Friday, April 13, 2012

Video Game Review: Bastion

So, Bastion. Created by Supergiant Games last year, this game is one of the amazing set of indie games released in recent memory, such as Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Bit.Trip, VVVVVV, Limbo, and Braid. I gotta say, I'm amazed by the sudden onslought of awesome indie games - I mean, the indie world is suddenly going places. For a good long while, Cave Story held the throne, and suddenly the little indie section is flooded by competition. And it isn't stopping - with Fez coming soon (actually, that might release today, not sure), and Minecraft only continuing to grow in power, I'm excited.
Alright, so back to Bastion. Bastion is an isometric action game. It falls under the header of post-apocalypctic, but it vastly different from everything else the post-apoc genre has to offer. It also takes enormous cues from the westerns genre, especially in the music but also in other places. Yeah, I think that's the best way to put it. I'll go into plot now - no spoilers here.

The Story: You play The Kid, an youngster who's a soldier on the Rippling Walls of the The City of Caelondia, a highly civilized city-state. Neighboring Caelondia is the Ura nation, who once initiated war against the Caelondians, but were defeated. However, don't think you're going to be exploring the City; the game starts with the Calamity. You wake up, and the world's gone to hell. No one else seems to be alive, you're alone on a small floating chunk of rock. You make your way to the Bastion, Caelondia's evacuation point and hub of the game, and meet the Stranger (Rucks is his actual name). You set out to find the Cores, powerful crystals that will finish the incomplete Bastion, which will make everything better (how it will do so is not told until later in the game). I dare say no more.
The plot is simple, but it pulls you in. The game only has a few characters, but each is strongly compelling, having a definite stance and an active voice, other than the Kid (who says nothing - not sure if you're actually mute, but you act it). What's even better in my mind though was the way it encourages you to speculate and create your own world. The game gives you the framework, it gives you names, places, relationships, groups, and it leaves most of it at that, sayign things that never get fleshed out. The core plot of the game is explained in excellent detail, though it is very linear, with only two choices occuring at the very end of the game. But all that open air makes you think, because those names, places, and such typically had maybe a line or two of description, which never ceased to be extremely evocative. The Art of the Pantheon is something I'm doing right now and I'll post about later, and that should showcase this.
I can't talk about story and dialogue without talking about the Stranger, Rucks, and his narration. As you play, Rucks talks overhead, telling your story. There's no talking in the game other than Rucks' narration (except for a moment at the end). Thankfully, his voice is really relaxing, a very Western voice. The neat thing about his narration is that it's adaptive; a good example comes from your fight against the first enemy. After that fight, he'll say something, and it's totally different depending on whether or not you took damage. If you fall off once, he's got something to say. Fall off again, you've got something new. Later levels have different comments frot hat same falling. It ends up feeling like really organic storytelling.
Oh yeah. The ending. It's a single moral choice that has no impact on gameplay, but somehow it was a really captivating and troubling choice. It's not "pick good or evil," it's "which good is greater?". For such a short game with so few characters and such a scarce deptiction of the world, it's surprisingly impactful upon the player.

