Whether they're shooters, Japanese fantasies or detective stories, modern video games tend to resemble movies. It's rare to see a game that does something with storytelling that is unique to the medium of video games, and that is partially why Bastion stands out. Narration is a big part of movies or games, but Bastion makes it part of the story and turns it into something with which the player can interact.
Bastion begins with your character, a silver-haired youth known only as the Kid, awakening to destruction. The world was enveloped in a disaster known as the Calamity, and the city of Caeldonia has been reduced to rapidly collapsing floating islands. The only intact location is the Bastion, the city's last stronghold. As far as they can tell, the Kid and a mysterious old man named Rucks are the only survivors of the Calamity. The only way to fix things is to find Cores, magical crystals that had previously been used to power the city. If the Kid can collect all the Cores, he can activate The Bastion, which Rucks says will "fix things." These Cores are located in the crumbling remains of the city, which is filled with damaged security systems and animals and beasts that have become far more predatory in the wake of the Calamity. It's a dangerous world, and the Kid is the only one who can save it.
What really makes Bastion's story stand out is how it is told. The entire game, from beginning to end, is narrated by Rucks, the mysterious old man. Voiced by Logan Cunningham, who is a friend of the developer, Rucks is pretty much the traditional husky-voiced old narrator. As you travel through the game world, he'll narrate the story events and provide hints, location backgrounds, character development and world building. Perhaps coolest of all, the narration is generated on the fly. While a lot of the lines are canned and you'll hear them no matter what, other bits of narration depend on what you do. Get your butt kicked in a battle, and Rucks will point out how the Kid barely managed to squeak by. Switch weapons, and Rucks will point out the benefits of your combination of weapons. He'll even recognize if you switch back to your favorite weapons after trying out a new tool. It gives you the feeling that you're actually interacting with what is a fairly static world, and it feels so naturally integrated that it really draws you in. If I had one complaint, it would be that I wish there more of these. When it happens, it's awesome, but there's a lot more "canned" dialogue than there is reactive dialogue, and it's disappointing that it doesn't come up more.
Bastion's gameplay is an isometric action-RPG. The post-Calamity world is made up of a number of different locations, but each is slightly similar. They're made up of "islands" that slowly begin to rebuild themselves as you travel along, making each new "room" appear only when you're ready to enter it. Combat and movement is straightforward. You've got one weapon bound to the X button and another to the A button, usually a ranged and melee weapon. You can attack with either one or dodge enemies with the A button. The left trigger lets you block attacks with a shield. You don't have access to magic, but you have two special attributes. The Y button lets you use healing tonics to heal damage. You can hold up to three tonics at a time, and you'll find them around the game world. The right trigger lets you use a weapon-specific special skill. You unlock new skills by finding tomes scattered throughout the game world. A tome unlocks a skill for a specific weapon, and you can only use the skill when you have that particular weapon equipped. Each use of a special skill requires a black tonic; like healing tonics, you can hold up to three tonics at a time, and you'll find them around the game world.
Bastion has a pretty reasonable variety of enemies. There are about 15 different types of foes, but there are perhaps a few more if you count some of the rare extras. Scumbags are giant blobs of goo. They charge at you, shoot acidic goo and can't be easily killed. You have to repeatedly damage them, and that causes them to shrink until they pop. Windbags, the most common enemies in the game, are armed with weapons and try to smack you. Some charge at you, others perform spinning attacks, and the larger-than-usual windbags try to smash the floor beneath you. There are also shooting security devices, swarms of evil birds called Peckers, alligator monsters called Anklegators that pop up from the ground, and more. There are a few boss monsters, but they're almost universally "bigger" versions of the existing enemies.
What keeps Bastion feeling fresh is the amazing amount of customization and options available to players. There are a ton of distinct weapons available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The Fang Reaper is a rapidly firing handgun, but it can't be used while moving and needs to reload after a certain number of shots. All weapons that use ammunition have infinite ammo, but you still have to reload. Dueling pistols are weak, but they fire quickly and you can use them while moving. The scrap musket is like a shotgun on steroids. Melee weapons are pretty similar. You can use a powerful hammer or a war machete that you can slash insanely fast or throw at enemies.
Weapons can also be upgraded at the forge, which is located in the Bastion. By finding materials in levels, you can upgrade a weapon up to three times — or five when you upgrade the forge. Each upgrade requires exactly one of the specific material and a certain number of fragments, which is the Bastion currency. The neat thing about upgrades is that they're not simple stat boosts. Every level of upgrade offers you one of two possible power-ups. You can upgrade the scrap musket to have a wider spread but less range, or a smaller cone of fire but more range. Then you can upgrade it to do more damage or knock back enemies further when you damage them. The nice thing is that this choice isn't permanent. Once you've unlocked an upgrade tier, you can change it. If you decide that you don't like the short-range musket, or you'd rather have something more long-distance for an upcoming stage, then it's a quick trip to the forge to fix it.
