Review: Bastion (***)


Bastion reminds me of a potent mix of game styles crammed into the same experience. Firstly, we have Sega CD games. Surely, I’m not making a one-to-one comparison between a beautiful storybook aesthetic married with steampunk and American Western stylings, but it does much the same thing with its narrative: give you great voice overs and shows rather than tells. Further, elements of Mega Man creep into the picture, not only in giving the player room for mistakes, but also in providing a variety of weaponry for the player to use and mess around with (but, of course, they’re limited to two weapons and one special for each mission). Still, enemies usually hit you even if you play well, and a vast health pool means nothing but a giant help against player failure rather than learning from mistakes. Lastly, Bastion rips the isometric perspective and “RPG elements” from its late 90s CRPG forebearers but throws an action game into the mold to mixed success.

I guess you could throw some Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana, for you Americans) in there with the mechanics and aesthetics too! Still, it’s unfortunate that all these disparate elements never seem to coalesce into something amazing, meaningful, or resonant. Everything sounds incredibly cool; it’s hard to argue that Darren Korb nails a perfect mood and vibe with a mix of guitars, trip hop, folk music, and soothing electronica. Logan Cunningham’s narration adds a great deal of flavor to the proceedings as he narrates what “The Kid”, our protagonist, does in his journey through a post-apocalyptic world (post-Calamity, we might say). Greg Kasavin created an interesting world that evokes the variety of his interests, and the design also reflects this hodge-podge approach that I appreciate. Bastion wants to please everyone, but doesn’t end up pleasing anyone looking for a focused, measured experience.

Let’s take the mechanics as an example. The isometric 3D perspective does limit the intensity of the action, all said. So, too, do the wonderful aesthetics. It’s difficult to aim weapons, roll correctly, and defend in a world perpetually off-kilter. I see now that the reason for Bastion’s forgiving (optionally so; more on that later) nature comes from this obvious shortcoming. More often than not, you’ll take hits. That’d be fine and all, but Bastion places you in weird situations where damage is all but avoidable and you scramble to kill enemies/dodge as fast as possible. Sometimes, this works; sometimes, you end up surrounded (I think this is a bug, personally) and can’t move until an enemy knocks you into the air. It’s annoying, and frankly unfair at times. Not that it matters, as you just pop a potion and you’re good to go.

Because of this, I tended to abandon melee weapons altogether – they’re too prone to interruption and damage. My weapons of choice? The Polearm and the Army Carbine, the latter infinitely more than the former. The Cael Hammer, though awesome and fun to look at, doesn’t attack fast enough nor stun enemies long enough to remain useful; same goes for the Machete and other melee weapons. Thus, I chose the Polearm intentionally as a long-range melee weapon – surprisingly useful, and many times overpowered! The true hero comes from the Army Carbine, which has such long range (and becomes exponentially better with upgrade) that I literally rolled and used it the entire game after receiving it. Once you get the timing down for the Power Shot (release shot with a certain timing; all projectile weapons require this, and show The Kid flash when you’re supposed to let go), you become a mass-murdering rifleman with unerring accuracy. I had so much fun doing this, but it made the game hilariously easy at times! Plus, using a controller means the game auto-aims for you – meaning that accuracy isn’t so much neccessary as anticipating where the next foes came from offscreen, which the auto-aim would pick up every time. Cheating? Well, maybe! It did remind me of Gears of War multiplayer, for what its worth, which consisted of rolling into people’s faces and blowing said faces off with the shotgun. Also, why are we limited to two weapons and one special anyway? It’s already broken (note: hyperbole), so why not just go all stylish action on us and slap in a combo system.

You could counter my claims that Bastion remains far too forgiving without using Idols, arbitrary difficulty increases which award additional money and XP for upgrades and Elixirs (which give you a special stat/ability bonus each level; there’s lots of them, and you can swap at will). Still, I just didn’t feel that the game warranted or justified higher difficulty levels. See, they’re not crafted; they’re simply modifiers on the already existing systems (pump up enemy attack X, make AI attack more often Y, etc.), so they add “replay value” in a cheap and easy way (compare with Platinum Games, or Devil May Cry style games and you’ll get what I mean). I didn’t bother with them for that reason; the rewards do not compare with the struggle required to get them. Add to the follies above with melee versus ranged, and the fact that the game gives you FAR too much money and XP already to finish the game, and you’ll see a somewhat haphazard feature. Also, what is the point of experience points here? I get that we needed a progression system to use the brews, but it seems somewhat unnecessary and heaps needless fake complexity; just give us an item rather than higher numbers, and we’ll be satisfied. Same goes for taking out “hit points”, which made sense in Secret of Mana but NOT here. Numbers aren’t immersion!

