Monday, September 19, 2011

Bastion – Indie Action RPG that is not to be missed.

I'd heard an awful lot about Bastion, and had a hard time understanding what all the fuss was about. This past weekend, I finally finished the title, and I get it. Bastion was first released a downloadable game, the sort of indie title you see all over Xbox Live Arcade, and it got rave reviews, and eventually made its way to PC via Steam, where it was a featured release. Some of the initial gimmicks are apparent from the demo, but Bastion is a game that continues giving based on what you put in, and most of the best of the game is left for the end. This bucks a trend I've commented on at length, where so many games focus on a strong opening and great buildup, and then cannot pay off the narrative, so they kind of "phone in" the ending. In Bastion, a gamer with a short attention span will miss out on something that I can call beautiful without fear of hyperbole.

Don't mind the anime-look or cartoon styling. There is nothing about
this game that I'd associate with any flavor of animation beyond visual design.

At the beginning of Bastion, your character wakes up from a post on a wall somewhere to find the world destroyed around him. We know this because as the world and controls are introduced, a narrator's voice tells us what is going on, describing the hero's actions (calling him only "the kid") as they happen. The narration changes based on actions performed, and the exceptional quality of the voice acting delivering the over 3,000 recorded lines gives a lot of the emotional weight to what might otherwise be a decent, but unspectacular, action-RPG hybrid. As the kid walks through the ruins of his shattered world, bits of the ground form up under his feet where he's about to walk. A few basic weapons are found, and we start to get into the heart of the gameplay.

PC controls are pretty simple, left-click for melee attacks, right click for ranged, tap the space bar to roll out of the way of danger, and hold shift to block with a shield or lock on to a target. WASD moves you around, the mouse controls targetting and the E key is typically used to pick up items or interact with the environment. The kid carries around blue tonics to restore health, activated with F, and black tonics to power his special skills, activated with Q. There are a lot of different melee weapons, ranged weapons and special skills to find and unlock throughout the game, and different combinations may make certain sections of the game easier. In addition to finding weapons and abilities, each weapon can be upgraded with items found throughout gameplay and "shards" of the shattered world. Passive bonuses such as extra damage, more tonics or higher movement speed while blocking are chosen for slots that open up as the kid gains levels.

Static screenshots really don't do this world justice, it must be seen in motion.

All of these upgrades are processed through buildings which can be constructed, and yes, upgraded at the Bastion, a floating home base/sanctuary that was to be used in case of disaster. Each structure can be built upon completion of a level, and the player chooses which order to build many of them in. Combat and exploration is fast-paced and fun, and character advancement and customization integrates well with the theme of rebuilding a world piece by piece. If this was all Bastion had to offer, it'd still be a pretty good game for the $15USD price tag. These elements are probably the least of the reasons I like this game. Gameplay is great, but what gets me is a good story, well told, and though it takes a bit to get rolling, this game has that.

The story is revealed bit by bit in the narration, details left out in earlier scenes explained a bit at a time at a perfect pace to match the tone of the game. The combination of the art design of the levels, the tone of the script and history of the world that was Caelondia before The Calamity, and what it has become creates a unique and internally consistent setting. Bits of character development for the principal characters are earned, line by line in dreamlike sequences where the kid fights wave after wave of creatures, each wave rewarded with another part of the story for the character we're learning about. The music, in particular the pieces with vocals, add to the atmosphere, and the soundtrack is amazing on its own merits. Some of the best scenes in the entire game owe their impact in large part to the music playing in the background.

Once the reasons behind everything that has happened, from The Calamity to events that unfold as the game progresses (which I won't spoil here) are revealed, the game pulls off a really neat trick. Games love presenting players with choices, especially difficult ones. The problem is, it is not easy to write a set of meaningful decisions without either one choice being obviously better in some way, or making the decision difficult by virtue of all presented options being things you'd rather not do. I hate it when games do this. It is poor writing to make a choice only meaningful because I need to choose between two things that are approximately equally unpleasant. Bastion has one of the most thought-provoking and difficult "Would you rather?" choices I've ever encountered to make at the very end, and another choice where you have to decide between someone getting perhaps what they deserve, and doing what is noble at great potential cost to yourself. Both of these situations are brilliantly crafted, and the payoff for making either choice made for an ending that had me smiling throughout the credits.

This is not a particularly expensive game, nor is it a 40-hour epic, but there is a decent amount of replay value, for at least one more go-round, and there are plenty of Steam achievements and ways to customize the difficulty (for greater reward) in-game. Collecting, achieving and unlocking everything possible will make this a hefty amount of content for a game that is a quarter of the price of a typical new release. Solid action, incredible story, and a game that manages to be beautiful and at some points kind of sad, while making the player think about the questions posed by the story... This one is a winner.
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Justin said...

Currently downloading. Nice review kind sir, you got me interested.

Chris C. said...

That looks really interesting. I'll have to go check it out.

neatfit said...

This is great indeed, the narrator added A LOT to the game, the style in which the world loads is innovative and great too, this is great, could be a little less linear, but a really really good action rpg nonetheless.

Alpha said...

I knew it would be good.

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