Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Available on: Xbox Live Arcade, Windows (Xbox Live Arcade version reviewed)
Few things are more lovingly crafted than a children’s book. When thumbing through the pages of a magical tale, absorbing the vibrant colour and beguiling simplicity, it is easy to imagine the author sitting at their desk, slaving over every playful image and sing-song word, knowing that each will probably live with a child for many years, making every pen stroke a vital one, added with the utmost care.
For all their grandiosity and extravagance, most triple-A video games don’t exude this kind of care and attention. AAA games, in most cases, tend to be more Michael Bay than Miyazaki, where enormous explosions and a sufficiently burly hero is often confused with an immersive game experience.
Bastion, the new isometric action-RPG from Supergiant Games, makes no such error. Early in the game there is a sequence where the player character, known only as “the kid”, hears a beautiful singing voice and is drawn to it. When played using surround sound, the haunting, melodic tones floats out of the rear speakers, filling the room with a ghostly vocal. When the Kid finally discovers the singer, the music snaps around to the front speaker, focusing the player’s mind in an instant on a vital moment of the plot. The game switches the atmosphere from ethereal to tangible in a single, brilliantly crafted moment of level, game and audio design. This attentiveness to all facets of storytelling becomes the hallmark of the entire game.
And nowhere is that more clear than in the game’s narrator. From start to finish, every moment of Bastion is narrated by an old man whose grizzled cowboy characterisation, whilst familiar, is tightly written, clearly explaining the complex story and distinctive world of The Bastion, whilst retaining the mystery of the Kid and the “calamity’ that left the world in tatters.
However, this narration is more than a simple means of conveying a complicated story. Taken at first glance it could be dismissed as a gimmick, but that would be a mistake; Bastion is a clinic in interactive storytelling. The ever-present voiceover gives weight to everything the player does in the world of Bastion, as if the game is filling out a ledger, telling the player’s story whilst writing their legend into stone. If you ran from a fight, the game will tell you (once, wonderfully, the narrator chides the player as they are running, as if the game is looking straight into their cowardly soul) and if you stand and fight, the narrator acknowledges that too.
The game is always narrated thoughtfully and with humour, often offering simple quips when the player is exploring the world: a throwaway comment about the player having “raged for a while” when taking one of Bastion’s many new weapons for a test run on the destructible scenery being a particular highlight. Back and forth, the player is simultaneously being read an dystopian bedtime story whilst writing it for themselves.
This feeling of influence gives the story the sense of such heft and consequence that it affects how the game is played. A simple, largely linear narrative tied to old and familiar gameplay mechanics feels instantly fresh because the story is so intertwined with every action. The narration, a simple, perfectly executed audio mechanic, shows precisely how contrived “cause-and-effect” gameplay can be, simply by illustrating that during any game a player is constantly making choices, and that these little decisions, made every second, define your character in the game world.
Rather than the Narrator being solely a narrative design mechanic, it is also cunningly used for practical purposes, sometimes explaining to the player their next objective or waypoint and sometimes handing out simple gameplay hints. This explanatory dialogue is wonderfully disguised by great writing and delivery, simply melting into the overall telling of the story. The effect is like playing an episode of Jackanory, only this week, the storyteller is the player’s own puppet, telling the tale that they want them to tell.
Bastion is far from a one trick pony. The entire game looks like a the cover of a Discworld book redrawn by the character artists of Final Fantasy X. Carefully chosen, vivid colours stand out against the softer shades that denote a world barely clinging onto life. When the game reveals its massive boss enemies, some filling huge portions of the screen, the detail is fantastic, though their design is often nothing more than humdrum. Enemy repetition can also be jarring. Battles can often be filled with identikit enemies and against the dynamic colour and variety of the backgrounds this is a disappointment.
The levels themselves suffer a similar fate. Supergiant Games must receive unmitigated praise for its commitment to level variety, however some of these varieties are instantly familiar. The game has action levels, levels that are on rails, levels with restricted visibility, levels where the ground is crumbling away from beneath you and forces you to move forward, every type of level convention that you can think of, because you have seen them all before. The graphics make them look different and sometimes the narrator makes them feel different but despite that there is a sense of familiarity that often pervades the game, occasionally reminding you that this is not a magical world, merely a video game.
As action-RPGs go, Bastion is heavily slanted towards the “action” end of the scale, with just slivers of RPG thrown in. Weapons are plentiful and regularly dispensed to the player, almost all requiring very different approaches in combat. Again, all the staples are here: the long-range, slow-but-powerful hammer, the slice-and-dice short range sword, wide spread shotguns and quick-fire pistols; they all give the player a huge amount of scope when picking their armaments for a fight. When combined with different buffs (the main reward for levelling up) and one of many different special moves that become available, the range of combat options in Bastion is, without doubt, extensive.
When in the midst of a furious battle, however, this becomes pretty meaningless. The game’s challenge is built around throwing as many enemies at once at the player as possible and fights usually degenerate into an attritional game of constantly dodging until a small attack window opens, then popping in a quick attack before hiding behind your shield and rolling around the environment again. The isometric camera angle can make things tricky here, with some enemies jumping or diving towards the Kid, only the perspective makes evading these attacks a tricky proposition.
For a game with so much imagination, it is a surprise to see such safe, redundant enemies populating the world; foes with shielding at the front which are killed by attacks from the rear and uninspired birds that merely swoop to attack feel as if they are not doing some of Bastion’s finer ideas and successful execution justice.
There is certainly plenty of Bastion, especially if travelling through the Kid’s world only once isn’t enough for you. Gameplay modifiers, cleverly (surprise, surprise) worked into the narrative structure, increase the challenge substantially even when the player brings his high-level, well-buffed character back to previously explored areas. Xbox Live’s obligatory Leaderboard might provide some extra entertainment, but it is burying your head deeply into the story of Bastion, of Caelondia and of Ura, that provides all the incentive you need to keep coming back.
Bastion could be considered a slightly old-fashioned game, whose gameplay mechanics and level structures are so immediately recognisable that they can’t help but feel somewhat dated. However, the team at Supergiant Games have used these tried and tested mechanics to form a pencil outline which they have filled with the rich colour of a wonderfully story, told in a way that feels at once unique amongst video games and unique to the medium of video games.The way Bastion uses narration to give weight to every action in the game makes it a special title and, though its enemy design and combat mean it never is quite as fun as it could be, it provides one of the most wonderfully and carefully created story experience in gaming, one that anyone would be lucky to carry with them for a lifetime.