Bastion begins the way more games should begin: with the player uncertain of the world he or she has just stepped into. The player’s avatar (an unnamed, white-haired boy simply referred to as “The Kid”) gets up and moves around, and the world forms up around him and under his feet. With each movement, the world of Caeldonia grows and builds around The Kid. And though Bastion is an action RPG in a style that cribs liberally from The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, my main enjoyment of the game came not from hammering enemies, but from the haphazard and charming world that sprung to life beneath The Kid’s footfalls. For me, Bastion is a revelation: a game with deceptively simple gameplay, designed with style in mind, from the environments to the game world to this title’s signature narration. The end result was a game that was wholly satisfying, even if the entire experience was less than eight hours long.
This is the point in the review where, typically, I would guide the reader through the first few minutes of the game and give a quick breakdown of the plot. I’m not going to do that here, because to do so undermines the discovery and narrative flow of the game that the designers worked so hard to create. Instead, I’ll give just a few simple bullet points. The Kid is alone, save for the voice of The Stranger. The Kid must find his way to the Bastion. That’s all the info the player is given to start the game, but it takes just the first few minutes to get up to speed. Part of the enjoyment of Bastion is the thrill of discovery, so the designers (and I, as a reviewer) leave the rest to the player to find. I know this is a review of the game, so I’ll still answer the questions of gameplay, design, and fun factor… just don’t expect any plot spoilers or detailed information on The Kid or The Bastion.
Now, I simply can’t go any further without mentioning the game’s true defining characteristic. From the first moments of Bastion, the player hears a voice: the voice of The Stranger. This deep, resonant voice provides exposition and commentary, and the narration changes incrementally based on the player’s actions. The Stranger is instantly compelling; a rumble drawn out of the classic Western movie archetype. The voice actor clearly borrows from Sam Elliot’s role (also called Stranger) in The Big Lebowski, and the sound is instantly recognizable as wise, weathered, and weary. While The Stranger becomes less of a, well, stranger as the game goes on and the story unfolds, his voice is a constant presence throughout the game. Whether delivering small snippets of the history of Caeldonia, commenting on The Kid’s weapon choices, or providing simple instructions to follow, this narration is intrinsic to the player’s enjoyment of the game. At its heart, Bastion is just as much a story being told as it is a video game, and the voice of the storyteller drives the narrative, giving the story depth, heart, and clarity.
From a technical perspective, much has been made in previews of Bastion of the narration’s ability to adjust on the fly to the actions that have occurred in the game. I’m here to tell you that while some minor changes take place based on The Kid’s actions, it’s hardly a huge effect on the story or on the game itself. While these slight differences in narration do make The Stranger seem to be an omnipotent observer and help draw the player deeper into the game world, the on-the-fly narration shifts aren’t game-changers, so don’t expect miracles here. They’re just nice-to-haves. Still, the fact that Supergiant Games made the effort to include this innovative system (even for just a minor effect on the gameplay experience) speaks highly to both their development effort and their desire to innovate in this title.
As an action RPG, much of the player’s time will be spent in combat, battling the weird and wild creatures that inhabit the world of Caeldonia. The feel of combat depends completely on which weapons The Kid has equipped at a given time, with more weapons becoming available as his journey goes on. Melee weapons like the Cael Hammer allow The Kid to do his damage up close and personal, while ranged weapons like the Breaker’s Bow require patience, timing, and careful aim. Most importantly, the weapons The Kid has equipped will affect play style, as there is typically a single attack for each weapon, and the weapons and attacks vary greatly. When paired with The Kid’s defensive block, evasive roll, and one special attack, combat becomes slightly more complex. However, don’t be fooled: once the player gets the hang of combat, combat really only changes when new enemies are introduced or when The Kid is forced to use a new weapon. Don’t go into Bastion expecting a deep and rewarding combat system, because it’s not there. Instead, this is a game of simplicity and ease.
The level of character customization in Bastion is fairly robust, especially given the game’s 5-10 hour play time. In addition to choosing his weapon loadout, The Kid can eventually upgrade his weapons, add new Secret Skills, use special spirits to increase his abilities, and even pray to different idols in order to increase enemy difficulty. (This last part may be a necessity, given how easy the game can be at times.) There’s a light quest system that rewards the player with the game’s currency for completing certain tasks, and special areas where The Kid can pass skill challenges with each of his weapons. This adds much-needed depth to Bastion without being essential to completing the game. A savvy player who picks up the simple combat mechanics quickly could probably breeze through Bastion in a few hours with little difficulty. This would be an unfortunate way to play the game, as one would miss out on the minutiae and exploration that makes Bastion better than the average game, but there’s always New Game Plus for those who want to finish now and savor the experience later.
