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Bastion in Review

Supergiant Games’ Bastion, published by Warner Brothers and recently released on XBLA, is one of the best games of the year and it also stands among the best titles available on the download service to date. It is a small game with big ideas, characterized by an absolutely brilliant combination of classic video game sensibilities, modern design, and subtle innovation. Unlike so many retro-hip games that have come and gone wherein indie developers have tread the creaky boards of unremembered nostalgia or engaged in atavistic fetishism for kitschy “chiptunes” and intentionally pixellated graphics, Bastion is more than content to relish in the currency of its Miyazakian beauty. Its sumptuous colors and storybook character designs mesh with real music and literate writing to create an atmosphere of soulful warmth, engendering just enough familiarity to foster a love affair between player and game. (more)

It does a game of this quality a disservice to fritter away the time you’ll spend reading this review to talk about what the A button does, how many enemy types or levels there are, what the difficulty level is, and the other objective qualities that often pass for video game criticism. All you really need to know on a material level is that it’s an isometric fantasy action-RPG that draws on influences such as classic 16-bit titles (A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana) as well as more modern examples such as the Diablo branch of the Roguelike family tree. I won’t rob you of the chance to learn what a Fang Repeater or Breaker Bow does on your own time. And I won’t tell you why the Kid wakes up on a floating rock in the sky in the aftermath of The Calamity or even what the Bastion actually is or could be. That’s for you to own as the narrator of the game describes it in a gruff, knowing cadence.

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Fortunately, Bastion is a very, very generous game that offers players plenty to discover on their own but more significantly, it gives the player a tremendous degree of ownership of the experience. It is mostly a linear, level-framed experience with the Bastion acting as the Village or Town or Hub, however you want to take it. Racing through the game from start to whichever ending you choose isn’t necessarily difficult or time consuming, but there’s so much more to see and do on the way. Weapons need to be upgraded and you’d be remiss to not take a turn in one of the three in-game survival areas to test loadouts and special skills. Each weapon also has a specific trial area on the map with prizes for first, second, and third place performance. There are secrets, and not all of them are items that you pick up off the ground.

It’s easy to look at Bastion and read any number of meanings into what goes on in its story and it throws out a number of suggestions for the player to consider. Big themes abound- creation, destruction, war, tragedy, aftermath, rage, regret, forgiveness, hope- but all are handled with subtlety and without the heavy-handedness that often pins indie games somewhere along the precocious/pretentious paradigm. The way the story unfolds as described by the narrator and depicted by the actions that the player takes- even when they’re base, repetitive video game routines like combating hordes of Peckers- is simply amazing. Even walking in this game has a narrative effect as every step the Kid makes rebuilds the world, but to what end? The game is smartly and sharply written, with the right words spoken at the right time and with just the right amount of detail. There are no expansive, encyclopedic tomes filled with boring lore or elaborate cut scenes wallowing in cinematic show-don’t-tell excess.

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It’s rare to play a video game where the creators clearly cared as much about the words as the pictures. But the pictures here are magnificent, as well. It sounds even better, with some of the year’s best video game music. There is a lyrical moment that is just devastatingly gorgeous. You don’t need to know more than that. You will be haunted.

Gameplay still counts, of course. Fortunately, Bastion is literally as good as it gets in this genre. As with all of this game’s qualities its success is in that it’s exactly the right amount of everything without overloading on anything. There is appreciable strategic depth in choosing weapon/skill loadouts and assigning stats-modifying spirits (as in booze) before entering an area, but it’s also a game that will let you pick a couple of favorites and stick with them if you choose. The game allows you to make it as difficult as you want by selecting the idols of certain gods that change gameplay parameters in the enemy’s favor in exchange for greater experience point rewards, not unlike the skulls in a Halo game. It’s another example of the ownership of experience that this game trusts us with.

Aside from its artistic and design qualities, Bastion also stuns with its modernity. This game makes the recent Ocarina of Time reissue feel like a dinosaur. It is sleek, highly focused, and economically results-driven without folderol or filler. There are no epic dungeons, fetch-quests, or minigames. Levels are small but offer some opportunities to explore, resulting in no sense of content lack. It embraces Achievement culture by offering a number of “Vigils” that can be completed at a Monastery for financial reward. Leaderboards are offered to compare your experience with others both in the story mode and the three survival areas. There is almost nothing old fashioned about the game aside from its format.

