Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one. Now here’s a Kid whose whole world got twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky…
Bastion (Switch, PC, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Jul 2011 | Developed: Supergiant Games | Published: Warner Bros.
From the opening narration you get the immediate sense that you’re in for something special. There’s something about that gravelly Tom Waits drawl that greets you as you begin Bastion that is inescapably intoxicating. Frankly, you ought to stop reading this review and go check out the introduction to the game on YouTube. No, it’s fine, I’ll wait. Yeah, see what I mean? Damn.
The narration is, unsurprisingly, one of the game’s strongest suits. Bits and pieces of the story are drip-fed to the player as you make your way through each stage, but it’s careful never to dump a tonne of information on you all at once. More than that, the narration is dynamic; while plenty of beats are scripted, many are triggered depending on what actions the player takes during a level, or how well you do in combat. Hearing the Narrator drily comment on the Kid slipping on the treacherous rocks after you fall off a level, for example, is an excellent touch that adds a liveliness to proceedings and perhaps encourages more intrepid players to try and push the boundaries, just to see what sayings and remarks they might have missed in prior playthroughs.
What of our story though? Well, for one it starts up after the end. A mysterious Calamity has struck the great city of Caelondia and the Kid wakes up right in the middle of it. The world has been scattered, literally; the paths the Kid once knew and walked are now blasted rocks in the sky, and his only thought is to reach the safety of the Bastion. Once there, he finds an old man, Rucks, who offers to guide him towards the powerful Cores that will restore the Bastion to its full power and hopefully offer them a way out of their predicament.
Bastion is a very lonely game. The Kid rapidly comes to learn that he and Rucks seem to be the only survivors of the Calamity; it’s driven home in a morbidly poignant level early on where the Kid comes across the remains of the people he knew, standing frozen in stone like a still-life only to crumble to ash and dust as he touches them. All the while, Rucks morosely names them with an ever-repeating epithet of “they didn’t make it,” driving home just how solitary this post-Calamity existence is. The fact that enemies you come across are beasts and creatures supports this solitude, and begs the question of what manner of apocalypse happened, that only a city’s people were wiped out. Again, Bastion is not forthcoming with details, and invites you instead to contemplate the lives and livelihoods of the people of Caelondia rather than explain; our Narrator is stuck firmly in the past, whereas the Kid might strike a more enterprising and forward-looking character as he marches on through the levels, progressing towards Cores and striving to build the Bastion to full power so that something can be done.
It’s also a staggeringly beautiful game. Each level is saturated with truly glorious colours, from the bleak ruins of Caelondia’s harsh Rippling Walls where the Kid plied his trade, to the stunning lush vegetation that has overtaken the wild lands beyond it. Each level unfurls in a way that is brilliantly unique, with the tiles falling down before him or flying up to meet the Kid’s tread. None of the levels are particularly long, keeping the pace of the game reasonably high, though each has a handful of small branching paths to encourage at least a bit of exploration; Supergiant may not have furnished us with a lengthy game (it is maybe 4-5 hours long should you make a beeline through the game to the end) but what we do have is of superlative quality. Additionally, Bastion is packed with extra bits to be getting on with; challenge maps unlock in order to test one’s mastery of the game’s arsenal, and a New Game+ gives access to even more as you relive the events of Bastion.
Speaking of that arsenal, the Kid gets access to a surprisingly wide array of weapons, and it is a credit to the game that all are enjoyable to some degree. Each time I felt like I found my pairing of weapons I wanted to take through to the end of the game, something new would be thrust upon me and I’d love that new combination all the same! In the end I was partial to a slow and defensive combination of the Brusher’s Pike and a carbine rifle but I could easily and happily switch between weapons depending on the situation; thankfully Bastion is fantastic at enabling that as well, as Armories where you can change your loadout are in plain sight in every level. Additionally, the Kid can also equip a special attack from a multitude of options; these range from reasonably mundane, like a grenade or mine to be thrown or set respectively, to more esoteric options that see the Kid use his chosen arms in more creative ways to take out swathes of enemies. These are used by chugging a Black Tonic, so they are limited, but the game is pretty forthcoming with them; not only am I glad of that since they do come in very useful against the hordes of baddies that beset our hero, but also I’m always happy when a game clearly wants me to have fun using the big flashy super attacks and tries to let me do that as much as possible.
Each weapon can also be upgraded by using specific, relevant materials, which need to be found and collected in the levels before anything can be upgraded. Each weapon has a path of five potential upgrades, which can make for reasonably extensive customisation and enables very different ways of using the same weapons. Your play experience can be altered as well; once you construct a Shrine in the Bastion you can invoke Caelondia’s various gods to make your game harder but in return you earn far greater rewards. The Kid can also stock up on an array of liquors from the Bastion’s Distillery; up to 10 can be equipped, each one giving you a different passive bonus to take into battle as well, and if you’re looking to make the game harder through invocation of the gods, these passives become absolutely vital.
As much as I like Bastion in general, nothing in the game quite compares with the soundtrack. Darren Korb’s work is nothing short of masterful, and I mean that without hyperbole. There’s a feeling of the frontier that infuses the soundtrack, and you hear that right from the opening as a twangy acoustic riff welcomes you into A Proper Story. It doesn’t take long though before Korb pulls the rug out from underneath you with some grungy, distorted drum samples laden with glorious reverb and vaguely microtonal, awkward melodies fall over one another, laced together into one phenomenal acid-infused trip-hop piece of art.
It’s like that all the way through, and I utterly adore it. The swelling violins peppered throughout In Case of Trouble contribute to the worried, threatened air of the track; in general the strings are used to craft the tone of the soundtrack, perhaps far more than any other element. You can feel the tension perfectly in the staccato bass and high embellishments of Bynn the Breaker, and little compares to the frantic Percy’s Escape for sheer nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing panic. Some feel more like almost traditional trip-hop; The Sole Regret is as laid-back as befits the remains of Caelondia’s bar but there’s still an overarching sense of the strange thanks to the warping sitar. That awkward, warped style comes back in songs like Terminal March to really ramp home the danger as the accompaniment around it gets more hectic. The entire soundtrack is a gem and I wholeheartedly urge you to go and listen to the entire thing; until then I shall leave you with perhaps one of the crowning moments of Bastion’s music, Build That Wall.
Bastion isn’t without issues but they are exceedingly incidental. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of isometric camera angles, especially when in action games like this it can enable you to take a tumble off the side of the level all too easily. In fairness though, the game does mitigate this, making it a mild slap on the wrist at worst. It’s also a game that mandates multiple playthroughs if you want to upgrade everything and get as much from it as possible; regrettably this extends to the endings, meaning you’ll need to play the game a few times to see the ways it can end but it’s not a game built around meaningful choices beforehand so each playthrough will be largely the same.
At most these are minor mumblings though. Bastion is a fantastic example of a brilliant indie game. With it Supergiant have given us a tightly-constructed, finely-tuned game that at once entrances the player in its strange crumbling world of Caelondia without falling into the trap of overbearing narratives or tutorials. It doesn’t have sophisticated combat or lively, exciting exploration, but it does provide a very solid gameplay core around which has been built a startling and unique fantasy world that I would urge you to experience.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.