Bastion’s controls are slick and smooth, and the learning curve is not terribly steep. At the beginning of the game, the player can expect to misuse the evasive roll and pitch The Kid into the ever-present open air around the walkways of each level. However, within a minute or two of playing around or of acquiring a new weapon, the learning curve usually disappears, and the controls are both intuitive and clean. If you die playing Bastion, it is likely due to a lack of reflexes or preparation, not because The Kid fell off of a ledge you couldn’t see. I’d say the one exception to the clean control scheme might be in circumstances where enemies launch The Kid into the air, causing the player to initiate a recovery before landing. This was often an annoying process where as soon as I landed, I’d immediately be re-launched into the sky, and the process repeated itself. This may be a problem only faced by semi-incompetent gamers such as myself, or it could be something that causes frustration for many – I simply cannot tell without input from other players. But for the most part, Bastion offers smooth gameplay and responsive control.
This is a title that is heavy on style, almost (but not quite) at the expense of substance. The graphical style of the game is a cross between clean Korean-animation-inspired sprites and images, blended with a shiny color palette and then given an off-handed sense of clutter and overlap. The end result is a world that is bright, vibrant, and detailed, but one that also comes across as slapped together hastily and more than a little unkempt. It is just about perfect, given the plot and the tone of the game as featuring a world that is coming together on the fly. In addition, the animations in the game are smooth and seamless, with no slowdown and clean detail. While the game lacks some of the graphical polish of full-price titles, the sprites are well-designed. The one complaint that I have with the design (and it may even be intentional), is that in the case of the floors in Bastion, sometimes it can be unclear if something is a wall, a floor, or perhaps just a background design feature with no substance at all. One minute The Kid could be walking on firm stone, but in the next, he is falling over a ledge, and taking damage as a result. Sure, this is a minor nit to pick, but it can be a concern nonetheless.
I’ve already spoken at length about the narration in the game, so I hope I’ve made clear that sound is critical to the enjoyment of the game, as well as an obvious focus of the developers. Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea why running narration like this hasn’t been implemented more widely in action RPGs before now, as the narration certainly fits with the style of the game and removes the need for blocks and blocks of expository text on the screen. And since the developers took so much time and care to develop the narration in Bastion, you can expect that they didn’t neglect the rest of the audio component to the game. The sound design is terrific, as sound effects are expressive without being redundant and annoying. Best of all, the background music fits the style of the game to a T. Though a couple of the game’s music tracks fail to distinguish themselves, the music in the opening moments (The Kid’s awakening) and at the end of the game (the final set pieces and ending) go beyond “just okay” to “powerful and haunting.” Most importantly, at no point during the game does the narration get overwhelmed by the sound effects or background score, which is a difficult balance to reach. Simply put, there’s no enjoying Bastion without the audio component to the game.
As Bastion came to a close, the game surprised me with two important choices to be made at the end of the game. Up until the close of Bastion, your control of The Kid is very straightforward, but the inclusion of these elements slightly change the dynamic of the game and force the player to immerse themselves in Bastion just a little bit more deeply. These choices give the climax of Bastion an air of importance, and I found myself considering them carefully. Even so, the game does end on kind of an anti-climactic, sudden note in terms of the gameplay.
Far too few games are able to take chances and innovate in a way that doesn’t detract from overall gameplay, or create a product that doesn’t feel fun or recognizable. With Bastion, Supergiant Games has taken the template of the adventure game-like action RPG and infused it with small innovations, improvements, and stylistic touches to create something fresh and exciting. Though not everything in Bastion was a complete success, the developers were able to craft a solid narrative, fold in solid action-RPG gameplay, and finish off the game with a the right amount of enjoyment and detail to create a compelling world to play in. Caeldonia, the world of Bastion, is comprised of fascinating beings and possessed of a remarkable vocabulary. From the (relative) safety of the Rippling Walls, all the way to Who Knows Where, the world is populated by interesting concepts: Gasfellas and Anklegators, Gravers and Mancers, and compelling characters like Zia and The Kid. And this doesn’t even take into account the game’s remarkably low price point (only 1200 Microsoft Points), which makes it a remarkable value to boot.
Quite simply, Bastion is a game with lots of character and precious few flaws. Any fan of old-school action RPGs would be remiss not to play this game. If every title released had Bastion’s sense of newness and adventure, the gaming world would be even better than it already is.