Sunday, July 24, 2011

REVIEW - Bastion.

I dig my hole

you build a wall

Wake up, Kid.

I rarely put discs into my Xbox 360 these days. For me, the point and purpose of the console is games like Bastion. Beautiful, unique, emotionally satisfying and bite-sized fare that generally costs around fifteen bucks a pop.

Limbo was excellent, but perhaps not a great value for the money. Shadow Complex was very good, but not quite excellent.

Bastion is excellent - and an excellent value. It is a delicious confection of an action-RPG. Rich in theme, satisfying in depth, romantic in execution and comfortable in the hand. Yum.

Open your eyes. You've been asleep in your bed, which is on a tiny platform floating in open sky. You are The Kid, and the Calamity has ripped your world apart overnight. Overseen by the silky-smooth, gravel-voiced narrator, you set off to discover what's happened to your home - the world piecing itself back together underfoot as you go - which is strange, but as the narrator points out "the Kid don't stop to wonder why."

Bastion's world is at once beautiful and simple. It's essentially a series of lovely corridors and rooms with nothing beyond - but the freakish sight of the level assembling itself as you move through it is a nice punch that demands attention.

Every level (and the game entire) is large and different enough to feel a sense of exploration and accomplishment, but not so big that it begins to wear out its welcome. Each invariably offers a new weapon or a powerful object that will open up a whole wing of upgrades and challenges at the game's titular hub location. One is never bored in Bastion - constantly driven forward by its bittersweet story and enticing systems of rewards - but what really sets it apart is just how much changing your weapon changes the game.

It's rather like Demon's Souls, where each weapon type completely rewrites the rules of how you have to play. You can wield two at any given time, and must return to the Bastion's armory to change your loadout - but what's most appetizing is that each and every weapon may be not just exploited for its obvious strengths, but mastered.

I am a demon with my Breaker's Bow. It requires a moment to draw the string, but once the timing is seared into your muscle memory you find yourself nailing frame-precise power shots. It's immensely satisfying to have five very dangerous enemies coming for you, and nock off five perfect shots in a row.

Every weapon has slightly different mechanics and requires the player to learn its lessons well before it reveals its full potential. Bastion's gameplay is deep enough to offer satisfaction - certainly fun enough to keep one engaged - but, of course, there's more to say.

Its presentation is uniformly excellent.

Every new enemy, every weapon you find, every conversation you have, every choice you make and every crumb of story is revealed by the wonderfully-cast narrator, who drips bittersweet exposition throughout the game like salted honey. There's a cool indifference to his voice - but there's also weariness, and a palpable sense of loss and pride.

I tend to be pretty hard on games' narratives - often taking them to task for gluts of needless exposition or revealing too much too soon - but Bastion makes no such mistakes. The mystery of the Calamity and its solution is drip-fed by that wonderful voice - always keeping the player engaged on their first playthrough, consistently revealing a deeper meaning when traveling back through the game on New Game Plus, and still leaving some nice unanswered questions for the player to mull over.

The music, as well, is among the best of the year. If The Singer isn't featured at this year's Video Game Awards in a similar fashion to last year's rendition of Far Away, I will eat my hat.

Finally, the game's environments are entirely hand-drawn - the way games used to be. It's like the artists from the heyday of Sierra's adventure gaming dominance sat down and decided to see what they could pull off in HD. Bastion never quite enters "gorgeous" territory, but at the very least it's consistently beautiful.

The game is stuffed with little items to find and tweaks to the gameplay - entirely at the discretion of the player. At the Bastion - your base of operations - you can "spec" your Kid by selecting a variety of liquors which grant permanent, passive buffs. If you wish, you can increase the game's difficulty by invoking different gods at the Shrine (this one makes enemies move faster, this one makes them hit harder) for increased rewards of experience and currency.

If there is a complaint I can level against Bastion, it is that - as opposed to the greater sin of outstaying its welcome with needless padding - I was sad to see the credits roll. The game's bountiful New Game Plus option is exceedingly welcome, in this case.

That's telling, isn't it?

The worst thing about Bastion is that it ends.

  • beautiful
  • fantastic music - The Singer and Home Sweet Home are two of the best moments in gaming this year
  • the degree of mastery the combat offers is very satisfying
  • lots to find and collect
  • a massive variety of customization options
  • the narrator is awesome
  • constantly varied scenery
  • it has a ton of extra content to explore, from little tweaks to the difficulty to challenge rooms
  • the way the path assembles in front of you is, well, pretty damned cool
  • New Game Plus begs for more playtime
  • a reserved, well-designed story that doesn't answer all your questions

  • the story leaves you asking questions (which is, in my humble opinion, a good thing - but it'll tick some people off)
  • it ends

A delicious downloadable treat.

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