The old world’s finished, but the new one’s just gettin’ started…
There’s a lot here that’ll call to mind the old one, pieces o’ road might jog your memory or some face you’ve seen before in less broken times. Happier? Well…even when things were still together it wasn’t all Breaker’s Bourbon and sunshine.
You’ll want to get moving though. The Bastion is waiting.
Yeah, I might rage for awhile too…once I’m done tasting all the colors.
I’d like to steal a bit of your time though, if you’ll sit a spell. Truth is: I don’t even know where to begin with Bastion. It is a thing of incomparable and uncompromising beauty, built with such thorough love and attention to detail that a man can feel the sentiment seeping through the cracked mortar of a shattered world.
If you’ve heard anything about the game up to this point, chances are it’s about the narration. It’s there from the moment the tale begins, and like the Kid’s trusty hammer, is a lifelong friend until the story finds its close. You’ll find the world forming under your feet as if conjured there by the fragmented memories of a man leaning close over the quiet embers of a night fire as he weaves each element together, and you’ll find even some of the smallest actions are given a considerate voice.
The effect is surreal, to follow the whims of a story being told while simultaneously affecting it. It lends every move you make as a player greater import, and if you allow yourself to be swept along by it, you’ll find yourself wondering about the Caelondia that was as you traverse past the ashen forms of the Tunder Brothers, the Jawsons or Percy the Snitch.
The story, while expertly written and told, is only augmented by all those little details to lend it gravitas. Each lost barrette or spyglass found lends further thoughts back to a world with almost no one left to remember it. Words are one thing, others…you just have to see for yourself.
The art direction for each distinct element of the game is fitting without fail. The world map deserves as much attention as any individual area, all strikingly unique. The character designs are cute and endearing, but just as capable of holding the weight of the game’s serious issues on their shoulders. In a way, they’re an ideal metaphor for the game itself: finely balanced to a razor’s edge.
The music, described by composer Darren Kobb as “acoustic frontier trip-hop,” is always in-line with the action or lack thereof. The sound mix for the game is rather brilliantly put together. I have to note that I loved the muffled effect upon entering a building and hearing the tracks rise back up to greet the Kid as he prepares to take the fight back into the Wilds with renewed vigor. It might be a minor detail, but each of these things in concert creates the sense of excitement and immersion that completes the experience.
The usage of vocal tracks is sparse, but without spoiling anything I will say that the times in which they’re used will perhaps go down as some of my favorite in gaming history.
The actual gameplay is equal in task to the visual and aural luminance that surrounds it. The controls are tight and rewarding to skilled players, but the game is accessible enough to be enjoyed by anyone. The leveling system offers perks in the form of drinks from the Bastion’s fine distillery, which can be changed out at any time to accommodate either the mission or player’s preference. Having a rough time? Knock back a Bull Brandy for 15% Damage Resistance or Hearty Punch for an extra shot at life (which also makes you explode upon dying). Want to play things closer to the edge? Werewhiskey will have you dealing pure criticals as long as you don’t mind hanging out below 33% of your health. Cham Pain gives you one less chance per level, but you’ll be putting out 25% more damage.
Once the Shrine is unlocked, you can invoke the gods to make the game more difficult in a number of ways in return for increasing boosts in experience gain, offering even more ways to tailor the game to your liking. An area you might breeze through without a second thought becomes a different story when the enemies can phase out of existence, deal double damage and drop grenades after dying. The added challenge always seems fair in its presentation, and considering it’s entirely optional, really sells the idea that this is a game for anyone.
It forces you to think differently about encounters as well. Those swarms of Peckers and Squirts become a great deal more deadly when killing the lot in one shot means you’ll end up with a lap full of explosives.
There’s a surprisingly large arsenal available to the Kid by the end of it all, and each weapon feels significant enough to be given consideration. It’s almost a bit overwhelming, as the frequency in which new weapons are acquired is fairly steady all the way through, and chances are you’ll want to play with all of them. Factor in branching upgrades for the lot, and making the difficult decision of just which finely tuned instrument will sing your foes’ end mission-to-mission becomes even tougher.
You are required to use each new weapon you come across, which could be annoying if you have a particular setup you’ve been happy with. Although, the fact that you’re forced to use the weapons makes you give them a chance rather than simply tossing them into a pile of useless inventory items. It would also be more of a complaint if there were not always an Arsenal relatively close to new pickups, allowing you to switch out your set-up should you prefer.
The great thing about weapon selection, like the level-ups and gods, is it really is up to the player. You aren’t given to feelings of restriction in any way. Feel like keeping it classic with the Hammer and Bow? Hit hard and strong. Want to roll with Dual Pistols and a Carbine? Sure, go crazy! Anyone I’ve talked to about the game, every single one of them had their own particular way of playing.
For as much love deserves to be lavished on the presentation of the aesthetics, the polish that has gone into the actual playability can’t be stressed or appreciated enough. I mentioned the branching upgrades, and let me reiterate just how cool this is. Each upgrade to a weapon offers two choices, and they’re always meaningful decisions. This isn’t a +1 Offense/Defense choice, every single one matters and while they can be switched in the Bastion at any time, I still find myself going back and re-specing a weapon just to see how differently I can use it.
As an example, the War Machete can be thrown or used for melee at any time; the up-close attack is incredibly fast, while the throw is a bit slower. The upgrades offer you decisions that enhance either of those in both subtle and more obvious ways. One of the earlier ones is a choice between a 20% bonus to critical damage or having your attacks cause poison. A greater critical chance benefits both, but considering how quick the melee is, the advantage is enhanced there. Depending on how you play, the poison can help in either case, but I like to keep my distance and deal ranged damage. So I’ll toss a knife, then keep my distance while the venom does my dark work.
This relates to every weapon, from using the pistols to cripple and knockback foes instead of going for pure power, to deciding whether you’d like to mortar to hit harder or wider. Only the hammer seems to feel mostly the same regardless of how it’s upgraded and well…it’s a hammer. Come on.
The consideration given to each and every one of these disparate elements is what makes Bastion truly transcendent. It could be “merely” great, but everything down to the smallest bolt has been polished and cared for to craft a machine that hums from the virtuoso’s touch. Everything is just right.
As a game, as a piece of art, as a story, Bastion excels on all levels in a way that is not merely rare; it is unique, yet at once warm and familiar. It is a thing of incomparable and uncompromising beauty, and I am unable to find fault with any portion of it. To put it simply: Bastion is flawless.
When we started this website, the concept of what to rate a perfect game never crossed my mind because it had been so long since I had experienced anything at this level of excellence. Trying to decide on a score for Bastion was probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made here thus far. Even now, attaching a numerical value to such an experience feels boorish, but it’s worth twice easily the mere $15 (1200 MSP) asked, so I’ll close with that. I cannot stress it enough: you owe it to yourself to play this game.
A PC version will be out August 16th on Steam as well (with full 1080p!), so those you bereft of 360s, well, “…it’s like the song says: ‘We’ll be here…before too long.”