In general, the weapon balance in Bastion is pretty good. Players are almost certain to find a favorite pair of weapons and stick with them, but there's enough variety that you can't call any weapon the "best." Each gadget requires actual skill to use them. Certain ranged weapons, like the bow or rifle, have a "sweet spot" when aiming. For a brief moment, the Kid will flash, and shooting at that moment unleashes a super-strong power shot. If you master this, those weapons become much more useful. The rocket launcher and war machete can do insane damage but require you to keep a good eye on range because you risk injury if you get too close to enemies. Unfortunately, some weapons come very late in the game, so you barely get a chance to play around with the rocket launcher before you reach the endgame. Fortunately, the New Game+ feature lets you keep all your weapons, so you can have more fun with them on a second playthrough.
Leveling up is also completely customizable. As with any good RPG, you beat up foes and level up. While leveling up grants some HP, that is its least important effect. Each earned level unlocks an extra slot for spirits, which can be equipped at the distillery. Spirits are permanent passive boosts to your character's abilities that can either grant new powers, such as allowing you to drain health from enemies, or give small passive boosts, like decreasing the damage you take from attacks. These boosts are not permanent, and you can change them any time you visit the distillery.
The balancing for spirits is way off. Some spirits are much more worthwhile than others, such as the spirits that allow you to carry two extra healing bottles and make healing items fully restore your health. There is no point in time when you wouldn't want this equipped. Alternately, you could equip a spirit that gives +10 health, but that's almost worthless in the long run. Both spirits take up the same amount of slots, and one is unlocked shortly after another.
Bastion isn't the most difficult game. With some of the better spirits and a few upgraded weapons, you can blow through enemies like a buzzsaw. Health tonics are plentiful, and you can get multiple chances to revive instantly if you die. If you go straight through the game, you'll probably have very little trouble. This is where deities come into play. Once you have a shrine, you can begin to worship gods. Worshipping gods grants a passive boost to both your experience and money gain, but it also comes with a curse. Each god you worship at one time increases the power of the enemies in some fashion that's unique to that god. A bull-like god causes enemies to become much faster in combat. Other gods can make enemies explode upon death, damage you by touch, reflect your attacks, take less damage, slow you when you're hit, or various other effects. You can worship as many gods as you like at a time, and the more gods you worship, the higher your rewards. This basically lets players customize the difficulty to their liking while rewarding those who are willing to take risks. Go into battle with a maxed-out shrine, and you'll be swimming in prizes ... assuming you can survive. The game also has an online leaderboard, and players who complete an optional arena with various shrines active will be ranked against one another to see who the best is.
Bastion is a mostly linear game. Each level can be visited only once, and once you've finished it, the level is rendered inaccessible. There's not a lot in the way of sidequests. There are "proving grounds" that unlock as the game progresses, and each is a brief minigame that focuses on your ability to use one of the weapons. The better you do, the more prizes you get, including new material and special skills. That represents the sum total of available sidequests in Bastion. You can unlock a memorial, which grants you extra money for completing Achievement-like objectives, but these are usually unlocked by simply advancing in the game or doing the proving grounds. There is also the aforementioned arena, called "Who Knows Where" where you face 20 waves of enemies; it's a nice distraction but unlikely to keep you busy for long. Fortunately, the game atmosphere is so engrossing that the lack of side content is rarely noticeable. The game has some replay value in that there are multiple endings and several hidden collectible items.
Bastion is a charming-looking game, but I found the art style to be rather at odds with the rest of the game. The characters are adorable, small and super-deformed. It's odd when you juxtapose them against the immensely sad world. It gives the game an oddly fairy-tale style, but it can draw you out of the immersion when it uses full-screen still art of the characters. Aside from that, I like the visual style of the game, and there are a lot of interesting backgrounds and environment designs. There is a lot of palette-swapping going on, and the Kid's sprites and movements are simple and basic. In some ways, it reminds me of a handheld title — or it would, if not for the masterful use of audio.
The real star of Bastion is the audio. The narration is used to masterful effect to set the tone and atmosphere, but that isn't all. When the game uses voices or audio, it is usually important and distinctive. In a later scene, you hear a character besides Rucks talking, and it's made much more effective due to the lack of other voice acting. Likewise, after a long silence broken only by Rucks' voice, hearing someone singing in the distance drives the player toward finding the source of the voice. The audio absolutely steals the show in Bastion. Rarely has a game used voice acting — both its existence and absence — in such an effective way. The music isn't half-bad, either, but it's hard to pry your attention away from Cunningham's mesmerizing narration.
Bastion is a solid action-RPG that is put over the edge by its unique and entrancing concept. It's a fun game, but it would've had trouble standing apart from the crowd, even with its unique features. When you add in the awesome use of narration, the game becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Bastion manages to be engrossing from beginning to end. It's well paced, well executed and fun to play, and it's hard not to get more curious about what comes next. The lack of replay value, even with a NewGame+ and multiple endings, may hurt it a little, but if you're a fan of atmospheric and unique action-RPGs, then Bastion is well worth the 1,200 Microsoft points ($15).
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