I’m glad Bastion was the first new game I played this year. I’m doubly glad that I went into it relatively ignorant of what it was actually about, because I suspect that if I’d actually listened to half of the gushing word-of-mouth opinions about it I wouldn’t have liked it half as much as I did. Bastion is a charming little game with some hefty flaws but also some great ideas, and it’s one that’s put me in a very good mood for the rest of 2012.
At its core Bastion is a fairly simple action RPG. Ranged attacks, melee attacks, the block button, the evade button – they’re all here and they all do pretty much exactly what you’d expect. There’s only a few enemy types in the game (that’s if you treat “plants” as a single enemy type, which I do) and while they’re all reasonably distinct in their behaviour and the tactics needed to defeat them they nearly all rely on hoary old gimmicks. This enemy can only be hurt if you hit it from behind! This enemy can only be hurt if you shoot it when its guard is down! These baddie tropes are as old as time itself, and so when it comes to its stock gameplay I’m not going to accuse Bastion of anything approaching imagination, because even though Bastion does what it does particularly well I’ve seen it all several dozen times before.
No, Bastion does not particularly excel in terms of innovative gameplay. Where it does excel is pretty much everywhere else that matters. Visually the game is a treat, with painterly landscapes that form themselves under the protagonist’s feet as he moves through a level. It’s a testament to how intelligent art design can work together with gameplay to produce something magical, something that the ridiculous quest for photorealism in AAA titles cannot ever hope to match. The soundtrack too is an outstanding mixture of Middle Eastern styles with twangy, strummy guitar that evokes the Wild West, in keeping with the game’s pseudo-steampunk theme. These two aspects of Bastion ensured I forgave it the odd niggle – like the poorly-camouflaged linear nature of the game, or the fact that the X button triggered both my main attack and activated items in the game world often leading to my guy standing there flicking a switch back and forth while hordes of hungry blobs converged on his location – because the general ambience of the game was more than enough reason to keep on playing.
That’s the Good and the Bad. That leaves the Ugly and the Exceptional to talk about. The story can be filed under “Ugly”. Because Bastion is pure fantasy the game very wisely holds back on the fine detail, with almost no in-depth descriptions of what life was like before the cataclysm that destroyed the world. This lets the player’s imagination fill in the blank spaces between the broad strokes of past the game does paint, but this comes at the cost of the story having little in the way of emotional resonance. There’s no attachment to the world that came before, no sense of loss for a civilisation that has been reduced to dust and echoes, and the game doesn’t even try to build up a connection with the few characters that did survive the apocalypse. Considering the way things end this hurts the game a fair bit, and I think it’s at least partially down to the method the game uses to tell the story.
Yes, I’m actually going to chalk up Bastion’s narrator as one of the things about the game that didn’t really work out. Before the angry mob starts gathering outside my castle with flaming torches and pitchforks I should stress that I’m talking about the narrator here, not the existence of the narration itself. The narrator’s voice acting is great and the dynamic nature of the narration is totally fine, since it really builds on the storybook feeling imparted by the visuals. The problem with it isn’t the fact that there’s narration per se, it’s that every interaction I made with the game was funnelled through this single character. This got really, really overbearing when I was trying to talk to the other characters who weren’t the narrator, since he did all the talking for them and – again – prevented me from building up a connection with any character that wasn’t him. I really do think this ended up robbing the endgame of the impact it was clearly supposed to have and which it could have had, had they toned the influence of the single narrator down just a little bit.
Lastly, there’s Bastion’s approach to character customisation and difficulty. While Bastion features experience points and levelling up just like every other game under the sun these days, it doesn’t have any character stats to speak of. Neither does it have any discrete difficulty levels you select at the start of the game beyond an easy mode for the old and infirm among us. Instead, these two functions are handled in-game via two structures in the Bastion, the Distillery and the Shrine. The Distillery lets you select one drink per character level to take along with you when you leave the Bastion, each of which provides a passive bonus like more counter damage, faster movement when blocking, 100% critical hit chance at low health and so on. While the variety of drinks on offer is a little bit limited it’s still a pretty neat way of allowing you to customise the way the Kid plays without having to fiddle with endless reams of stats and abilities.
Then there’s the Shrine. As you play through the story you pick up various idols which are placed in the Shrine. Activating an idol grants you the “blessing” of that particular god. The quote marks are there because while the idols all grant a small bonus to experience and money drops, each of them also buffs Bastion’s enemies in a specific way – making them move faster, hit harder and absorb more hits.. This is a fantastically organic approach to game difficulty that’s actually the best I’ve seen in recent years, since it allows the player to play the game according to the conditions they set. If I’m being given a hard time by a certain idol – say, the one which makes enemies drop bombs when they die – I can simply turn it off while retaining the rest of the game’s challenge. This puts Bastion in stark relief to the way most games would do it, where you’re either lumbered with the difficulty setting you chose at the start or else you have to drop down to a blanket “Easy” difficulty and subsequently remove all challenge from the game.
This, I think, is Bastion’s great mechanical triumph. The visuals and music make it an absolutely beautiful game and a joy to play the first time around, but the idols and the drinks are what will keep the game interesting on successive playthroughs – and even if I’m finished with it for the time being I am going to revisit the world of Bastion some day. And so while Bastion isn’t perfect by any means it easily fulfils the two basic criteria I have for determining whether or not a game is any good: I had an enormous amount of fun playing it, and I feel like I could have just as much fun with it were I ever to pick it up for a second go. It’s a rare game that passes both tests, but Bastion does so with flying colours.