of fresh air in a genre saturated with grim-darkness, and should be an inspiration for other small game companies.
The audio elements of the game are also top-notch. The musical selections help create the mood of each level, and the game’s signature vocal piece is hauntingly beautiful. The narrator’s voice acting is always on point, and his amenable storytelling style keeps his frequent narration from becoming tiresome. In fact, the entire narration system is brilliantly done, alternating between telling the story of the world and the Kid’s personal story. Different actions will provoke different responses from the narrator, though impressively he almost never repeats himself. It’s particularly gratifying to be rewarded for doing well in an action segment by the narrator. For example, after completing a sequence on a floating barge without falling off, the narrator breaks in with, “Know how many times The Kid fell off that barge? Not even once.” It’s moments like these that show how much the narrator contributes to the enjoyment of the game, causing the player to smile and think, “Yeah, I did well!”
Giving any details about the game’s plot would only spoil the experience, but rest assured that it’s a compelling mystery with numerous twists and turns. Almost all storyline questions are answered by the end of the game, but the answers to the moral conundrums it presents (and there are many) are left entirely up to the player. In fact, after going along with the main plan for most of the game, The Kid is finally given some choices to make at the very end. There is no judgment of the player’s choices here, only the acknowledgment that The Kid has the right to decide some things after all the work he’s done. When all is said and done, it’s both a satisfying and deeply discomfiting story experience.
With diverse, interesting gameplay, excellent production, and a world that sucks the player in, Bastion is a downloadable experience that’s not to be missed. It’s a game that every gamer should pick up, as it hits the core of why we all love our gaming hobby. Bastion celebrates experimentation, rewards exploration, allows room for growth and challenge, and never condescends. In the end, it leaves The Kid’s motivations as an open issue. Are you a hero working toward a new golden age, a villain working out some major anger issues, or just a kid doing his best to muddle out of a bad situation? The Bastion ain’t gonna tell you, son. That’s gotta be up to you to decide.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Colorful, beautifully hand-drawn graphics convey the former glory of a now-devastated world. 4.3 Control
Controls are easy to pick up, fluid, and responsive, with only a few weapons that are somewhat annoying to use. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Good, mood-setting music and superlative voice acting from the game’s ubiquitous narrator. 3.9 Play Value
Bastion is about ten hours long, but contains a number of optional challenges and a New Game Plus mode. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best