Overdue Review #1: Bastion
Ask anybody who “knows their stuff” and they’ll tell you that Castle Crashers was the first Xbox Arcade title to legitimately gain a modicum of respect from the Xbox 360 community. Before CC, most Arcade titles were restricted to 50MB (with one of the prevailing exceptions being Konami’s Symphony of the Night…which was good, but was also a port, nonetheless) and the majority of which were ports of 80s arcade titles. A hotbed of innovation, it was not.
Rather, Xbox Arcade was the place you went to pay five or ten dollars for a copy of Ms Pac-Man or Galaga. Overpriced nostalgia aside, the release of Castle Crashers in late August of 2007 (as well as Bionic Commando: Rearmed several weeks earlier) ushered in the idea that the Xbox 360 was open to the idea of original smaller-than-retail titles…and that clearly, this was something gamers were on board with too.
But it was Bastion, in my “usually-not-that-humble” opinion that did what no Xbox Arcade title had done before…it made the blonde hair/blue eyed wunderkind that is the PC gaming community jealous. Sure, Steam users only had to wait less than a month to get their alabaster-hued (and possibly jewel-encrusted) hands on the game…but for once, PC gamers were the ones having to wait in line for something.
And that’s a big deal. Which, by the transitive property, means that Bastion is a “big deal” too.
So why did I take so long to get around to playing it? Well, that story involves people stealing my credit card number off of Xbox Live, and using their newly found monies to afford the PC game Rift, as well as of its expansions and extraneous content. Otherwise, I had set my sights on utilizing Xbox’s “Deal of the Week” to net a more-than-affordable copy of Bastion. Because, you know, I won’t pay 1200 MSP for Arcade titles…with few exceptions (aka, if Alan Wake is in the title).
What is Bastion? It’s a game that challenges the status quo notion in gaming right now that a game about “dark” stuff, must literally be “dark” itself. It overrules the recent tropes that stories must be told via cutscenes, that RPGs must be heavily vested in number-crunchin’ and statistical-comparison, and that games must be challenging to be fun. That’s what Bastion represents.
Story-wise, you play as a character simply known as The Kid who just so happens to wake up in the middle of an event known only as “the Calamity,” which has shattered the land of Caeldonia into a “million bazillion” pieces. To top things off, on top of your homeland shattering like that “hard shell” syrup poured on top of Moose Tracks ice cream (you can tell what I’m in the mood for, can’t you?) the greater part of Caeldonia’s residents have been “Medusa-ed” into an ashy recreation of their former self. How/why you survive isn’t important, but you locate your trusty Cael Hammer, bust out the door, and make haste to the titular Bastion, a fallout shelter of sorts suspended in the sky. There you discover that you and an old gentleman named Rucks are seemingly the sole survivors
and the two of you are now impossibly entrusted with the repopulation of mankind of said “Calamity.”
Despite spending the better part of his days being a grizzled mustachioed Mark Twain impersonator, Rucks has learned a thing or two in his old age. Specifically, Rucks imparts that recovering the
once and present MacGuffin Cores that once powered the Bastion will allow the kid to have access to new structures within his new home, as well as grant The Kid access to new areas via the Skyway.
Yes, you’ll *UNSURPRISING, BUT NONETHELESS SPOILERS* discover during your travels that the two of you aren’t alone, and that Rucks relationship with the Bastion is a tenuous one at best, but former Gamespot Editor in Chief Greg Kasavin’s story can be summed up in the mantra “areas lead to Cores, Cores lead to new areas.” I’m not saying Kasavin’s work is poor, but rather that it functions more as a justification to The Kid’s “rinse-repeat” crystal-grabbin’ behavior for the majority of the game. But this game isn’t about a pre-Calamity Caeldonia, it’s focused on you, the Kid…and your massive arsenal of firearms and liquor (the likes of which would probably bring a tear to Hunter S. Thompson’s eye).
Nobody’s just going to let you “drop in” and take their Core though. No siree. The Calamity’s rustled the jimmies of a host of monsters so cute you’ll “squee” as they pound your third vertebrae in two. Thankfully, you’ll run across over a dozen weapons in your quest for the cores that are more than happy to assist in the bashin’/smashin’/shootin’/ and slicin’ you’ll need to do. It’s fun to experiment with different pairings of weapons, each of which can be upgraded five times, and whose skill tree can be re-mapped at any point, at no cost to the player. Equally helpful is the fact that any weapons the player fails to discover can be purchased at the Bastion’s Lost and Found shop.
