Bastion has a narrator. A gritty, Old West-sounding narrator who gives running (though scripted) narration of the actions and trials of The Kid, a silent character who does the bashing. Yup, a narrator, who runs the entire story of the game as if he were telling it to another person around a campfire. It works to nice effect and it’s not that big of a deal, and lets just get it out of the way.
But beyond that much-lauded and high-quality narration, Bastion is a mix of older, simpler things. Its core is hack n’ slash gameplay; its inspirations are games like Secret of Mana. Its settings even resemble the painted RPG worlds of latter day Squaresoft titles, and it handles in much the same way. It’s nice and it’s nostalgic, and the narrating is a refreshing addition as a means of storytelling, but at the end of of the day, Bastion’s artistic beauty and its narrative positives can’t fully elevate what is essentially a somewhat boring game.
Bastion (PC [Reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: August 16, 2011
You awaken in Bastion as The Kid, a character whose primary function isn’t thinking, but bashing. While you were sleeping, or at least at some point in the past, the world has been torn up by a horrific disaster known as The Calamity. For some reason, The Kid was spared while other people were turned to stone and the content was literally torn apart, resulting in floating chunks of land spreading out and even reconstructing themselves as you walk around. The result is a cool effect of the path appearing just before you as you walk over it, and the need to check every corner to make sure a new path won’t suddenly appear when you venture near it.
From the very start, Bastion is narrated by the voice of an old man who seems to have a great deal of knowledge of the story’s events, as if he’s telling it later. Who he is and why he knows what he knows isn’t apparent at the outset of the story, and Bastion creates an interesting effect as the old man narrates things in response to player action — drop off the side of a platform (a painful but usually non-lethal mistake), for example, and the narrator might intone, “And then The Kid fell to his death — just kidding.”
In spite of the storytelling going on with the Narrator, however, which goes a long way to filling in backstory and rolls out at the same pace as The Kid progresses forward through each level, there’s actually not a lot going on here. The Kid adventures through each stage of the game, usually finding a new weapon along the way, and does a lot of smacking of various bad guys. There are quite a few weapons on offer, ranging from a big hammer, a powerful bow, a pair of six-shooters and a flame-spraying bellows. While you have a lot of options by the end of the game, you can only carry two weapons at a time (though you can have dual melee or dual ranged weapons if you choose), and you can only swap them out at specific buildings called Arsenals.
Eventually, you find the Bastion, a place that needs rebuilding through the help of (wait for it) special crystals, scattered throughout the rest of the destroyed world. Fixing up the Bastion allows you to construct the buildings you run across like the Arsenal or the Forge that allows you to upgrade your weapons using currency you find along the way, and it serves as your home base for the rest of the game.
Progress through the game is actually just a series of dungeons to crawl. Each stop at the Bastion means you can upgrade your gear, which is done through purchasing a series of binary choice upgrades, like stopping power or range for guns. Working in the Bastion and upgrading your weapons and The Kid’s abilities gives some RPG-style customization, and it’s a refreshing pit stop to what primarily makes up the game: pounding things, over and over.
The search for crystals (“Cores,” they’re called) takes you to different parts of the destroyed city, all the while with the Narrator giving some backstory as to what they used to be and why they’re interesting. Meanwhile, you’ll fight off whatever’s there: various monsters that, as the Narrator imparts, are actually just trying to figure out how to survive Post-Calamity, like you. They don’t particularly like you rolling in and stealing their Cores, as this usually results in power being lost to the area and the literal collapse of that portion of the world. Nice job, Hero.
The moral ambiguity of The Kid’s killing spree for the sake of repairing his adopted home gets a glossy treatment by Bastion, but it’s ultimately, unfortunately, superficial — like most of this game. The story, too, is surface-level, never really developing why the various characters should matter to you or giving them any depth of their own. Even the dynamic narration feels a bit like a cop-out, as it quickly becomes apparent which actions warrant “dynamic” comments, and which don’t. It’s all canned, really: start down one path and you’ll key a portion of narration that actually continues in a flow as you move down that path, but double back, and you’ll key another chunk that has nothing to do with what was just said. What you’re really doing is trigging pre-scripted events tied to where you walk, or what you smack, or if you die. They’re not really dynamic at all.
Combat, the game’s primary focus, boils down to button-mashing. Granted, with all the weapons, you can make a lot of different things happen with those buttons, but in the end your always just slamming away at enemies as your range dictates. Occasionally you’ll need to heal or dodge. You’ll never solve a puzzle, however, and accuracy or brainpower is only at work in several weapon-specific “proving grounds” where you’ll complete challenges to earn rewards. Those are cool, but utterly skippable, which feels like a missed opportunity in spreading that design around to the other levels.
Toward the end, Bastion starts to pick up some interesting ideas, like giving you choices in how you deal with a few characters and an interesting choice at the end. But much of the game feels like a plodding rehash of old concepts with a pretty setting and pretty music. I like the Narration, but there’s not a ton of substance to it, and you can’t call it a story so much as a series of interesting anecdotes about the game world. Stories require characters, characters require actions and choices, and Bastion has few or none of either.
I didn’t hate Bastion, to be sure — I had a good time working through its pretty environments and smashing anything that stood in my way, animate or not — but I don’t know that I’d want to play it again and I’m not sure I’d have sunk the full 10 or so hours of gameplay into it that would have been required to do absolutely everything. If hack ‘n slash pseudo-RPG action gameplay sounds like fun, then fun you shall have with Bastion. But this is neither artistic innovation nor especially deep video gaming, and it’s important to know that going in.
- Great art style
- Great soundtrack
- Narration is a cool, well-acted storytelling technique
- Nostalgic throwback to action-RPGs of the 16-bit era
- Lots of weapons to find, upgrade and master
- Fair amount of replay value through challenges, achievements and New Game+
- Dynamic narrating isn’t all that dynamic, or especially interesting
- Combat is basically button-mash
- Storyline skimps on its deep, moralistic potential
- Fairly repetitive dungeon-crawling with little deviation from the standard path
- Boss fights are more tedious than exciting
Final Score: 70/100