Review: Bastion


Most of us have played an isometric dungeon-crawler by now, be it Diablo, Torchlight, or Sacred.  You trudge through a series of large regions that recycle the same environments ad nauseam, defeat hordes of enemies with largely one-button combat, and pick up dozens of useless items along the way.  Each time you visit town you can expect to spend a good five or ten minutes repairing your equipment, selling the masses of garbage that you’ve collected, turning in quests, and distributing your new stat and skill points.  Bastion does away with a lot of this tedium.

You play as “The Kid,” a white-haired boy who wakes up one day to find that his world is simply gone.  An event referred to as The Calamity has wiped out the landscape and turned your people into ash.  The entire story is narrated by an old man named Rucks, who you meet when you reach the Bastion.  Aside from orating your trials Rucks also fills in a lot of details about what the world was like before the Calamity and why it happened.  Everything is cleverly paced with plenty foreshadowing and well-time revelations.  The true strength of this approach to storytelling is that it never interrupts the gameplay.  A friend of mine that goes by the tag dudecrazy108 has a tendency to skip through conversations and cut scenes as quickly as possible so that he can get back to the action.  When he completed Bastion he didn’t just understand the story, he actually cared about it!  The developers got him to care about the world and its characters by teaching him about them in a way that didn’t bring the gameplay to a screeching halt, and I applaud them for it.

Best friends forever, right Zulf? Uh...Zulf?

The gameplay feels like a breath of fresh air for a genre that has been largely stagnant for the last decade.  For the first time in a long while I found myself not referring to a dungeon-crawler as a Diablo clone.  Rather than having hundreds of nearly identical clubs and swords that differ only in their stats, Bastion gives you a dozen weapons that each encourage their own style of play.  There’s a slow, powerful hammer for those that just want to smash stuff, an even slower mortar for players who want to plan their approach and rain destruction down from afar, and a war machete that unleashes a flurry of weak, very close range attacks and doubles as a throwing weapon.  When you’re under attack you can either block or roll to protect yourself.  Blocking is effective against most of the smaller enemies, but relying too heavily on it can quickly get you surrounded by enemies.  More capable players will instead use it only at the instant of the attack in order to unleash a powerful counterattack.  Rolling away is very effective for avoiding damage, but finding a safe direction to roll in becomes more and more difficult as you traverse the narrow paths made of floating debris.  The result of all this is that you end up with a dungeon-crawler whose combat relies more on timing and strategy over monotonous grinding.  Rather than functioning as simply a means to an end the fighting feels rewarding in itself.

The visuals are stunning, and clearly got more love than what you see in most AAA titles these days.  The environments have been hand-painted and look beautiful.  Characters and enemies are rendered in a cartoonish style that allows for quick identification while still leaving room for a lot of detail.  Early screenshots made me worried that Bastion would be plagued by visual chaos, but once everything is moving it becomes very easy to tell what’s going on.  Did I make a cut scene’s painting my desktop background for several weeks?  Of course I did.

This won't be leaving your head for quite some time.

I have a bad habit of listening to podcasts and custom soundtracks while I play games because the audio of a title often becomes either boring or grating for me after a few hours.  With Basion I never even considered turning on the Drunk Tank or TED Talks because whenever I wasn’t hooked to Rucks’ story I was enamored by the incredible music in this game.  Darren Korb’s score seamlessly blends a wide variety of instruments and digital sounds together into a very modern take on folk music, and the beat just keeps pushing you to play forward.  I purchased the official soundtrack as soon as I beat the game and now know a few people who don’t even play games that are listening to the soundtrack in their cars on a daily basis.

I would estimate Bastion to be about five hours long.  That’s plenty content for $15 when compared to the many popular retail titles that often clock in at the same length for four times the price, but RPG fans used to longer games may be disappointed.  If you think that paying $10-20 for a memorable-but-short game is worth the money (see: Portal, Braid, Limbo) then Bastion should be right up your alley.  Players looking to squeeze more time out of the game will be pleased by the New Game+ feature, the series of gods you can invoke for additional challenge, and trial that can be run for each weapon in the game in order to put your reflexes and creativity to the test.  The only other complaint I can predict is that some hardcore RPG enthusiasts might look at the changes that I loved so much and refer to the game as shallow in much the same way they would talk about the changes between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

Where it all begins.

Overall, I’m glad to give Bastion a glowing review and recommend that everyone reading this at least try the demo.  It is one of the best titles that I have ever played on XBLA (of which I have quite a few) and a serious contender for Game of the Year.

Quick tip for anyone who buys this game on Steam:  I recommend playing this game with a windows controller or any other compatible gamepad that has two joysticks.  Navigating various diagonal catwalks with the WASD keys while trying to aim at distant opponents with your mouse can become incredibly awkward, and feels like you’re being told to maneuver two small objects on the screen while only being able to look directly at one at a time.  Being able to move with one stick and aim with the other on a radial plane lets you focus all of your attention on your character and his immediate dangers, making the game a lot less frustrating to play.

P.S. Did I mention the damn soundtrack?!

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