The Gameplay: So, gameplay. This is an isometric action game - you run around with WASD, and use your primary and secondary weapons with the mouse buttons. You have a special skill to use with Q that takes a special resource (black tonics) and can heal with F (which takes a health tonic). Shift uses your shield. You fight a variety of enemies as you explore through the levels.
A cool thing about Bastion is the idea that the world is floating. As you walk, the pathway springs up in front of you. It gives a neat look, and makes the world feel very dynamic, but it has a dark side: sometimes you aren't sure which direction you're supposed to go. It's kinda supposed to be like a path that pops up and you always know where to go, but sometimes you need to get pretty close for it to spring up. Also, it kills a lot of potential exploration aspects they could have used. Aside from the few collectible mementos, the path is usually straight, without a lot of looking around for more unless you're really hurting for tonics or fragments (money). It's not a flaw in the game, just lost potential.
So the core of the game is quite simple, but there's a lot of nuance in how exactly you play. There's a large variety of weapons- you get one pretty much every single level, which is kind of sad because there's not THAT many weapons. The level really is quite low, unfortunately. But there's a healthy balance of ranged and melee weapons, and each feels very different. Here's a quick rundown (which weapons there aren't shouldn't be a major spoiler):
Cael Hammer: The starting weapon, it's strong but slow. You can swing it while moving, but it's stronger and faster swinging if you stand still.
Fang Repeater: You need to stand still to shoot it, but it's got a high fire rate and does okay damage.
Breaker's Bow: Take a while to fire, but very strong, especially if you Power Shot (hold down until you flash, and if you release it on the flash, the shot is stronger and faster. It's a timing test).
Bullhead Shield: Not a weapon, your shield. Hold shift to put it up. Doing so locks onto enemies to make aiming ranged weapons better, and if you put it up as an attack hits, you counter.
War Machete: Swings as fast as you click. You need to stand still though. Can be thrown and power shotted by holding the button down.
Scrap Musket: A shotgun type weapon, low range, spread, single bullets weak but all of the hitting is strong. Knocks enemies back.
Brusher's Pike: A spear. High range, good damage, low attack speed, and you can throw it like the machete (and it pierces multiple enemies).
Army Carbine: A sniper-like weapon. Hold is down to aim, high damage, low fire rate, great range.
Dueling Pistols: Shoot as fast as you click, can't move while using them. Not a ton of ammo though.
Flame Bellows: Short range flamethrower. Uses ammo too quick to really be super useful.
Galleon Mortar: Take a while to aim, but it's good at dealing damage and the slow-moving shots explode on impact. Can shoot over obstacles.
Each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, up to 5 tiers of upgrade. On any tier, you pick one of two possible upgrades, but you can switch between the two any time you're back at the Bastion. There is also a Proving Ground for every weapon. These are challenge levels for just one weapon, and range from fairly easy (Breaker's Bow) to really hard (Bullhead Shield). I've done 7 of the 12 (if you're counting, yes, I left off a weapon from the list for spoilers) to first place. Top prize is another of those secret skills. If you're curious, I went pretty much every time with the War Machete and Breaker's Bow whenever I could. I liked the Army Carbine quite a bit though.
As for your enemies, there's a decent variety, though a couple kinds get underused. The main three are the Windbag family, the Squirts, Gasfellas, and Scumbags. Squirts are small and like to swarm you (makes the machete great), Gasfellas have special attack patterns and more health, so I like the bow. Scumbags are big and spit out a mud that hurts to walk through, and it slows you, and they get smaller and faster as you hurt them. They usually show up as boss-type creatures. The other enemies I dont' really need to note here, save one: the Lunkhead. This is a froglike creature with an armored plate on it's face. You can't hurt it from the front, they jump at you, and you need to get behind them to hurt them. They're a BITCH to kill- they do a ton of damage and move fast, so it's hard to get behind them to hit them. Some weapons might work well, but mine sure didn't. The king Lunkhead boss is vicious.
Speaking of difficulty, that's one of the most interesting gameplay quirks in Bastion. The game has one difficulty mode, and it's pretty easy, though there's also a "No-Sweat" mode, but even I (a guy who always picks the easiest difficulty) didn't do that. However, if you want a harder experience, that's where the shrine comes in. The Shrine is a structure you can get on the Bastion, and contains, at its maximum strength, ten idols, one for each of the game's gods. You can turn on as many as you like, but each one adds an additional challenge to the game, making enemies stronger, faster, explode on death, or a wide range of other things, depending on which idols you switch on. Turn on all ten and you have a ridiculously difficult game. This sort of modular, difficult-in-the-way-you-want method is really cool. I wish more games had a "Build your own difficulty!" option. I didn't play with any idols, but I might do a New Game+ with some since the game is pretty short.
There are also Vigils, which are essentially achievements with a cash bonus.
Oh yeah, and Spirits! You can equip a number of Spirits equal to your level, and you can choose from the list which ones to use whenever you come back to the Bastion's Distillery. Each one gives you some kind of special bonus - for example, an early one, Werewhisky, makes all your attacks critical hits when you've only got a third of your health left. There's a lot of them to pick from, and a lot of nice ones. The one that boosts your health tonic count from 3 to 5 is great, as is the one that makes them full-head instead of only heal half of your health. The best I've seen is Leeachade, which is expensive to obtain but gives you back health with every hit, making it extremely helpful with the War Machete.
So like I said, a short, linear, and simple basic experience with a lot of nuance for how exactly you play it.

