You probably think you've heard this story before: Calamity strikes and the whole world ends. You're one of the few people left standing in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by monsters. It's up to you to collect the pieces and rebuild your broken home. So familiar, doesn't it? Well think again, because nothing is what it appears. I guarantee you've never heard a story like Bastion.
This brand new Xbox Live Arcade game proves that it's not always about the adventure you go on, but sometimes it's the way the story is told. In the case of Bastion, Supergiant Games employed a narrator telling the story all while the action happens on screen. The result is unlike anything I've experienced on the Xbox 360; a one-man show that tells a stirring (if not heartbreaking) story. Bastion plays out like an interactive campfire story.
It's impossible to grasp what makes Bastion so special without knowing a thing or two about the narrator. In this case he's a crotchety old cowboy-type (think Sam Elliot and you're on the right track) who seems to know more about the situation than he's letting on. Every time the kid enters a room, the wise old narrator has something to say. This works to fill in some of the context of the world, while also adding a play-by-play to the action. Killing an enemy will result in the narrator giving words of encouragement, while he'll openly mock our hero for falling off the side of the map. There isn't a comment for every action, but the developers have certainly given off the illusion that there's somebody writing a book to your on-screen actions.
Normally when I tell people that Bastion has a narrator talking over the action I'm met with blank stares. I'll admit that the idea of somebody commenting on the action does sound like it would get old quickly, but Supergiant Games has managed to dodge that bullet by crafting an incredibly well written script. The narrator doesn't repeat his lines, instead he tells a fully realized story about a kid who wakes up one day and has to rebuild the world. There's something comforting about the narrator's voice and the writing elevates what could have been a generic action/RPG story.
The game is broken up into around three dozen stages, in which players look around for helpful items, new weapons and parts of the Bastion's core. Not every level plays out the same way, with many stages leaving the player empty handed. Each of the stages takes place on a sky walkway, a strange area where the ground you stand on magically forms as you explore. But don't fall off the walkway or you'll lose a little life (and lot of pride).
The combat is simple, allowing our hero to hold two weapons at the same time as well as one special move. The game is filled with a lot of predictable weapons made to look unconventional. You get a shotgun, rocket launcher, machete, crossbow, giant hammer, sniper rifle and more. Each of these weapons can be upgraded in different ways, giving players incentive to collect as much money as possible.
On top of the weapons, we're also given a choice of special abilities to use. Bastion does a good job of offering multiple types of abilities, including those that devastate everything around them to others that help you escape or regain health. For much of the game I rained fireballs down on my enemies, but late in the game I saw the benefit of creating a dummy that lures baddies away from our hero. These attacks are limited, so you can't use the abilities as your primary attack. Thankfully you are able to pick up more special items from defeating bad guys and breaking crates.
I was surprised that Bastion focused its attention on action over puzzle solving. Normally these types of games sport a heavy dose of logic puzzles; usually involving box pushing, candle lighting and other mundane tasks. But none of that is present in this RPG. Gamers going in looking for a Legend of Zelda-style experience will be largely disappointed. Instead the game feels more like a traditional dungeon crawler (Titan Quest, Torchlight, etc.) with guns. It doesn't have the loot gathering hunting of Diablo and isn't multiplayer in any way, but it does feature a large arsenal that keeps things lively.
Bastion also understands how to keep things moving. The game clocks in at around six hours, which is longer than I expect from most Xbox Live Arcade releases. On my second play through (with all my experience, upgraded weapons and experience points) the game took half that time. The developers didn't add too much padding, instead giving players a satisfying adventure that neither feels too long nor short. It's worth noting that Bastion offers two completely different endings based on late-game decisions, giving players even more incentive to play through the three dozen levels a second time.
There's an argument to be made that the gameplay itself isn't especially deep and the role-playing game elements are barely present. The level designs, while artistically unique, are also standard fair for this style of game. There's nothing about the gameplay that will set the video games industry on fire, it just works the way an overhead adventure game should. While it may sound shallow on paper, Bastion holds its own ... even after multiple play-throughs.
The game employs a water color aesthetic, similar to what we saw in Braid. No matter what environment the kid finds himself fighting in (the forest, caverns, swamp, etc.), the graphics are lush and give off that hand-drawn style I can't resist. The way the world builds itself up (and in some ways tears itself down) is unlike anything I've seen this generation. Bastion looks like it jumped right off the pages of a children's book, which may be the biggest compliment one can give the game.
As good as the graphics are, everything plays second fiddle to the voice acting. Although he's not the only voice in the game, Logan Cunningham needs to be singled out for his stunning work as the narrator. This is largely a one-man show and he delivers the goods. As I played through the game I pictured an aging cowboy type, somebody with a deep voice that commanded attention. My jaw hit the floor when I saw his picture on the internet. Forget Nolan North, Logan Cunningham needs to be in more games.
Bastion certainly straddles the line between style over substance. The presentation is unlike anything I've seen this year, yet part of me wishes the gameplay with a little deeper. This is an experience I'll likely never forget, even if there's nothing spectacular about the make-up of the game. I ultimately played through the game three times before writing my review, which suggests that even with some shallow mechanics, I couldn't get enough Bastion.