“All curious-like, The Kid started readin' the Bastion review
Never underestimate the power of superb narration. It’s the reason crappy road trips can be made awesome by Schwarzenegger GPS directions. It's why The Wonder Years’ Kevin Arnold seemed like a well-rounded protagonist and not the whiny, preadolescent bitch he truly was. It explains why I bought a documentary boxset entitled: “Bat Shit Drying, as voiced by Morgan Freeman”.
Bastion harnesses the power of exceptional commentary, but doesn’t use it to mask flying mammal feces. As you're shootin' and lootin' your way through this isometric action RPG your exploits will be dynamically regaled through the kind of pervasive voice-over system that’s typically reserved for sports games. Addiction to this fantasy world sets in quick as your post-apocalyptic plight as 'The Kid' is slowly told via the whiskey-smooth, gunslinger drawl of 'The Stranger'.
His play-by-playing goes well beyond "beating the hell out of text boxes" too. The main plot points in Bastion are explained on-the-fly, but so too are the smaller, more intimate details of your messianic quest to rebuild civilization, understand what triggered ‘The Cataclysm’ and to find survivors. Fitting in with the overarching theme of reconstruction, whenever you explore the gameworld it’ll physically build itself just in front of The Kid’s feet, as though your every action is writing this bizarre sky-bridge world into being once more.
This unique sensation of interactive creation is, of course, mirrored by the constant plot threading of The Stranger who delights in the details. When I unloaded a shotgun into the highly-destructible environs he mentioned: “The Kid lashed out at the world, as if there was some sorta reward for it.” I laughed later on when he called me out on milking the dive-roll button with “the kid just kept rollin’ and rollin’”. A bit later I rolled off the world completely only to hear “and then The Kid just fell off and died… forever,” only to be followed by a pregnant pause, “nah, I’m just kiddin'” and a respawn. Voice acting and flashback humour has rarely been this well-written and entertaining. The closest comparisons I can give to this would be the inner-monologues of Max Payne or The Prince from The Sands of Time. While his musings are much more frequent The Stranger (somehow) never overstays his welcome.
Bastion’s aural classiness is complemented by gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and simple yet elegant combat mechanics. Though this is technically a dungeon crawler (without walls), the typical ‘shite-shade’ palette has been ditched in favour of some of the most vibrantly coloured illustrative art this side of Braid. The rogues gallery of enemies here is vast and imaginative, the maps are cunningly constructed and as an oldschooler I found it heart-warming to see this rich 1080p re-interpretation of the classic RPGs of the 16 and 32 bit days.
In terms of gameplay, Bastion avoids bogging you down with grinding and overt stat-obsession. Instead there's much more reflex-orientated combat where the tactical pairing of two weapons, shrewdly timed shield parries and pattern memorisation will earn your victories. Also, this being a Wild Western themed fantasy world, you’re given access to a dozen different fully upgradeable weapons (most of them kick-arse boomsticks) that handle quite differently to one another. As a general rule your melee weapons fall more towards the button mashy end of the control spectrum, while your ‘guns that fire shot’ require more finesse (such as held button presses and strategic reloading). Either way, the fighting in Bastion is fast and fierce, and constantly evolving thanks to drip-fed uber-weapons and tricky bossfights.
During the course of this seven-hour quest you can even rebuild your floating home base (the titular Bastion) via a mini town building mechanic. Once this slapdash society has been established, your melee, projectile and smart bomb weapons can be easily augmented, rare equipment can be seagulled from the ‘Lost and Found’ and The Kid’s skills may be adapted by chugging down many different liquor-based bonuses. For example; only sissies go into battle without sculling some ‘Stabsinthe’ to buff up their best blade. It'll make shanking Squirts (hovering tadpoles), Gasfellas (Hooded wraiths) and Scumbags (bags of scum) that much easier.
For the overwhelming majority of the time Bastion is a swashbuckling delight that can be stretched well beyond the aforementioned runtime by upping the ante on yourself with the risk-reward difficulty settings. That said there are a few questionable design choices and missed opportunities here. For one thing, I’m dubious of developer Supergiant’s claims that “the inclusion of two-player co-op would ruin the aesthetic.” This is the sort of game that needs to be shared with others, a token, unlockable two-player co-op mode (where only one player is commentary tracked) wouldn’t have hurt.
For another, while the melee combat is tight and engaging, the projectile lock-on system can fall apart when your life depends on swiftly targeting a certain enemy with a delicately timed powershot. Technically, yes, there is the ability to cycle between targets via the shoulder buttons, but when the mob is closing into rape range there’s simply no time to connect the dots on your preferred target. It’s a shame, but not a deal-breaker. When this issue became too pronounced all I had to do was flat-out ignore the more powerful “precision” rifles in favour of the more flaccid scatterguns, mortars and flamethrowers (which got The Kid’s killin’ done just fine, by the way).
Last but not least, it’s quite a shame that the quality of the hastily-animated cutscenes don’t match the high production values upheld by the rest of the game. I personally found their inclusion to be largely unnecessary too as it clearly flies in the face of Supergiant’s desire to “not interrupt gameplay for the sake of the story”.
Even still, none of the aforementioned issues did too much to dampen my enthusiasm and affection for Bastion. At the end of the journey I was satisfied but felt the urge to go back with my NewGamePlus file to max out my levels, master each of the weapons challenges and – as odd as this sounds – try to trigger more Easter Eggs from the extensive lines of recorded dialogue. On that note: just as L.A. Noire has spoiled me and effectively broken my brain for what to expect from lip-synching, so too I fear has Bastion eroded my ability to accept text box dialogue in my future RPGs. Here’s hoping many more developers get aboard the dynamic narrative bandwagon.
Whichever way you look at it, Bastion is a richly detailed world that has been unmistakably crafted with love and is well worth its 1200 MP price tag. It exudes all the addictive familiarity of an every-man action-RPG, but it’s presented in such a clever, charming and original way as to raise it to must-play material. Dive-roll into it today.