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.
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.
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.
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.