Most games, even good ones, feel a little cynical in their design. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a title that isn’t at least partially designed to meet demands of the market, as a designer’s vision has a tendency to become a bigger, dumber, more financially viable version of the idea once the notion of profit comes into play. It’s the nature of an industry this big.
Yet somehow, Bastion completely evades this entire problem. It’s rare that you’ll play a game that feels as undiluted, as genuine, and as straight from the heart as Bastion does. Every single fragment of the game is directly in service of what I imagine to be the original vision behind it.
And what a vision it is. Set in a post-apocalypse the likes of which you’ve never seen, Bastion’s setting easily rivals something like Bioshock’s in terms of originality. We see a fantasy land after a catastrophic event known as “The Calamity”, which seemingly caused huge slabs of earth to detach from the ground and float towards the sky. “Seemingly” because much of Bastion’s tale is told by implication. The game assumes that players are reasonably intelligent individuals capable of reading between lines, a nice departure from the overt storytelling seen in most games. The plot should be commended for spinning a tired videogame narrative structure (collect X number of magical Y) into something truly fresh, and all endings in the game (that’s right) are delivered with impact and closure.
Though Bastion fits the description of “2D Isometric Action-Rpg”, expecting a grindy, button-mashy dungeon-crawler will leave you surprised. Upgrading of weapons, equipping passive boosters and levelling up are all significant elements, but moment-to-moment gameplay feels far more immediate and intense than something like Dungeon Siege does. Simply strolling up to an enemy and relying on your +16 DAM Battle-ax and 8+ DEF Shoulder pads to do the work will fail you, as actively evading and blocking incoming attacks while properly timing your own is a constant necessity.
Bastion has a near-perfect curve of complexity and difficulty. Starting out with little depth, then gradually introducing wider varieties of weapons, upgrades, enemies and combat situations, the game keeps the player thinking on his feet and making hard choices regarding weapon and upgrade selection. Staring at menu screens for ages, contemplating how to spend precious money was a frequent occurrence during my playthrough.
The focal selling point of Bastion has been the near-constant vocal narration accompanying gameplay. One of the central characters, a gravely-voiced badass with old-western mannerisms, describes and offers input on many of the ingame events. Equip a certain weapon combo, for example, and he might comment that this specific combination was used by a certain order of warriors before The Calamity. The writing of this narration is exceptionally sharp, and carries wit, intrigue, and darkness.
The game’s first chapter seems keen to convince you of the narration being highly dependent on how you play, but this doesn’t persist much past the first twenty minutes. I was wholly impressed when, early on, the narrator precisely described that I was “rolling about like crazy” when trying to avoid danger, and later disappointed when this level of specificity did not keep up during the rest of the game. That minor complaint aside, the narration coats the action with an ever-present layer of humanity and atmosphere and is a very welcome addition.
It helps that the implementation of this narration is clever. No nook and cranny of Bastion goes untouched by it. Even what equates to score attack and survival modes are made oasises of plot-exposition, with all-important character backstory told verbally as you earn high scores and survive waves of enemies. To me, being told more of Bastion’s rich story is a better motivation to play these modes than any “A” rank could ever be. Bonus modes smartly appear during the main game instead of being options on a menu screen, keeping players immersed even when they want some extra challenge.
Bastion sports an unfamiliar and distinct mood, and this is owed a great deal to the fantastic music and art style. The soundtrack is part Fight Club, part western, part world music and all joy for the ears. The visual style is reminiscent of Braid’s, albeit manga-influenced and more colorful. Together, they create an atmosphere that’s simultaneously melancholic and adventurously hopeful.
The adjective “original” can often be a minefield to use, and in my years on gaming forums, I have seen it spark many a fiery debate. Even using “original” with great precaution, I am of the firm opinion that Bastion earns this description 100%. You will not regret a purchase of this game or your hours spent playing it. It’s different and fresh in a back-to-basics way that few games seem to be, buried under standards and conventions.
5 out of 5.