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It’s up to you to decide how long you want Bastion to be. There are no multiplayer or co-op options because they are completely unnecessary. I didn’t count hours when I was playing and I really don’t know how long it took me. I don’t think you should care. I did take a rather scenic route through the game, completing most of the Vigils and several of the weapons challenges and generally savoring my time with it, but I’m sure others will blaze through it overnight without stopping to smell the Stabweed. In a design era where poorly paced six to eight hour games can feel as if they’re outstaying their welcome, Bastion kept me playing and compelled to the very end- and then, a New Game Plus option appeared. I’m playing through it right now. The outcome will be very different.

This is a $15 game that plays like a million dollars yet it has more heart and passion than anything else I’ve played this year. Supergiant was clearly aiming high with Bastion, and their ambition has paid off in a surprisingly moving, affecting video game. I have been waiting all year for that one game to come out that I fall completely, unconditionally in love with and this one is that game. It speaks to my lifelong history with video games and my appreciation for the medium, but it also speaks to my yearning for modern games to be progressive, innovative, more introspective, and artful. Bastion is a brilliant, singular game that makes me ever more thankful that such maverick titles can still exist in the AAA blockbuster-driven industry as we know it today.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

23 thoughts to “Bastion in Review”

  1. I saw this at E3, even chatted with some of the guys from super giant, but I wasn’t all that interested in trying it out. It seemed like the levels were simplistic and lacking any sense of location or form, more of a gym with art tacked on (a very common theme these days.) But after reading your review I may just buy it before trying the trial.

  2. They are simplistic, but because they _should_ be. It’s easy to say that they’re not complex or they lack variety, but with the length of the game and its content I don’t think it’s very important. The detail really comes in the narration, not so much in the decoration…if that makes sense to you and you’re OK with that, then I think you won’t notice.

    It’s really awesome how evocative the narration is, filling in some blanks and creating others…there’s one level called The Hanging Gardens that’s particularly impactful. It’s pretty plain like the rest of the levels, but there’s these statues/frozen bodies/images/whatever of people lost in the Calamity. The narrator names them all, following their introduction with “they didn’t make it” each time. I found the words more vivid than most textures.

  3. I remember a lot of people making the written equivalent of working their jaws silently and gesturing, with a gob-smacked look on their face, trying to explain why Braid was so awesome. This review reads like that. I’m in.

  4. I concur with your review for the most part. At first I felt the narration and eclectic music contrasted too much with the highly saturated (kind of watercolor-esqe) art direction. But over the course of the game my opinion shifted and I began to recognize their compliments. By the end of the game I absolutely loved both the narration style and the music, and I agree that there are so many nice moments in there that you just have to experience to really appreciate. None of the game felt sloppy or weak.

    For me it provided a moment similar to when I finished Braid. I put the controller down, savored the game, and realized I played something that perhaps redefined my perceptions of a particular subgenre (downloadable XBLA/Indie/whatever games). Granted, I’m sure not everyone had that experience with Braid, but that was mine.

    My advice is to just download the trial and check it out. That’s what I did. At the end of the trial I knew I wanted to play more. It’s one of the best games I’ve played this year.

  5. Ironically, Braid didn’t really register with me. I felt like it was a retro 2D throwback with the time manipulation thing from Sands of Time and a cutesy relationship subtext. I do appreciate that it’s reaching for a much higher degree of introspection and meaning than you’d expect from a puzzle platformer of all things, but I just didn’t connect with it.

    That being said, I do think that people that liked some of the more interesting qualities of Braid will find much to enjoy here.

  6. I keep thinking of Maxfield Parrish in terms of the art style, those really rich watercolor tones…I see what you mean, feeling that there are some incongruous elements at first. As it sort of turns darker, it all makes more sense.

    I definitely think this game does for action RPGs what Braid did for puzzle platformers in terms of taking the language of the genre and using it for higher purposes. I also think they really succeeded in terms of making this “just enough” game- so many downloadable/indie games like this fall short of more esteemed, expensive examples for whatever reason…but Bastion, they got the balance just right in everything.

    Except that bellows weapon. That thing is RIDICULOUSLY overpowered!

  7. Braid was actually supposed to be about nuclear proliferation, which you could only get the hint about by completing the special tasks. Though I’d agree that’s pretty far down the line towards too-precious-by-half.

    What attracted me to Braid was the moving-painting design and the no-time-wasted gameplay.

  8. Odd, I found the bellows underwhelming, but I was playing with all the idols I could. The level where you find the bellows was especially difficult as a result.

    In general, I favour a hit and run style of play and the bellows requires you to stand and spray.

  9. One thing that was unexpected out of this game was one of the endings. After finishing it, I realized that it was my 2nd most moving video game scene that I had played through (the first being mass effect 2′s opening).

    Kudos to the developers for creating Bastion. It was excellent both times through.

