Review: Bastion (Microsoft Xbox LIVE Arcade)

Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: SuperGiant Games
Genre: Hack ‘n’ Slash RPG
Release Date: 07/20/2011

The Xbox LIVE Arcade format has seen a resurgence of genres long thought dead in the field of endless FPS titles, but 2011 in particular has been kind to fans of hack ‘n’ slash RPG titles. Opening the curtain for Microsoft’s Summer of XBLA promotion, Bastion is coming in piping hot off the heels of solid performers such as Torchlight and Dungeons & Dragons.

While this might sound like saturation, Bastion seemingly maintains the soul of what makes a hack ‘n’ slash exactly that while shedding a number of the genre’s conventional themes. Thankfully, this results in an enjoyable title that strays slightly from the worn path, and one which could potentially serve as a gateway for those looking to break into the genre.

Bastion thrusts players in media res, as it edges them toward the game’s central hub and drops a few general control and game hints as necessary. It may seem odd at first that the game does little to fill players in on the situation and story, but by far the game’s largest charm is in the way the world of Caeldonia literally materializes through the course of the gameplay.

Because of the way the game unfolds, I find it difficult to explain hefty portions of the plot without spoiling anything. To break it down to its simplest element, players awaken in a sort of post-apocalyptic world, brought forth by an event known as “the calamity.”

The game purposely gives you little to work with at the beginning because everything that occurs, big and small, is full of impact in the way it is presented to the player. Gamers who want every bit of storyline handed to them directly will find the story lacking, but all of the revelations made through the game snowball toward the end, and certain elements of the story are certainly thought-provoking to those willing to take the time to process it.

For the most part, the story is dictated by a narrator, who also serves as the player’s main contact and ally throughout the game. As such, Bastion shatters the wall of storytelling, only through cutscenes and direct character contact, and it serves as an interesting device. While progressing through segments of each stage, the narrator breaks down the current situation or divulges the past as it becomes appropriate. This narration also has a dynamic touch, as certain optional actions illicit witty responses (such as “The Kid” taking his rage out on the environment when the player shatters items in search of collectibles). With around 3,000 lines of narration recorded by actor Logan Cunningham for the game, this narration serves as the intended way to experience the story, and it succeeds.

Progressing straight through the game provides the player with a basic understanding of what is going on, but the whole story of Bastion isn’t divulged without some optional footwork. In order to dive into much of the world’s backstory, players will have to uncover mementos that stir up memories in survivors, and a series of challenges resulting from “Who Knows Where” dream worlds uncover bits and pieces of story as well.

The game’s story is really Bastion‘s focal point, and rewards players for progression all the way through the game. If anything could be said against the story, it’s hard to ignore how ambiguous the main character is. Some of the material presented at the end of the game certainly suggest this is intentional, and maybe there is more to it if you try to think about the game philosophically, but it does become difficult to attach yourself to the main character when so many other interesting instances are happening around him. If you allow yourself to get into the story as intended, it becomes a minor detail. Halfway through the game, I was hammered with the realization that I knew nothing about “The Kid” but, again, I believe this was due to the fact that everything else going on around him was getting interesting.

It’s also fairly easy to get pulled into the world itself, thanks to the very attractive hand-painted graphics done by art director Jen Zee. Bastion resembles the visuals of the 16-bit or 32-bit era, although, obviously, they are cleaned up to a high-definition resolution. Through artistic flair, the coloring is extremely vibrant, full of warm and cool tones where appropriate, which really allows the different styles of environment to stand out from one another.

The vivid colors also stand out in the game’s usage of lighting, which results from certain weapon effects and various wisps of light that exist in the game world. The environments are ripe with detail, making the environments with lush vegetation really stand out among the pack, and combined with a clean and simple interface, Bastion‘s visuals really stand out from the crowd of Xbox LIVE Arcade games. In some instances, the camera may possibly be panned out a little too far, and a few minor items aren’t as detailed as the elements in the rest the game, but these issues can largely be ignored as, with Bastion, players will be able to soak in one of the most visually attractive titles so far in 2011.

The game’s audio is also quite memorable, thanks mostly to the spot-on voice and tone of the game’s narrator. The narrator is reserved and somber, perfectly matching the tone of someone telling a story they would rather forget. Because of this, the audio spotlight is mostly kept on the narrator, which does, at times, bump the game’s music into the background.

When the music is the focus; however, it fits the situation, even though it has a hip-hop vibe to it. As good as it is, though, the majority of the music seems to be filler in between the different instances of narration. Thankfully, there is a way to unlock a music player so players can enjoy the music without interruption. It is very obvious SuperGiant Games aimed for this balance to bank heavily on the narrator, but I’ll be honest and say a few of the tunes in the game left me wanting some more for audio director Darren Korb.

