Thursday, September 1, 2011

You Should Be Playing Bastion

Bastion is the first game from Supergiant Games, and it is a remarkably enjoyable experience. An action-RPG, you go through levels fighting enemies, acquiring new weapons and items, leveling-up, and upgrading your character. It's not especially unique in this regard, but the gameplay is masterfully crafted to feel highly rewarding and compelling. Its most remarkable aspect is the atmosphere; the lush visuals, melodic soundtrack, narrative storytelling, and general premise are uniquely refreshing. Since Bastion only costs $15, you have no excuse not to play it. In fact, you should be playing Bastion right now instead of reading this review.

If you insist on reading further, I have more words for you about why the game is so good, after the jump.

You play as "The Kid," one of the very few survivors of "The Calamity," coming to consciousness in the wake of the destruction. The world's been annihilated with you resting on a lone platform floating in the sky. As you wander about, the floor rises up and fits into position right before your feet. Following this trail, you acquire your trusty weapons and set out for the Bastion, the place that everyone agreed to meet in times of trouble. There you meet an old man, Rucks, who explains that the Bastion can restore things to the way they were before the Calamity. And thus, you set out to retrieve cores to power the Bastion and restore the world.

The first thing you notice about Bastion is the narrator, who plays a major role in establishing the game's unique, charming atmosphere. The narrator literally tells us the story; he sets up the exposition whenever you enter a level, progressively tells you the backstory of the characters and of Caelondia (the civilization where you used to live), and describes all of the things you encounter. He's got kind of a deep, rough-sounding voice that reminds me a lot of Ron Perlman, who narrated the intros to the Fallout games, which certainly fits the tone of the setting. 

The Bastion, the central hub of the game.

But in an interesting twist, the narrator tells the story based on your actions. So if you start smashing barrels, he'll say something like "Kid just raged for a while," or if you destroy the ashen remains of one of those killed by the Calamity, he might say "Jimmy used to give the Kid a hard time back on the wall. Kid couldn't care less about what happened to Jimmy after the Calamity." If you're doing something stupid that you shouldn't be doing, he'll comment and say "Kid's thinking maybe he shouldn't do that no more." 

As far as I know, there aren't any other games that successfully weave voiced narrations with the gameplay like this. It feels like an interactive story, and evokes a nostalgic feeling of reading (or being read) a fairytale. But it's not just any fairytale, it's YOUR fairytale. What you do dictates what the narrator will say, and the decisions you eventually make along the way determine the tone of what happens. This style works really well in Bastion, because it doesn't disrupt the pacing to tell the story; everything streams together with crystalline fluidity, making every minute engaging and interesting.

I don't want to spoil much about the story, but the way it progressively develops holds your attention and piques your curiosity. Every step you take towards accomplishing your goals raises questions in your mind, which the narrator explains. As you make it further through the levels, he tells you more about what happened before (and during) the Calamity, never quite describing anything in concrete terms, only telling you enough to set the foundation. It's ultimately up to you to fill in the gaps with your own interpretations, and a few decisions towards the end of the game make it truly resonate with thought-provoking depth.

And, of course, there's the graphical style. It looks like everything was hand-painted, or if not actually done by hand, then that's what it's supposed to look like. This adds a lot to the "fairytale" aspect of the narration, because it looks as if this game could be found in the pages of an illustrated book. But besides that, every single thing in Bastion is colorful, creative, and evocative. It's beautiful and simply a delight to look at, especially when you see everything in motion--the way the levels fall into position, and the way things dance around in the foreground. 

Resting on a beautiful platform in the sky.

The soundtrack also adds greatly to the atmosphere. A lot of the tunes have a rugged "wild west" sort of feel to them. This is fitting, since you're quite literally on the frontier, running around as a lone gunslinger in a savage land. But other tunes are slow and mysterious, with a slight air of melancholy, also fitting of the somber tone as you see the ravaged remains of civilization and begin to ponder the nature of the story. Above all, the music is just really pleasing to listen to, so much that I bought the soundtrack. Sample some of these tracks:

From the central hub of the Bastion, you enter isolated levels in search of the cores to power the Bastion. In your adventures you meet new characters who join you at the Bastion, and you also find relics and items that restore different functions to the Bastion. New buildings that you restore allow you to customize your character's abilities, your weapons, your stats, and the difficulty of the gameplay. You also build a shop to spend accumulated money, and a memorial that rewards you for completing in-game challenges.

Despite the simple premise, these new functions add a lot of variety to the gameplay. There are 11 different weapons that you can acquire, and each one has five tiers of upgrades that you can apply, with two options per tier. You can switch weapons out on the fly, and even switch the upgrades out, depending on your fancy. You can use two weapons at a time, in addition to one special skill (a strong attack that consumes replenish-able items you find in the levels), which allows for tons of different combinations to play with. It's really fun experimenting with layouts, since they open up different play styles and employ different strategies to use.

Killing enemies and collecting relics grants you experience points. As you level up, you gain more maximum health, but you also unlock a new slot to apply a tonic (up to 10 in total). The tonics are passive bonuses that you can apply to your character that boost your stats or enable passive skills. Exploring will also let you collect little blue shards, the currency which you use to buy upgrades for your weapons, as well as to buy new tonics, items, and idols. It costs a lot of money to fully upgrade everything, but there are arenas where you can fight to earn more experience and money, while also learning the backstories for each of the NPCs. 

The idols serve as a way to customize the difficulty of your gameplay. At the Bastion, you can freely toggle up to 10 idols which make the game harder, in exchange for yielding more experience and money. So you can make enemies move faster, hit harder, occasionally reflect attacks, drop exploding grenades when they die, and so forth. The system allows you to finely customize the difficulty based on the amount of challenge you want to face, but also on the specifics of the gameplay. But it gives you a good incentive to play with more idols, because unlike most games, Bastion actually gives you in-game rewards for playing at higher difficulties.

Just a little bit of combat.

Combat can be very thrilling. There are a lot of different enemy types, which all behave differently, requiring different strategies to take down and to survive. You're often fighting two or three different kinds of enemies (with maybe 10 or 12 total enemies on screen), so you have to pay attention to a lot of things. You have to be nimble and roll around (while being careful to avoid falling off the edges), aim your shield in the right direction at the right times, attack enemies when they're exposed, time your attacks for power shots, and so forth. Mix in the various functions of the different weapon/skill combinations and the option to ramp up the challenge, and you end up with a very engaging combat system that makes you want to keep coming back for more. 

The entire game can be completed in perhaps 5 hours if you just go through the levels and don't worry about any of the side-content. Steam clocked me at 9 hours when I finished, but there was still a lot left for me to do. Fortunately, the game features a "New Game Plus" mode to start from the beginning again with your current experience and all of your unlocked weapons and items. There's some good replay value here, because you can keep upgrading your stuff, you can play with more idols on for more challenge, and you can hear the story again and see where everything's going, now that you've heard it once already.

So with all of that said, Bastion is a very enjoyable game that's more than worth its $15 asking price. I found the gameplay to be very compelling and rewarding, and the unique atmosphere was just a delight to be immersed in. So hurry up and play Bastion.


  1. Your post on Gamefaqs brought me here

    Ossom sauce, buying it on Steam right now with 50% off!

  2. That's good to hear. I hope you're enjoying the game as much as I did++