As I write these words I’m listening to the soundtrack of last year’s isometric hack ‘n slash indie hit Bastion. A superb game in many areas, musical score being just one of them but I mention right off the bat because I happened to be listening to it and then thought ‘I can’t believe I haven’t written a review of this yet’ and promptly whipped out the keyboard and set to it. The game came out last year courtesy of SuperGiant games. It was one of those lucky few indie games that managed to get the attention of a big name publisher, in this case Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment who jumped in and published the game, in doing so, giving it a lot of marketing clout along the way which is one of the reasons Bastion sold well. It’s a sad reality that although there are indie games which go all the way by themselves and manage to achieve critical and commercial success, a great many go unnoticed because they didn’t have the budget to spend on marketing and no one ends up hearing about it. This is indeed a great shame for some games, thankfully Bastion wasn’t one of them. It managed to get widespread attention on both XBLA and on PC. It actually came out recently as part of that wonderful entrepreneurial enterprise ‘the humble bundle’ as part of its 5th installment so I picked it up for about £7, an absolute bargain and on linux no less (I always try to buy games from the humble bundle on linux if possible, good to encourage developers to make games for open source operating systems). That said, playing the game on Ubuntu 11.10 I did run into a bug early on which many others have where moving the mouse causes the game to crash…a fairly important one I think you’ll agree. Thankfully there’s a very easy fix for it here so don’t let it dissuade you. Anyway on to the review.
Bastion is pretty unique in the games market when it comes to gameplay. Although hack and slash games from an isometric viewpoint used to be a little more common than they are nowadays, I can’t really think of any modern equivalents unless you count games like Starcraft/Warcraft/Diablo but although they share the same viewpoint, the games couldn’t possibly be more different so I’m inclined not to draw those comparisons. Come to think of it I’m not sure hack ‘n slasher is a fair summary of the gameplay either as there is actually a fair bit of ranged combat too. In fact you’re pretty well covered for all combat eventualities in Bastion, here’s a quick list of the weapons; a massive hammer, a machete, a spear, a bow, dual pistols, a musket, a carbine rifle, a repeater, a battering ram, a shield, a mortar and a goddamn canon. Save for shuriken and plastic explosives I think most weapon groups are covered there. When you start the game you’ll wake up in an unfamiliar environment and quickly have to make your way through to the Bastion itself, a sort of citadel which acts as the hub world for the game. Here you can access the game’s various shops where you can buy new weapons, or upgrade existing ones as well as stock up on tonics (these act as bonuses or perks that let you gain more XP or give extra damage etc…). You can build up the Bastion too by completing stages, once enough are done you can build new things like a shrine which acts as a switch for making the game harder for greater reward. You’ll grow to like the place and treat it with as much warmth as the Kid (the character you play as) himself does. From the Bastion you can also access the various stages or levels. Each level is essentially a closed off environment which you progress through to the end where you generally collect a core for the Bastion (or shards later in the game). Each level is filled with enemies that start off easy but quickly get more difficult to dispatch. You’ll find certain tactics work better on certain stages so I found myself adapting and changing my arsenal accordingly. Now having played this on PC I came away thinking ‘How the hell did anyone manage to complete this on Xbox 360?’ See the melee weapons would pose no greater challenge, if anything they’d be easier. But the ranged weapons require the use of a cursor which you position on your target. Now perhaps the 360 version did away with a cursor and relies on which direction the kid is facing, but if not then I don’t envy you people!
As I briefly mentioned earlier, the Bastion is a citadel of sorts that once acted as the central city/focal point of the land of Caelondia. I say once because the place is in ruins and it’s up to the kid to rebuild what he can of it. There is constant mention of an event known as ‘the calamity,’ an event which happened before the game begins where Caelondia was reduced to ruins and all but a handful of survivors are left. It’s never quite revealed exactly wat this calamity was other than an event of some considerable magnitude. A wise choice on the writer’s parts, I felt it gave the game an authentic air of mystery. Lots of minor details and lore about Caelondia and the Bastion are revealed as you progress through the game’s many levels, little things like the kind of people who used to live or work in a certain area. It gives the game world such depth, a real feeling of a once great civilisation brought to its knees by something it couldn’t help. These details, along with the game’s entire narrative are relayed to the player by means of a narrator. At first it seems that this soothing voice is some sort of omnipotent entity, not attached to the world in any way but early on in the game you in fact meet him and he is very much a core part of the story (I mean aside from being the one who actually tells it). The story is told from the future, the game’s events unfolding as things that happened in the past as the narration is always telling the player what the kid did rather than is doing. This is one of those methods of story telling that I think, whilst not unique to gaming in the same vein as Half Life, is at the very least best used in a game as the narration would lose some of its impact if it were not relayed in response to the player interacting with the world and has earned itself in my list of top story-driven games. It also helps that the guy’s voice is guaranteed to make your balls ache even if you’re a die-hard homophobe.
The presentation that Supergiant have achieved is also something to be noted. The art style is fantastic and as far as I’m concerned; unique. That’s not to say it’s ground breaking but I can’t really think of another game that looks like Bastion does. Its gorgeous 2D graphics will be familiar to any avid indie gamer yet still feel fresh somehow. The isometric viewpoint, as I mentioned before also gives the whole game a unique feel. Each area of the world exists in some sort of void where the traversable terrain is suspended in midair and areas of the world magically snap into view from nowhere just in time for your feet to touch the ground. Contextually I suppose that this could be justified by the idea that Caelondia is broken by the calamity and therefore the pieces of the world that fly into your path as you walk through a level acts as a very literal, visual reminder of that. However, it could also have been a neat little work around so that the artists didn’t have to draw entire levels. Although come to think of it, they’d still have had to design the levels in their entirety and even if not it’s still probably a lot of work to animate pieces of the world flying in and out of the frame. In any case it’s another nice presentational touch which, although unexplained in the game’s immediate narrative, still works here.
You may have already heard about Bastion’s score. The game’s soundtrack has already garnered a lot of attention. It probably says a lot that official soundtrack was released almost simultaneously with the game. It’s an eclectic mix of folk ditties, in both the traditional singer song writer sense and the deep south Mississippi delta sense, mixed with contemporary electronic backbeats and basslines. There’s a fair bit of Indian citar in there too come to think of it. It helps give the game a rugged feel and the folk stylings particular to specific cultures imbue the land of Caelondia with a cultural identity of its own in a way that few other game worlds do. A lot of time goes into the visual feel of some of the more memorable locales and worlds in video games (City 17 in Half Life 2, Rapture in Bioshock etc…) but rarely do they tie together with a musical score as well as in Bastion. Hell, I was listening to it in the car before wrote this paragraph.
If you haven’t yet picked up Bastion, I hope this review has egged you on that extra inch. I was in the same boat for a long time and can’t believe what I was missing out on. It’s a truly beautiful game with an extremely strong identity that sets it apart from pretty much anything else out there (that I can think of at least). The gameplay is easy enough to pick up but challenging enough that you feel accomplished when you master some of the trickier weapons. You’ve got your choice of platforms; PC (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux distros), Xbox live arcade, and it’s going for a song right now so money is hardly an excuse either. I can’t recommend Bastion enough.