Like most fantasy, Bastion draws attention to the art of world-building: the landscapes and societies that emerged from the mind of the developer, were given life by the artists, and are now displayed on our monitors. Cast as an enigmatic protagonist known only as The Kid, I explore the ruins of the great city of Caelondia, now island fragments floating high above the land. Throughout the journey I learn of the civilization that had once inhabited Caeldonia, and the Calamity that brought about its desolation.
This is a game that takes the figurative and makes it literal. As The Kid wanders through the city, pathways build themselves out of thin air. He soon discovers the titular Bastion, a sort of “calamity shelter” that can serve as the focal point for rebuilding the shattered world, if only the kid finds its pieces and brings them back. And thus I trek through creature-infested ruins, using an array of weapons and special abilities to slay them, get the magical Core stones, and rebuild the world. This MacGuffin hunting is a logical driver for the game’s combat, and the world-building mechanic is an excellent motivator. If you’ve played Dark Cloud or the recent entrants in the Assassin’s Creed series, you’ll know how rewarding it is to materialize buildings out of thin air. But like most games, both its mechanics and the world its narrative constructs are derivative, pieced together from the best of fantasy novels and Diablo spawn. Judged as “just a game,” Bastion is competent on every level but groundbreaking on none.
Fortunately, I am not an automaton only able to comprehend games as a soulless play experience. Let me be clear: Bastion is both innovative and utterly brilliant.
The heart of Bastion’s greatness – and what makes it so difficult to capture in a traditional “empirical” review – is the degree to which each and every system is entwined. I haven’t seen a game this perfectly contiguous since Portal. So allow me to meander a bit.
When you first take control of The Kid, an unidentified narrator starts telling his story. This isn’t unusual for a game’s opening, but the narrator never goes away. He is omnipresent, and comments not merely on plot points but on the player’s actions. Shortly after acquiring my first weapon, I started knocking down every destructible object in the vicinity. “The kid just raged for a while,” the narrator comments. These interludes dot everything from environmental destruction to weapon selection. Typically, a games’ narrative – and, by extension, its narrator – does not acknowledge the game’s design. If the player stops progressing towards a goal, or ad-libs in any way, the narrative cannot account for it. Through a combination of expertise and what I can only assume is dark magic, writer Greg Kasavin seems to have anticipated every player action and question in his narration; more than once I thought I was being clever only to have the narrator read my mind and respond directly to my musings. And this all relies on a single voice actor, the clearly talented Logan Cunningham. While voice acting is now pervasive in the industry, it has rarely added anything beyond a certain cinematic flair; typically it’s just an expensive substitution for text, and often is more limited in what it can do than the ever-versatile written word. Bastion is one of the few games I’ve played that needs voice acting, and uses it to deliver a fresh experience to the player; floating text would cause the narration to dominate the screen rather than serve as an ambient storytelling device.
Even more interesting is the aesthetic the narrator embodies. He perfectly fits the Western archetype of “the stranger,” and this is the name the game initially gives him. This character is perhaps best known to my generation through Sam Elliot’s brilliant performance in The Big Lebowski; in gaming, he’s starred in the underselling Oddworld spinoff Stranger’s Wrath. The combination of The Stranger’s country similes and the twang of the soundtrack’s acoustic guitar gives the game a light Western flavor. Initially this seems like it’s just for style, a sort of forced genre mishmash in the vein of Firefly (sorry, Browncoats, but six shooters in space don’t make no sense). But it plugs directly back into the theme of world-building. The Western chronicles the construction of a “civilized” world on the barren frontiers; yet this creation is inevitably built on destruction, from the clearing of forests to the eradication of the natives. The classical Western seldom acknowledged its genocidal origins, but Bastion does, and more than once I thought of Shadow of the Colossus. Yet while that game hammered the player with its unambiguous ambiguity, Bastion takes a subtler approach. Its questioning of Caelondia’s expansion and the player’s own complicity in retaming the wilds is never overt, but it’s enough to differentiate it from other video games, where the mass extermination of fauna is never given a second thought.
Which doesn’t mean that the killing isn’t a barrel of fun. Bastion is on the lighter side of the action RPG, allowing the player to equip only two weapons and one special ability at a time. Spirits (in the beverage sense) are provided in place of armor, and provide an array of boosts and modifiers. Character customization is thus much less about designing character growth (there are no skill trees) than it is about customization in the moment, choosing which weapons and spirits to bring into the next mission. The player unlocks a new weapon on almost every level (for 11 total) and to my surprise each one was wholly distinct, recalling Quake more than Diablo and its ilk. The best thing I can say about the combat is that it has more options than the player can delve in one play-through; by the end of the game I had barely touched most of the weapons and skills, and hadn’t made any use of the Idols, difficulty modifiers in the vein of Halo’s skulls.
So Bastion is a compelling package, wrapping up dynamic combat with what may be the best storytelling the action RPG has ever seen. Add to that the best original soundtrack since Shadow of the Colossus (seriously, I would buy a copy in an instant were it for sale) and you’ve got a must-play title that exceeded my already high expectations and has launched Supergiant Games to the top of my “developers to watch” list.
This post made me want to get a new computer that could play both Bastion and the new Deus Ex.