Bastion: Action-RPGs Can Still Tell an Engrossing Story

Hello all. It’s been a while but I’ve decided I’m going to try writing for this blog again. I’m trying out a few new styles for my gaming reviews so if you have any comments or criticisms, feel free to say so.

This review is in a more traditional reviewing format and I’ll be reviewing Bastion, an XBLA game that was ported to PC on Tuesday, 8/16/2011

Game: Bastion
Genre: Indie Action-RPG
Length: 4~6 hours. 15+ for Full Completion
Price: $15 on Steam (+$5 for Soundtrack)
Overall Rating: 98/100

Developer Description
Bastion is an action role-playing experience that redefines storytelling in games, with a reactive narrator who marks your every move. Explore more than 40 lush hand-painted environments as you discover the secrets of the Calamity, a surreal catastrophe that shattered the world to pieces. Wield a huge arsenal of upgradeable weapons and battle savage beasts adapted to their new habitat. Finish the main story to unlock the New Game Plus mode and continue your journey!

Let’s get the bad news out first. In terms of gameplay, Bastion isn’t anything special. It’s a very standard Action RPG, hack-n-slash type with repeating monsters in a series of zones. As a result, if you’re not a fan of hack-n-slash games, the gameplay of Bastion won’t interest you. But, Bastion does make up for its generic gameplay with fairly frequent upgrades and weapon introductions, adding a bit of variety to the game as you run around mowing down monsters. Considering that the game is 10 hours long, the amount of variety in level design and monster types, as well as the customizability of the weapons and passive abilities is more than enough to make the fairly standard genre compelling enough to keep you on your feet throughout the whole game.

As a work of the Action RPG genre, Bastion is masterfully crafted. In terms of control, the game responds beautifully, offering no hitches in terms of bugs or glitching as the game progressed. Movement is fluid and natural, using the standard WASD or Diabloesque mouse click, as well as gamepad support. The difficulty, disregarding the fact that it’s adjustable, scales appropriately as the game progresses. Monster types become more varied, their HP and speed increases, and soon start developing special abilities just to make your life harder. For a hardened gamer though, the difficulty is on the easier side, but the addition of a Shrine where you can add a variety of special abilities to the monsters for additional XP and money makes the game sufficiently challenging.

As a whole, in terms of gameplay, Bastion is a strong example in the Action RPG genre, making up for its fairly mild genre choice with variety in terms of weapons, monster types, and terrain types. 4/5

Now we get to some of the better things I have to say about this game. Aesthetically, Bastion has three main components: the level, the background and the cutscenes. The levels in Bastion are in isometric view. If anything, this was my one problem with Bastion’s aesthetic. I understand that the isometric view gives a sense of depth that the orthogonal projection can’t achieve but it makes for a slight difficulty in moving in straight lines as the WASD keys aren’t too good at making 30° turns. Then again, I also attribute this problem to the fact that it was a port to PC from XBLA, but it still annoys me that I had to wiggle my way through narrow passageways in order not to fall. Aesthetically though, the levels were wonderful to walk through as watching the passageways build themselves or crumble underneath your feet never gets old.

The background art for each level is also very well drawn and highly immersive. Taken individually, they’re already beautiful sceneries and lush landscapes but they don’t detract from the core gameplay. The background landscapes are only noticeable when you think to notice them, but they still add their feel to the level, keeping the atmosphere of each location true to itself. The cutscenes are in a similar vein as the background art. Beautiful hand drawn stills depict every scene with vibrancy in the color palette, but crushed just enough to give that heavy feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. As a final note, the character designs are integrated very naturally with this world, making them feel natural to the aesthetic, but unnatural to the apocalypse. And if you think about it, that’s what survivors should feel like, unnatural in a post-apocalyptic world.

All in all, the aesthetic of Bastion meshes together very nicely. It’s distinct style, evoking a surreal dream, is attractive and clearly helps to define the atmosphere in the game. 5/5

Now, since the developers themselves said that Bastion redefines storytelling in games, you would expect the story to be phenomenal right? Well, the game definitely lives up to expectations.

The hero of this story is you, The Kid. You wake up to find yourself floating on a rock in the middle of nowhere. You go around a bit, find your old weapons, and arrive at The Bastion, a floating fortress with an old man that tells you to help him build this fortress up and make it fully functional. As you travel around, helping to build this structure, you find a variety of equipment to help you on your task.

It’s a fairly typical RPG start, and not many games can avoid using this start to a game. The real meat of the story is presented in the exploration of the world around you. Even though this is a story about you, the protagonist, it’s even more a story about the world you live in. It’s a story about the people who disappeared and the civilization that once was. But all the while, you’re exploring this strange new world that emerged from the Calamity.

Ultimately, the story is centered around choice. The customization available to you being only a small portion of that. You follow a linear main story, yes, but you have a huge arsenal of methods of approaching. Each weapon plays a  little bit differently, each passive ability helpful in different ways, each difficulty adjustment deadly in different ways. So, in true western RPG form, you can fully imbue yourself and your play style in to the protagonist.

The emotional progression in the game is also deep and engrossing. From the crushing solitude of a post-apocalyptic world to the sense of joy upon meeting survivors to the immense sadness of seeing the old world so destroyed, with all its people gone, the emotional impact that this game has stays with you. 5/5

I left the best part for last I feel. There are two aspects to the audio in this game. The first is the music itself. As if to fully explore the idea of a post-modern frontiersman, the music is a combination of electronic drum and bass, acoustic Western, and Eastern Asian traditional (developers call it acoustic frontier trip-hop). The mark of good music is when it blends naturally with the setting and the atmosphere that’s been presented, and Bastion has good music.  The eclectic musical choice is what gives the game such a strong support. The strong drum and bass beats which come up during combat and heavier locales is contrasted by the calm folksy Western style of an acoustic guitar in the Bastion. The occasional vocal tracks that act as the main themes for the supporting characters are also refreshingly calm and entrancing, giving light to the sadness of the Calamity. As musical integration goes, Bastion’s music fully supports and enhances the game both aesthetically and functionally.

The second aspect of the audio, and the most lauded aspect of the game I feel, is the voice acting. The voice acting of Bastion is what ties this game together into a masterpiece. Throughout the game, there is one narrator, with a ‘disturbingly sexy voice,’ that tells the story as you progress through the game, while also narrating your actions in real time. His role in the entire game is monumental and it is through this adaptive narrative that the story is told. The inclusion of this narrator is what truly separates this game from the others of the same genre. Without this narrator, it would be impossible to have such an overarching and descriptive story, which in turn deteriorates from the game, pushing it into the corner as yet another ARPG. In effect, this narrator is what keeps everything in context and pushes you along as you progress through the game. Of course, it’s an added bonus when he says something different whenever you do something in the game, never repeating a line throughout the entire experience. 5*/5

Synergy: 5/5

Overall: 98/100
Bastion is a 4~6 hour game that can play for up to 15 or more hours if you aim for full completion. It’s $15 on Steam, with the soundtrack up for $10 ($5 now because it’s on sale). Though it’s a traditional ARPG, the amount of varied content makes up for the mild genre choice especially given that the variety is throughout such a short time. The story, aesthetic and audio of the piece synergize wonderfully, accentuating the emotions and atmospheres accordingly and adding humor and wit to a serious and compelling story.

Grim Oceanus


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