The Graphics: So this is one of the most bright and saturated games I've played in a while. Everything is VIBRANT! The previous year's major indie winner was LIMBO, which was ALL black and gray, so it's a nice change. The year before that was Braid, and the colors are closer to that. Really though, everything is grogeous and looks full of life. This is why, despite being post-apocalyptic in plot, it doesn't look like one; when's the last time you played a post-apocalyptic game where the grass was green and the sky was blue and the water is calm and the animals are plentiful?
Basically, super-high marks here. More games need to do this with the graphics. An issue is that a lot of enemies float in the air, and aiming is a bit weird about whether to aim for the creature or the shadow, so the shadow of these floaters needed to be more clear. This is nitpicking though, the game is freaking gorgeous.

The Music: Oh man, this game's music. I'd downloaded this soundtrack even before I'd played the game, and it's one of the strongest video game soundtracks I've heard in a long time, in the stance that it doesn't sound like a video game at all. I gave this to my PARENTS as a real album, and they couldn't tell it was game music until I told them. It's astounding. The soundtrack itself is a combination of western style music, heavy on the acoustic, and electronic, making a genre that labeled itself "Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop" on my copy of the soundtrack. If you like the Firefly/Serenity type music or the Canadian band Euphoria, you'll probably like this.
Also, the lyrics tracks. There are a few, and they're all amazing. One sung by Zia, one sung by Zulf, one sung by the both of them, and one sung by Rucks. The one with both Ura is especially cool, and just gets better in context of the game. Rucks' song is one of the more mythology-inspiring songs I've heard.
In Case of Trouble is great as the main theme, and Slinger's Song is great too. Mine, Windbag, Mine is a different and interesting sound. Give the whole soundtrack a listen!
If you want to hear somethng funny, listen to "From Wharf to Wilds" from this. Then listen to "Seven Lives, Many Faces" by the band Enigma. They have an uncannily similar rhythm.

So, conclusion! This game is awesome and you should play it. It has a couple flaws, namely its length and linearity, but the myriad of ways you can play that short linear game, and the amazing story along the way, more than make up for it. It's one of the best presented games out there, and it stands apart from the pack as a stand-out game of last year, and even a stand-out game of the last several years.
9.5/10. A.
Play This Game If You Like: Colorful games, an enthralling yet vague story, action games.
Don't Play This Game If You're Expecting: A long, epic, or lore-driven game, something from a different genre.

References: So, this game draws some major inspirations from places, and I wanted to point out a couple. Mostly they come from the Wild West. The Kid is, of course, a reference to Billy the Kid, though I'm surprised that they referenced an outlaw killer in the hero's name). The Calamity references Calamity Jane, which is actually apt in some surprising ways, which would be spoiling to mention. Maybe I'll post up a comment to this post with those details, since I think it's really interesting to examine. The mysterious Stranger is a common trope in westerns. There's more, of course, but I can't think of them specifically to point them out.

Look for an intro post to my little Art of the Pantheon series, and no DW this week -_-. Also, Mass Effect 2 review/commentary soon, since I'm not sure if I'll be giving a full review to an old-ish game. Cheers!
End Recording,

1 comment :

  1. Okay, so what was I talking about with Calamity Jane? Beat the game first, then read this.
    So, she was a frontierswoman who gained her nickname for her fighting against the Native Americans. Jane was, purpotedly, a notable scout and quite effective at combatting the natives. Now, the Calamity of the game was in fact attempted genocide - the Caelondians, who long ago conquered the Ura and took most of the land, devised it as a "final solution," though sabotage ended up making it hit the Caelondians too. Sound familiar? The Americans came in, conquered the Native Americans and took their land, pushing them out to the fringes, and continued to deal large losses to them as they expanded out. Calamity Jane wasn't a genocide event, but the story of the Caelondians and the Ura's conflict pretty well mirrors the Native American conflicts during westward expansion.