The story, too, throws me off a little in terms of presentation. Is the narration and story-telling device neat? Yes, it is! Do I like having a guy narrate everything I do, whether in success or failure, and actually having it work in the game’s context? Yes! This probably remains the best version of a game narration to date – just examine those Smackdown games from Yuke’s, and you’ll see that the commentary on matches makes no sense at all. Somehow, it just works here. The combination of reading certain text and the overall affect does wonders. Now, the only problem comes from a relatively rout storyline that, really, doesn’t surprise so much as works every post-apocalypse cliche one can imagine.

Most people seem surprised by the outcome; I just wasn’t. The greater problem comes from a lack of investment in the narrative; it shows me, rather than telling me, what’s happening. It leads you down an entirely linear path (which doesn’t make any sense – why do the platforms appear/disappear? Is it the Cores? Is it something else) and you go through the motions in multiple combat sequences. Hey, if you’re going to do combat, make the journey from point A to point B interesting, right? The narration’s there to fill a gap in the combat, but even then it lacks the emotional investment required to care about the proceedings. When Rucks exposits the revelatory details, I could barely muster interest, and that’s the game’s greatest problem. It relies on story to make up for its mechanical failures, and then the story doesn’t work as well as they’d hope – that’s just plain wrong. And the “choices” you make in the end? I just didn’t care, all told, nor did it mean anything.

And yet, all of that blustering does not tell you much of my opinion. Given all the above, you might mistakenly believe that I HATE Bastion, but that isn’t further from the truth. It’s a wonderful little game that, from what I can tell, does exactly what it sets out to do: provide a narrative presented by voice-over in an interesting world with a rudimentary combat system. Even with these flaws, it manages to remain entertaining throughout, and just messing around with the weapons gave me quite a bit of enjoyment. My rolling Carbine tactic worked well, but the satisfaction from it sold the game for me. I just wished that it had some other spark to it that brought it from the level of “average” to “amazing”. There’s some real potential here, and some real enjoyment to be had; the idea appears sound and solid, but the game doesn’t live up to that potential. Hence the three stars rating, in any event!

Truly, it represents that trend capturing video games over the past decade towards literature rather than play. You merely participate, rather than interact with said narrative. That’s where I think the problem lies – Bastion doesn’t seem to know whether it focuses on the mechanics or the narrative, and ends up coming short on both. Imagination does wonders, but you need to form something with it; it can’t just bear the hope and promise of revelation. A video game that really wishes to combine the two sides of the experience examines each element in the context of the whole. Bastion just doesn’t do a good job of connecting them.

We might also say that one’s presuppositions will cover their opinions of things – well, let me make them clear: I am a Christian who believes that nothing makes sense without Christ. In that sense, Jesus connects everything in the world to everything and makes us all “complete thinkers”, to see the hidden connections between the things in the world. This allows us to understand everything, improve ourselves, judge things, and have compassion in the love of God – a holistic perspective. A game only works as well as the sum of its connected parts; that’s why games so focused on one thing work so well. They don’t attempt to please everyone – they make that game for the one indulgent fan who, for example, really loves a particular genre. They give you that sense of joy that’s hard to find in other mediums because those require you to think about its meaning the whole time through layers of obfuscation. A game? The words “pick up and play” never rang truer. Even if the game isn’t instantly accessible, time and effort reveal the mechanics and the nuance required to handle it. There’s a freedom within those mechanics to get that information over time, always more to learn and see. But one things remains: obey, learn, and find freedom:

31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

John 8

And that, sadly, is where I see Bastion: a game with fantastic elements failing to combine those elements well. Truly a shame, really; I wanted to give it a higher score, but didn’t feel justified in seeing all the problems. If it improves your mood, it’s probably one of the better indie games I’ve ever played so far!

Note: For an alternate opinion of the game, leave it to our very own M. Joshua Cauller on his blog Love Subverts.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.