Bastion: Review

AJ using a loading screen for a change

Bastion makes me feel like a bad person. It reminds me of that person at work or school who is extremely well-meaning, nice and actually, genuinely a good person; the kind of person I absolutely hate.

Even though I can explain why the ‘good’ things in this game result in such a dispassionate response from me, I still feel like it is my fault and as a result I feel terrible.

I spent large parts of my playthrough repeating the mantra “this game is not Diablo and it doesn’t want to be. It is doing its own thing. And that is something to be respected” over and over in my head.

Bastion is a hack and slash where you level up, collect new weapons, use health potions and tonics to restore health and special abilities, and assign tonics to give you passive buffs. Yet it is not Diablo and it is not trying to be.

It tells the story of The Kid, a nameless youth who wakes up after a great calamity that causes his entire world to collapse. Leaving his bed he discovers that the world rebuilds itself under his steps, guiding him on his quest to Bastion. Bastion is a place that may or may not hold the answers to why the apocalypse was brought about (the game’s narrator even makes a dig at the fact that it isn’t clear as to how it all happened).

Bastion’s presentation is flawless. As The Kid explores the ravaged world of Caelondia (pronounced Say-lohn-deeah) each new area blossoms with colour as if painted with strong, rich pastels; every enemy is well-animated and the locales are diverse.

The game’s strongest asset is the narrator. His baritone musings as your character explores the world sound like a mix between Leonard Cohen and Sam Elliot; he continues to talk over every action the player performs as The Kid. There are unique lines for the actions attempted and, cleverly, they are never repeated. The first, and maybe only time you run past a group of aggressors instead of fighting them the narrator will drawl (almost in approval):

“The Kid just kept on running.”

So much effort has been put into this narrator in order to make you feel like you are genuinely experiencing a dark fairy tale that belongs only to you. It is effective as your wordless hero moves on, tirelessly like Clint Eastwood or a less sinister Javier Bardem (he from No Country for Old Men).

With such rich environments and an engaging story it is a shame that the game doesn’t have any hooks for me. Make no mistake, this is something that is not the game’s fault. Some will find plenty to compel them onwards but in making the gameplay as versatile and frictionless as its presentation, Bastion ended up being a quite dull experience that I feel I can only blame myself for.

The combat system is interesting – at first. The Kid starts off with a melee and ranged weapon assigned to him; at regular intervals new weapons are introduced and new mechanics are introduced with each new acquisition. The player is encouraged to try out new tactics through mini-areas that help you understand how these new weapons work. This is a great idea but by halfway through, lazy as I was, I resorted to my default layout – a pair pistols and a shotgun – and muscled through regardless of whether the enemies were a little resistant to one of these assaults. The game is balanced in a way that most combinations are feasible, just that some will involve you having to chug more potions or drop more mines. This accessibility, combined with the inability to change to other weapons on the fly, brought out the worst in me. Sure, I could have tried another set of weapons, but why bother? I knew this combination pretty much did the job for most levels, so I couldn’t be bothered to replay sections to see if there was a more effective marriage of weapons. Once I had my favourite combo upgraded there was little point grinding out the few side missions to see whether any other weapons work better because the game never makes you do so.

By being so agreeable, so approachable, like the person I tend to hate at work or school, I found myself disliking the game and as a result almost hating myself for finding it so annoying.

The same happens with the tonics and god allegiances. Most of the tonics have a mixture of buffs and detractors, whilst some only have buffs. The idea is that people wishing to challenge themselves can use the riskier tonics with their interesting benefits. For god allegiances the game makes everything harder but allows the player to gain more experience as they progress. The lazy player (like me) realises that they don’t have to do this in order to see the end of the game. Again, the game leaves it open to the player to make the choices they want to make, whether it is to make enemies faster, tougher or do more damage, but you simply don’t have to if you don’t want to.

So I didn’t.

You know when someone tells you “you’re only robbing yourself” when you take the easy route instead of something that challenges? That’s how I felt when I made those choices. Then I had the game looking back at me with quiet acknowledgement and I wanted to punch it in the face.

