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Bastion review: Classic composition


If Bastion had been made by hundreds of people instead of just a handful, it would have started with a big-huge bang. The city of Caelondia would go from an everyday murmur to a cacophony of toppling buildings and panicked, immolated citizens while a tutorial told you to quickly crouch here, jump there and look at all this stuff we spent 10 million dollars on. The land would shake itself to rubble, the screen would blur and black out, and the logo would appear alongside a crass, Hans Zimmer honk.


This much better version starts with you getting out of bed. All you know is that a calamity has wrecked the world -- and that you must be a heavy sleeper. A warm, attentive narrator identifies you as "The Kid," a character so central to the story that the world literally reforms beneath his feet, step-by-step. For reasons that I'll leave you to discover for yourself, The Kid and a handful of other apocalypse survivors are drawn to The Bastion, a floating island that may offer safety, answers, and perhaps a roll of duct tape large enough to put the world back together.

Gallery: Bastion (E3 2011) | 6 Photos

If it weren't for the land's methodical assembly from the ruins below, you'd have to be reminded that Bastion's environments were the victims of catastrophe. These events have the habit of sucking color and life out of the world, but the vivid, captivating artwork pays tradition no heed. Caelondia and its surrounding regions are all painted by hand, evoking an old frontier civilization that benefited from a dash of unusual science (not unlike those in "Fullmetal Alchemist" or "Trigun"). And just like Limbo, Bastion's bold appearance won't fade with time.

The measures taken to preserve the quality of the art have a real benefit in combat (or perhaps it's the other way around?). The framerate is high and the top-down scrolling rate is subdued, eliminating smearing across an LCD screen and, more importantly, keeping controls responsive. The Kid is a nimble little guy, capable of a quick roll and counter-attack against the cute fauna- and flora-turned-foes. The melee combat is simple, occasionally insipid and amicable to mashing, but it can reward you through a few on-the-spot reflex tests. Blocking at the right moment can reverse the course of incoming projectiles (or even heal you, depending on your augmentations), and releasing a drawn arrow just in time will increase its damage.

That about covers the hammer, bow and shield -- the first in a steady stream of new weapons that include pistols, a spear, a shotgun, a machete and the quaintest flamethrower you've ever seen. The variety is impressive, even if it doesn't necessarily shake your tactics out of a rut. It can feel like there are too many options at times, and it's hard to prevent habits from forming when you can only change your two weapons at the bastion's armory (or one of the rare ones that appear during your excursions). Since you can't really improvise with weapons in the middle of a fight, there's a player-inflicted attrition in the total roster by the end of the game. Of course, all that unused weaponry makes the "New Game Plus" option much more compelling.

Even if the combat is spread a little thin, Bastion as a whole offers a remarkably dense and clear vision. Yes, the ever-present narrator remarks on even minor events, giving the game a chewy tobacco flavor with his gruff voice, but there's some wonderful storytelling in the periphery. In practice, you can apply difficulty modifiers to the combat for bonus experience points. The fiction encapsulates that by letting you invoke or reject certain gods at the bastion's shrine in-between stages. You can apply more augmentations to yourself as you level up, except they're swigs of stern liquor from the bastion's distillery. And since you're a kid, all of it tastes like crap.

That charming devotion to a place that ceased to exist before you even got there gives a subtle heft to the game's characters, who are never degraded by expository cutscenes or awkward speech. Instead, you come to understand them best through the game's brilliant music, which composer Darren Korb describes as "acoustic frontier triphop." Tinged with acoustic guitar and some more exotic instruments, Bastion has one of the most unpredictable and involving soundtracks this year (and Akira Yamaoka did not take the year off).

That's not a compliment I'm throwing out to an isolated feature of the game. When you reach the ending credits, there's something like a polyphonic epiphany, and the songs you've heard, people you've met and places you've seen come together in your mind at once. I feel so strongly about it, I'll happily run the risk of coming across like a pretentious wikipedia scholar by putting "polyphonic epiphany" in my review.

I'm glad that the super-giant Bastion that could have been is not the one I ended up playing. As much as I love being deafened by explosions and the end of civilization, there's a unique pleasure in seeing an imperfect, earnest vision coming from just a handful of developers. Bastion is a quiet explosion in reverse, and there's no mistaking its charms once it all comes together.

This review is based on the final version of Bastion provided by Supergiant Games and Warner Bros. Bastion will be available for $15 on XBLA starting July 20, and on Steam later this year.

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