Recommended price: $15 (Full Price)
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Extremely well designed, short works of action-RPG art.
Much like LIMBO before it, Bastion puts me in the unfortunate position of having to tell you about an amazing game that concludes much too soon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
On a superficial level, Bastion is a so-so Action RPG in the vein of Diablo meets Kingdom Hearts. You move your character around with WASD on an isometric field, and repeatedly Left-Click or Right-Click depending on which of the two selected weapons you want to use. There is also a dodge (Spacebar) and Block (Shift) button, the latter of which can straight up counter attacks completely if you press it at the right time. There are a bit more than a dozen enemy types, only a few of which require tactics other than simply shooting them with a ranged weapon or repeatedly mashing the melee button. You pick up orbs from killing/breaking things to use as currency for upgrades, leveling doesn’t change much beyond max HP and opening new passive ability slots, and… that’s about it.
By the way, the Mona Lisa is just a chick sitting in front of a river, Starry Night is just some swirls, Seurat liked making a lot of dots, Moonlight Sonata is some piano noises, etc etc.
How things are presented is incredibly important, and it is in this way that the designers of Bastion demonstrate a level of mastery that is damn near sublime. Bastion is a game with its own zeitgeist.
One of the first things people mention about Bastion is the narration by Logan Cunningham, who incredibly has never done voice-acting before. Before I played the game, I thought the concept of background narration a cute “gimmick.” By the end of Bastion, I had no idea how I would cope in games without it. The narration is so much more than a workaround for a silent protagonist and a lack of formal written dialog. Yes, it reacts to things you are doing on-screen – “Kid just rages for a while” (when just smashing objects), “And then the Kid falls to his death… I’m just playin'” (when you fall off the edge of the maps). But it solves a crucial problem endemic in most RPGs: how do you succinctly express emotion? Written dialog only takes you so far, and emotive character models generally do not work outside of LA Noir-esque settings, nevermind how that shackles you into a certain artistic style. Obviously Bastion is not the first game to use voice acting to “solve” the problem, but I am coming up at a loss as to what other game nailed it as hard as this one.
The other aspect that unfortunately does not seem to get as much press time are the visuals. It is somewhat difficult to truly appreciate it during gameplay, but this is the first time I have felt like I was playing a literal work of art since Saga Frontier 2. And it is just not that everything looks amazing; everything simply fits. For example, take a look at any of the screenshots. Do you ever really notice the background? In the entire time I was playing, I recognized that there were edges I could fall off of, and yet never once was I distracted by what that abyss consisted of. That doesn’t happen by accident. Also, the elegance that is the ground flying up to form your path is the sort of design epiphany that solves a more mundane problem (how to prevent the player from seeing their isometric path) in a way that makes the game as a whole better. In other words, it felt like an integral part of the experience rather than arbitrary.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the amazing soundtrack. It fades in and out at all the right moments, and is of a quality far beyond what one would expect in a $15 indie game. Part Western, part Eastern, part hip-hop, trip-hop, blues, techno and altogether perfect for what it is. I would not go so far as to buy the $10 soundtrack – typically, battle music isn’t what I look for when I want to relax/browse the web – but you might want to check out Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme) and Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme) and the hybridized Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme). Even if you never actually play the game, those three songs alone will likely make their way to the top of your playlist. Mother, I’m Here in particular so perfectly channels a moment in the game, that it creates a feedback loop with your memory of the experience (which includes the song) that results, at least for me, a reaction far beyond what I actually felt at the time. I literally have not experienced this feeling from a videogame song since Chrono Trigger, FF7, and Xenogears.
Honestly, the only thing stopping this game from rocketing its way towards my Top 5 game list is its six hour duration. That is not to say it felt rushed or incomplete; quite the opposite, in fact! Bastion puts its arm around your shoulder, spins you a fantastic tale, pats you on the back and then saunters off into the sunset. For the completists and sentimentalists, there is a New Game+ option that lets you keep your upgraded weapons and adds more gods to the Shrine, which buffs enemies in various ways to voluntarily increase the challenge.
All good things come to an end though, and god damn if I wished Bastion lasted two, three, hell, five times as long as it did. Lord knows worse games do.