A crash course in game design
Let's face it: The gaming industry is nearly catatonic at this point. Stagnation has reigned supreme as the landscape is dominated by Grey/Brown Chest High Wall Two Gun Limit Health Regenerating Modern War Shooter 4 and its copy cats, and Skyrim-like casualizations of the once holy RPG genre. Sports games eat up a nice portion of disposable that would never have entered the industry otherwise, but only contribute to the disgusting "If it makes money, milk it" mentality that blankets publishers' minds, while niches like survival horror need an incredible amount of word-of-mouth to even allow for a developer to capitalize on a great game (and not that boulder punching nonsense). It's pretty amazing to see how in a single generation of gaming has become simultaneously popular and polarizing while contributing almost nothing as a whole to the industry they so eagerly raise their banner for. Well, other than the influx of money of course. So while Activision and EA continue to prove how they're the devil incarnate, it's up to the independent scene to remind me why I invest so much time talking about this stuff.
Don't get me wrong, though. There's a big reason why many of these people aren't backed by big companies; they aren't very good. For every Super Meat Boy there's twenty pretentious "artsy" platformers that barely have a good idea to stand on (ahem
BRAID). But a few times a generation, there comes a game that completely redefines our views on what a video game can be when a few talented people with great ideas who aren't driven by greed come together and create a magical experience. 2011's Bastion is about as perfect of a game as I have played.
Before I get to the review part (I know, I'm such a dick making you wade through walls like these), I need to define what Bastion is. Bastion is a isometric, fantasy action RPG about post apocalyptic society rebuilding, and is possibly the most unique thing to come out of the genre in a decade. You may ask, "How is a game based on so many familiar nerd tropes unique in any way?". Well, it's the way Supergiant was able to avoid the Tolkien-inspired cliches that fantasy has all but become since the 90's, and the way they tell such a rich story about an apocalypse without treading weary trails like every single apocalyptic story has in the last few years. It's not just about what is being accomplished, it's how it's all done.
The most evident aspect of Bastion from the beginning is its flawless presentation. From the word "Go" you're greeted with a beautifully designed title screen and rich acoustic guitar driven folk music. If you aren't intrigued at this point, I suggest you get your money back. But I certainly was, and eager to begin, I selected New Game and became enthralled with what was happening. You start your game on a single piece of rock floating in a sea of hand drawn background supported by seemingly nothing. When the protagonist wakes, a beautifully deep and comforting voice washes over you as The Kid runs along the continuously appearing terrain that literally spawns at your feet.
You're in for it now, Kid
The story is told entirely from the perspective of the narrator, Rucks, one of the few characters that has survived the cataclysm. He's an omniscient, pensive old man, while at first appearing perfect in terms of his decisions and thought, but is revealed to be just as flawed as anyone else. His character arc is one that should go down with the all-time greats in videogame stories. While his voice is present throughout the game, it's slowly revealed he only knows all this because he's speaking to another character after the fact that it's all happened, during the final level of the game when The Kid is blazing his trail to a far off land to complete his journey. The narrative is framed perfectly. As is the narration from Rucks itself. He's funny, thoughtful, kind and comforting in a world dominated by monsters and lacking in people. The story is something to commend as well. In a world filled with so much apocalypse hysteria (usually preceded by the word "zombie"), Bastion is able to take the idea and turn it on its head and create something unique while feeding our hermit-like desire of perpetual loneliness. I won't spoil anything with the story for anyone wanting to experience it themselves, but know it's a major selling point for this game and should go down with the greatest stories games have ever told. There's an incredible amount of emotional resonance as you go through the latter stages of the game. Games nowadays have taken up a morality system for the *bleep* of it, and these systems usually end the story with a decision that tries desperately to make it all seem worthwhile, while failing more often than not. These usually come from the writing failing to sew you into the game and make you feel for the characters and situation. Bastion thankfully doesn't have a morality system, but it does have two ending altering decisions near the end of the game that resonates more in those fifteen minutes than most games can their entire running time. The penultimate sequence in the last level when choosing to save a character is chilling and poetic, and reminds me why I love video games so damn much.
But that's only the narrative aspect of its presentation, how about graphics (you whores)? Well, they're great as well. I'll throw out the disclaimer that I have no clue about the technical parts of games, so I don't know how Bastion's graphics stand up to say a Crysis. But I do know that the art design of Bastion is one of the most appealing I've ever seen. And that's really all I care about when it comes to a game's graphics. How well you work within your limitations are infinity more important than how big your spec requirements are (I don't even know what I just said). Some of the best looking games ever are from previous generations but still look great because the developers knew how to craft the look of their games (Wind Waker, Paper Mario, Half-Life 2 to name a few), and Bastion is just another notch in visual design's belt. The environments are gorgeous and the characters and enemies are vibrant and easily distinguishable from one another. Everything is crisp and will keep you immersed for your entire experience. But I haven't even touched the visual's complementary piece, its soundtrack.
Music has always been important to me, especially in a game. An great track can really emphasize the emotional weight of a certain situation in a game, and this game isn't short on these moments. Character development happens , and because of the lack of many characters, these are inherently important for the overall experience. When these moments take place, a song plays in the background that outline the scene's theme and will really drive home the point of these occurrences. Zia's bluesy take on her race's place in society over a 12-bar progression, or Zulf's ironic lament sang over a sad, intermittent guitar are the most prevalent examples, but many songs are used for affect in battle. These are pretty much world, country or folk music driven by electronic beats and grand, and occasionally sparse, instrumentation. Darren Korb's work is incredible in a vacuum but even moreso when added to the game and story of Bastion. For those who care, Setting Sail, Coming Home, Build That Wall, Mother, I'm Here, Slinger's Song, and In Case of Trouble are standouts from the soundtrack.