The only thing I feel the game itself missteps on is with some of the controls; the auto-lock for the game never quite worked the way I wanted it to. There were also moments when the art style got in the way of my being able to interpret the level geometry properly. Due to its lush nature it meant that I would sometimes dodge away from an attack and find that what I had thought was a safe edge of the world was actually a chasm. I could have focused this review on these two drawbacks of the game, but then I would have felt worse because Bastion really is very nice and then everyone would have accused me of picking on an otherwise very lovely game/person.

Bastion attempts to accommodate the hardcore and the casual at every step, enshrined in a great narrative and visual style. It eschews your expectations, never becoming another Diablo clone with endless loot, and nor does it abandon its desire to please.

So yeah, some people are going to love this game and sing its praises. For me, I felt like I failed Bastion rather than the other way around. I am doomed to stand at the outskirts of throng of people all patting Bastion on the back  while I sip my drink in as loud a fashion as possible, muttering under my breath the whole time.

Makes me dislike it even more.

Spann reckons...

You know what? For all the noise that was made about Bastion being a masterpiece of videogame writing, I’m afraid I must beg to differ.

Y’see, I don’t think that Bastion was a particularly great piece of storytelling. In fact, in my opinion a slightly above average narrative job is ruined in the game’s finale when two major storyline elements are decided simply by the player selecting one of two giant blocks of text that appear on the screen. For a game that was championed for how its narration reacts to what the player does that’s a little incongruous, especially when these horrible, jarring juggernauts absolutely T-Bone the storyline’s flow right at the end of the game where a quick lick of narration would have very easily done the job. The entire game world seems to exist for you, after all (the floor magically forms under your feet, for Christ’s sake), so for you to have so little physical interaction with two giant lumps of story simply doesn’t make sense.

You know what Bastion does incredibly well? It creates a delightful, rich, exciting world that is simply begging to be fleshed out and expanded upon. It’s what A New Hope was to the Star Wars universe; the first entry in what begs to be a detailed and varied canon. Every time I landed in a new area and the narrator began waxing lyrical about the folk who used to live and work there, I wanted to know more about them; about the people, personalities and friendships bubbling within the technicolour city in which the game is set. Caelondia seems to be a place that survived on hard graft and simple working-class trades; train lines, mines and market towns dominate the level settings and I found myself wanting to hear stories of disenfranchised workers, alienated citizens and repressed societies. With a setting so obviously full of blue-collar workers performing menial, laborious tasks, the dichotomy between the people who once used the weapons and tools you discover throughout the game and those who had the power to destroy the world (as has occurred in the events leading up to the game) must have been huge.

The only problem with the settings the game presents is this: because the environment forms under your feet as you walk and the gameworld is reasonably linear, after a while you begin to feel that the places the Narrator talks about are too… well, small for such a busy and exciting fiction. A few blocked paths or unreachable ledges might have done something to appease such doubts, as watching the entire game universe rebuild itself according to your footsteps makes the setting feel a little claustrophobic. Think about Resident Evil and the mansion doors that wouldn’t open. Fair enough, it was an act of deceit to make the house seem bigger than it was, but it was deceit that worked, and a trick that would have done Bastion some good, perhaps explained away by the Narrator simply saying “The Kid looked at what was left of the old bridge – ain’t nobody gettin’ over that no more” or something similar.

This is my point with regards to the game’s ending as well – all it would have taken was for the narrator to succinctly explain what going left or right would do, and then the only decisions you could have made to affect the story would have felt less like a choose your own adventure book. With everything else in the game explained by one voice and always through audio commentary, throwing text-based, characterless explanations in makes the end feel like a rush job, as if the game is the first half of a story you will never hear the rest of.

This was a real disappointment: I completed Bastion in two evenings, and during the working day between sessions I was looking forward to coming home and playing more, hoping to discover more about the world; a hope that was never realised. The gameplay itself is fun enough, although forcing players to use a new weapon until the end of the level is massively irritating – especially when this unannounced new addition to your arsenal leaves you entirely reliant on just one of the game’s combat types – and some of the levels are a real pain if you don’t have something long range. That said it’s not a bad game by any stretch, and I’d rather play something with a bit of character like this than another generic brown Manshoot.

I’ve just realised how negative this review has been for a game I enjoyed a fair amount – the game takes 6 hours or so to get through and I completed it in two greedy slurps – but a large amount of my enjoyment was based on the constant desire to learn more about the world in which the game is set, a desire that was pinched at the tip by an ending that simply came too quickly.

Like this one.