  10. The price point is a little too much for me when it comes to a game like this. Especially if you can blow through it in a night. With tax, that’s about 20$ and that’s what New Vegas would cost me now. You can find Mass Effect 2 or Dragon age 2 for 30$ (used) and even split the cost with a friend by buying both games and trading it to each other once you’re done. Something you can’t do with an XBLA game.

    I don’t doubt the game is great, but I wouldn’t spend above 800MSD (Microsoft dollars) for it. I feel the same way for Clash of Heroes…

    I know what something is worth is subjective, but strictly comparing videogames to videogames I think I’d get more value out of New Vegas. Here’s hoping this or clash of heroes becomes a “deal of the week” sometime soon.

  11. You’re also comparing a game that dropped this week and one that dropped eight months ago. If you don’t want to drop $15 on it, no worries, just wait until it goes on sale.

  12. Standing still and being in melee is suicide. I went with armor piercing pistols and a sped up draw time for the bow.

  13. I just noticed americans pay 12.50 for 1000 points? Is that right? I pay over 14$CAD for 1000 points, and CAD is worth more than american money.

    Kind of a rip-off… Same way I get ripped off with new games. They cost 10$ more at retail than in the US even though our currency is worth more. Another reason to wait for used games, I guess.

  14. If you buy it through XBL, the options are $10USD for 800pts or $20 for 1600. There is no 1000 option. Wish there was — I had 300pts but had to buy 1600 to get Bastion because they didn’t offer the 1k option.

    As for the extra cost, I would assume they’re based on when the USD was worth more (say, 5 years ago when the current gen was released) and just never adjusted with the conversion rates. In 2005 CAD was worth less than USD (https://www.oanda.com/currency/historical-rates/), so that would be my guess.

    At least you’re not getting screwed like the Aussies apparently do.

  15. I really hope it doesn’t take them too long to get the PC version out. All the hype and good press it’s been getting has got me really excited to try it out.

  16. I think that you and I probably made the same choice at that point because I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about, and it was that point that the game went from “great game” to “GotY 2011″ candidate. Without spoiling it for others, it’s such an incredibly moving, emotional scene that carries with it a number of subtexts. It’s curiously agonzing, painful, and harrowing but ultimately redeeming. A lot of weight to shoulder, so to speak.

  17. Yeah, I’ve heard that the nuclear thing was a Deep Hidden Meaning…how very 1980s…

    I do agree with the no-time-wasted gameplay being a positive…that’s something I think we’re seeing a lot in the downloadable games…they tend to get right down to business without a lot of fluff or preamble.

  18. See, there’s that “ownership” thing…we’ve all come up with diferrent ideas about what was “best”…because there is no “best”, it’s what you want to use and what suits the way you play.

    I liked the bellows because I could just wade into a flock of Peckers or whatever and flame them all. I usually carried the brush spear as well to do a little direct damage. “Stick ‘em and burn ‘em”, explained the narrator. The key was the upper levels of the bellows upgrade- particularly the tier where you can choose to actually _move faster_ while firing it or to dramatically increase its power in exchange for only being able to fire standing still. With the decreased refill time, that thing is deadly.

    I actually liked _all_ of the weapons and I found myself switching them out a lot. They’re all so well-considered and fun to use. The mortar was probably my least favorite, but I still liked fielding it and it was great for certain situations. I love the Army Carbine…it answers the question “how do you put a sniper rifle in an isometric, 3rd person game?”. The bow was great. The repeaters with armor piercing were great. I love how each weapon is totally unique, has all of those upgrade levels, and then skills to complement them.

    Then the skill challenges just add to the great weapons selection…I still can’t nail the War Machete one, I tried using the launch handles to get multiple blades per throw but I still can’t hit the target time.

  19. The War Machete challenge requires you to proceed to the centre of the arena and kill all the squirts you can, as they spawn. Then you run around and mop-up. Use the throw to kill the turrets and attack the squirt generators normally.

    I used the DoT and cripple upgrades as well as the two-throw upgrade to finish the challenge.

    I’m still on the Cael Hammer challenge (25 seconds, I need 24 seconds), and the Bushwhacker Spear challenge.

    Edit: this was supposed to be in reply to MB’s comment at the bottom

  20. We pay up to AU$110 for games. Even Steam uses regional pricing with some publishers; Brink was AU$90 by way of example.

    For the XBOX, 1200 Microsoft money is AU$20.

  21. Ah! I didn’t think of using the cripple upgrades! I wasn’t considering them aganist Squirts but it makes sense…they wander off the platform and become hard to hit, but if they’re crippled…

    Thanks for the tip!

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