Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action RPG
ESRB rating: E10+
Release Date: July 20, 2011
Platforms: XBLA, PC
If you look at the landscape of the Action RPG genre of late, you’ll notice a trend toward bigger, broader games. It almost seems as if the genre is getting a little bit of an ego problem, and gamers are now used to spending upwards of 50 hours with their favorite RPG. With a name like Supergiant Games you would expect that Bastion’s developer to be following in their predecessor’s overgrown footsteps, but as with much in this game, you would be surprised.
In Bastion you play The Kid, a nameless survivor of the devastating event known as The Calamity. The land of Caelondia, your cherished home, has fractured into a dozen or more pieces, and its people are either dead or missing. You must find the Bastion, the last refuge, and find a way to make it whole again.
Simply put, Bastion is a beautiful game. The art is steeped in saturated colors and intricate shapes, drawn in a style that evokes both the father of manga Osamu Tezuka and the golden opulence of Alfonse Mucha to dazzle and amaze. Beyond the majesty of the visual look of the game, the sound design itself is a thing of wonder. The rich, warm tones of the narrator blend perfectly with the haunting melodies of the music, bringing images of campfire stories to mind. The game’s main theme is running through my head even now as I write this, soft and sad as a cowboy’s lament.
The systems turning the gears behind this little game aren’t little at all, from what I can tell. The most unique of these dynamic systems is the reactive narration. The Stranger, your vocal guide throughout your time in Caelondia, weaves your actions into the story as the game progresses, rather than simply responding with set dialog at specific points in the game. A simple example of this system at work appeared when I spent some time busting barrels with my trusty hammer. “The Kid just rages for a while,” the narrator explained, and I knew he was commenting on my obsession with breakable objects.
The controls are tight and easy to manage, which is saying something considering how many different weapons you have to learn along the way. In true RPG fashion, Bastion gives you plenty of toys to play with, but doesn’t allow you access to them until they make sense within the context of the story. For more casual players this means a little bit of a learning curve each time you pick up a weapon, but you can master your newfound tools through the Proving Grounds, separate tests of skill that are the perfect way to work out the kinks. I never found that there were too many weapons, although I did find myself selecting a few favorites and working on upgrading those rather than attempting to master every weapon in my arsenal.
Because of the constant introduction of new weapons within the context of the story, Bastion’s combat begins to feel a bit like puzzle solving. At some point in a stage you are presented with a challenge, and then given a weapon that will help you solve the task at hand. While this convention is standard for the genre, the level design was so varied that I never felt like I was repeating the same mechanic over and over. In fact I was constantly surprised and impressed by the variety of level design in Bastion. I was never quite sure where I was going in the game, and that sense of exploration is thrilling after so many years playing RPGs. I truly felt as if I were a child navigating the pieces of my world, unsure of what I would find around the corner. The streamlined UI adds to this feeling, since you are given neither map nor compass. You must follow the path and see where it leads you.
It’s hard to talk about the brilliance of Bastion without spoiling the story itself, but I’ll do my best. Suffice it to say that while the game may be small, the story is powerful, filled with characters you care about handling big, tough problems the way any of us might if we were in the same situation. Part of me wants to speculate that there is some deep symbolism within Bastion’s tale, but I think it’s safe to say that the framed narrative can be taken at face value, as a satisfying story that will still make you think once the game ends. From a fiction perspective the game’s story is both emotionally engaging and culturally relevant to modern gamers. Which is to say, you can get out of the story what you will. After all, it’s just one man’s perspective on events – isn’t it?
As with most RPGs the story is largely linear, but there are several points where you can put your unique mark on the plot of Bastion and see the outcome of your choices. You can finish the main storyline in about 10 hours of casual play, and because the game is so saturated with storytelling those hours fly by quickly.
While mostly pristine, Bastion does tend to suffer on rare occasions from glitches and bugs. None of these crashed the game mind you, but I did run across a couple of places where monsters were unresponsive, caught inside objects, etc. I even had a moment or two in the game where basic combat mechanics failed me when they had worked on the previous play through attempt. Many of these happened in the supplemental Who Knows Where stages, so they didn’t hamper story progression, but since the game is so small, even small flaws end up feeling larger. It’s a matter of scale, I suppose, but I was disappointed that the game that won on so many levels still had bugs slip through the testing phase and land in the release version.
Ultimately, Bastion is a work of interactive art, in both its aesthetics and its design. Over the last week as I played the game, I found myself comparing it to other powerful games in the last few years – games like Braid and Limbo. And just like these digital trailblazers, Bastion proves that downloadable games can be just as meaningful as their big brothers and sisters.
Bastion will bring you joy, charm, and more than a little magic, and that, in a world like ours, is no small thing.