While those looking for a more forgiving, “trial and error” sort of RPG will flock to this more user friendly experience, hardcore gamers harboring a “carefully make your bed before you’re forced to sleep in it” mentality might deem this a wee bit “kiddie.” To be sure, there are several weapon tandems that make for a decidedly unbalanced attack (waltzing around with the Dueling Pistols and the Fang Repeater, or the Cael Hammer alongside the War Machete, for example) that’ll make things slightly more challenging, but for the most part, you can get away with anything. Absent from Bastion are the sorts of enemies that only respond to a certain weapon, or alternatively, won’t respond at all to a specific weapon. Again, some gamers will appreciate this, others will disapprove of the “anything goes” mentality, and those of us who have the good grace to love all types of RPGs won’t mind it one bit.
The controls are equally intuitive and simple: “A” for dodge rolling, “Y” for healing potions, and your two weapons are mapped to “B” and “X,” respectively, with the right trigger activating your “Secret Skill” and the left trigger blocks. There aren’t “light” and “heavy” attacks, different types of ammo, nor is there any inventory equipping/swapping outside of the Bastion (aside from the occasional Arsenal storefront one comes across midlevel).
Nor will you be forced to cut your adventuring short to slog through five to ten minutes of inventory management; all you’ll come across in levels are weapons, items used to “level up” weapons, and boozes. You’re able to equip an amount of these potent and “punny” brews equal to the player’s level, each of which “buffs” the player in a different way. Leechade recovers player health with every enemy he defeats, Bastion Bourbon increases your potion carrying capacity, and Cham-Pain ups your damage dealt by 25%, despite lowering your “continues” per level by one. On top of opening another slot in the liquor cabinet, level ups also add a little chunk to the player’s Max Health, but that’s it.
Ultimately, if you want the sort of gameplay that allows one to obsess over Excel charts and map out character progression from the get-go, Bastion might not be for you. There is a reason EVE Online exists, after all. Bastion’s just masterfully streamlined the weapon upgrade and leveling systems in a way that gets the player back into the top-down action without pause.
Did I mention Bastion’s a “looker?” I probably didn’t have to, because if there’s anything about Bastion that caught your attention, as it doesn’t fall prey to conventions of the aesthetic it embraces. It’s colorful and embraces a broad palette, but isn’t overly bright or cheerful. It’s cartoon-y and elements such as The Kid’s head and his weapons are disproportionally over-sized, yet this never has one “awww-ing” at The Kid, or thinking that his collection of death-dealing instruments belong in a toy chest instead of a weapon cache. Of course, all of this is greatly assisted by the FANTASTIC animation, which brings every skull-crushing hammer smash and cylinder-emptyin’ revolver salvo to life.
Even if you showed up for the beautifully expansive visuals, it’s the soundtrack and Logan Cunningham’s masterful turn as The Narrator/Rucks that’ll keep you entranced. Cunningham has something to say about everything: from when you accidentally plummet off of ledges, what pair of weapons you leave the Arsenal with, and even notes if you make it through certain sections of the game unscathed. It’s not as all-encompassing and extensive as some reviewers might have you believe, but it does go a ways in making the player feel it is their quest.
And Darren Korb’s score? It runs the gamut from exhibiting a Western twang accompanied by a scorching harmonica, to moody/apprehensive strings, to highly percussive industrial rock. It’s catchy, effectively captures the pacing and setting of every level, and gets the blood flowing (usually accompanied by a victorious fist pump, or a frenetic pounding of the “attack” buttons)
Bastion is a bite-sized, eight to ten hour adventure that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s constantly throwing new lead-flinging and steel-stabbing toys your way just as the last one starts to get stale, and reveals deadlier enemies that dive-bomb, burrow underground, and unleash an unrelenting barrage of needles that necessitate these new tools. And for those who demand a more challenging experience, one can activate idols in The Shrine that make enemies faster, stronger, or even have them drop grenades when they die, and there’s a New Game+ mode too. Supergiant Games’ seven person staff have really reaffirmed that what games need to succeed, more often than not, is more time…and not doubling or tripling the team, resulting in an even bigger game of “game development telephone.”
So if a small, lush, evocative…and most importantly, FUN role-playing experience sounds like your cup of Fetching Fizz or Werewhiskey, then its time to grab up your Calamity Cannon and make a beeline for the Bastion. It’s what The Kid would do, after all.