He knows what's up
Wow, that's alot of kind words for the presentation side of the game, the gameplay itself can't live up, can it? Well, it does. Bastion is able to do what every single AAA developer of the past seven years has been striving for: finding the perfect balance of accessibility and depth that can both draw in casuals and satisfy "hardcore" gamers. Gameplay is reminiscent of traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers with some nicely implemented RPG features such as upgradable equipment and a customizable protagonist with a nice variety of weaponry. Experience is earned when defeating enemies and collecting an assortment of plot-related mementos, crafting items used for weapons, and weapons themselves. In order to improve weapons, you must collect the necessary items that improve the tier and also collect objects called fragments that serve as the currency necessary to make the upgrades. It's both rewarding and eases all the frustration of having to get through three characters before finally understanding the leveling system and which upgrades are useless that typically accompanies every RPG overcompensating for the sellouts like Bethesda by adding unnecessary, convoluted levels skills.
Playing the game is fun, simply put. You have two weapon buttons that can be filled by either melee or ranged weapons and a skill that may or may not have to do with one of those weapons. One nice feature is the ability to have two weapons with the same primary purpose, such as a bow and mortar, or machete and hammer. You're not forced to have a variety in your arsenal, and practically every setup possible is viable within the game. Though all weapons have a primary use, there are many of them that have dual purposes. The machete is a quick and weak melee weapon with short reach but can also be thrown as a ranged weapon with upgrades that can either improve the melee aspect by increasing both critical and regular damage, or can increase the number of blades thrown or reload time for throws. It's little touches like these that makes you feel as if the developers really care about the player and freedom in how they play. Skills are assigned to the right trigger and have a huge variety in what they do. One may lay a trip mine, throw a grenade, or create a decoy where you can attack stealthily, while others are delivered by a weapon like a machete attack launched like a cannon, cutting down everything in its path, a bow shot that bounces around a group of enemies, or a proverbial mortar bukkake that *bleep* everything ever. They're fueled by black vials and are limited to how many you have.
The interfaces are easy to navigate and clean
Defending attacks is relatively simple. A serves as a dodge button that allows you to roll away from attacks and the left trigger is your shield that, when timed well with an incoming attack, can even be used to counter a foe, inflicting damage and stunning them. This, in combination with the two-button attack system gives the game a surprising amount of combat depth and rewards a skilled player with the feeling of bad assery that few action games can accomplish. While there is no armor you can equip, the game compensates this for passive potions that affect The Kid constantly. You gain the ability to equip more from your home base every level you increase and can help in your fight with a variety of affects like increased damage, magnetic fragment collector, higher critical chance, or gaining health with hits. The game's difficulty at first is nice, fair and allows a player to hone their skills while refusing to hold their hand. While you progress though, the upgrades of your weapons eventually become too hellish to enemies and you feel like you're becoming a demi-god. So Supergiant has a very nice answer to this. They use the game's lore to allow for difficulty increases. At a point during the game you're in a level of a place of worship of one of the game world's gods. You acquire an idol that allows you to increase how quickly the enemies grow in the game. Over the course of the rest of the game you can acquire many more that increase the power, speed, toughness of the enemies, in addition to other abilities like reflecting certain attacks or making you sluggish. You gain more experience and fragments when these are active and can balance the game when you start tearing shit up at about the mid way point.
Idols augment the game's difficulty in an innovative way
Enemies have a nice variety, with several original families of species created specifically for this great world. Gangs of cute Squirts futilely attack in number, while their older counterparts Windbags strike with a greater force. Birds called Peckers annoy and come in weak, fast variety, strong, hammer-like forces or ranged pin shooters. Old turrets litter the land and attack with flames or energy balls, while The Kid's races' hated enemy, The Ura's come to try to put a stop to his plans. In more organic environments, a variety of plant-like creatures defend their homes while viscous burrowing birds attack from below. For an indie game there's alot going on with your enemies, and while many of them are the same model recolored and resized, there's still enough difference in their tactics to make up for the short comings. Level design is good, with enough variety in the way the levels play to make you forget that you're essentially just destroying everything you come across the entire time. In between levels there are some minigames that you can choose to play that essentially serve as how-to's for every weapon you acquire. They give you upgrades for weapons and a secret skill when you complete them and are a nice little diversion from the property rampages.
Anklegators serve as one of the many fun boss battles
To be fair, Bastion isn't a perfect game. Such a thing doesn't exist. It does have its flaws. There's barely any replay value, even though when you complete the game, you have the option of carrying your status over in a New Game+, but the entire thing is pretty arbitrary. There's not much to do outside of smashing shit up. Like I said there's minigames, but they're pretty easy and only occupy a little bit of time. The game can get repetitive since you're basically doing the same thing every level, but the gameplay is fun enough and allows for enough experimentation to get over that. The auto targeting system for the Xbox controller is wacky in crowds, but PC gamers have the choice of using a mouse and keyboard setup that disables the need for a game pad. The screen can get a little cluttered because of the isometric view and falling off the ground is a fairly common occurrence . These are very small complaints though, and shouldn't turn anyone off to this wonderful experience. Even if the gameplay sounds boring to you the story and presentation is enough to sell this game to anyone.
If you can't tell, I love this game. It's amazing to me a small team working on their first game can do so so well. Very, very few established developing teams are able to make a story like this, or make gameplay this fun, or blend the two together seamlessly like Supergiant was able to. If you aren't a fan of RPGs, get this game. If you don't like action games, get this game. If you don't like games at all and are huge fans of rich story books with pretty pictures, get this game. It has something for everyone, and if you're like me, will appreciate the incredible effort made on a game that will never get its very well deserved due. It's a perfect storm of how everything can go well in a videogame, and every single developer should take a page from Bastion and actually give a damn about what they're doing.