Much like in the graphics and sound, Bastion lightly steers clear from the tired, but true, conventions of the adventure RPG market. The controls are actually quite simple, with each button only handling one or two commands for The Kid. On the offensive, players can press X to fire off a projectile weapon or press B to take a swing with the currently equipped melee weapon. By accumulating black spirits (of the liquid sort), players can also unleash a devastating special attack at the cost of one spirit. In order to protect The Kid, players can utilize a shield by holding the left trigger, and pressing the A button allows players to execute a defensive rolling maneuver.

I never had an issue with the controls outside of a few issues of having X also handle contextual situations while I was in battle, and on occasion, commands requiring an attack button to be held down didn’t execute how I wanted after falling off the stage or getting hit. These were far and few between, though, so the controls were never a barrier to enjoying the game.

What is interesting about how the game works out, though, is in how active and decision-based it is. Bastion is not a game where a player can simply mash on an attack button and expect results, but instead, it makes good use of its counter-attack system. By pressing the shield button at the point of contact of an attack, The Kid can reflect damage back to the enemy, and doing so to projectiles rockets the fire straight back to the source for a critical hit. Even just holding the shield button down sprays projectiles away from you and, in Bastion, success can come merely from manipulating the situation to make the enemies attack each other.

Another interesting mechanic stems from Bastion‘s effort to promote experimentation and customization over grinding and looting. While Bastion does offer up an experience and leveling system, leveling up adds to the player’s max health and opens up a distillery slot. Slots at the distillery allow the player to equip spirits that award passive abilities that can be swapped in and out whenever players enter one of the locations. The game’s handful of weapons are all found in select locations in the game world, but can be modified with more abilities in the game’s foundry. Experimenting to mix and match with your play style instead of having to cater to character classes, weapon drops and experience grinding gives the game a much more hands-on approach in its character development and combat.

The variety in the enemies isn’t exactly robust, but players will see plenty of action as each environment has a buffet of baddies to mow down. That being said, I burned through Bastion pretty quickly on my first playthrough, but, again, Bastion doesn’t handle difficulty like other RPGs do. Instead of offering a normal/hard/etc. toggle, players can alter the game at any time with modifiers. By invoking gods at a nearby temple, a number of modifiers can be introduced to beef up the monsters. In return, of course, the player will be rewarded with bonus experience points and currency to speed up their progress.

Summing up the gameplay, Bastion doesn’t stick with too many RPG conventions, but the way everything is tied together and the amounts of freedom given to the player to customize the experience all works and gels together very well. Because of the ties to the genre, Bastion will feel familiar, but because of its different implementation, it also comes across as refreshing.

If there was an area where Bastion lacked some originality, it is in the way it offers up replayability, but, let’s be fair here, originality in this segment is hard to come by. Still, Bastion packs in chunks of optional content to keep players coming back for more, and this is all further added by a New Game Plus option that allows players to keep their current levels and equipment, to speed up extra playthroughs for the multiple choices at the ending and to give Achievement hunters some slack.

On top of Achievements, the records building offers up bite-sized, in-game achievements, that offer up currency as a reward. There are also hidden items which unlock events that range from the simple pet housed at the central hub, to playable dream arenas that fill in more story and provide rich rewards. Scattered throughout the map are also weapon-based challenges that offer three rewards per weapon. In all, it’s up to the player to go out of the way for some of these items, but the replayability is certainly present in Bastion.

While sacrificing a number of optional items in my first playthrough, it took me about six hours to tackle the meat of the quest, which SuperGiant Games states will take more thorough players eight to 10 hours to complete. Looking at the price tag of $15, fans of the genre are looking at a meager $1.50 per hour of gameplay. On the other hand, those not into the genre may not be willing to take a bite of what Bastion is offering at that price. Even among those favoring the genre, Bastion has no multiplayer, which may be a further decision point against the game for this crowd. Still, the title offers a lot of novelty and vibrancy, and the basic features of customization and fantasy will still scratch the dungeon crawling itch.

Once I got into the game, though, it was hard for me to stop. Even without using the game’s bells and whistles the first time through, the game was a visual treat and a change of pace for the genre. With the customization options, Bastion can be as accommodating or difficult as you want it to be, and the game’s delivery will surely stick with anyone that gives it a fair chance. With the hack ‘n’ slash genre mostly limiting itself to the dark, gritty dungeons and D&D fantasy fare, even something as straightforward as having the environment pop onto the screen as the player progresses makes Bastion clearly stand out.

The Scores
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control and Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ENJOYABLE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal Factor: VERY GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary
In essence, Bastion takes the hack ‘n’ slash genre and makes it its own. Instead of carbon copying the dungeon crawler format, Bastion uses a vibrant appearance reminiscent of the 16-bit/32-bit era and injects a very unique presentation into the game. Sporting excellent visuals and an intriguing narrator through the course of the title, it’s hard to not get sucked into the game’s world. Its uniqueness might be off-putting to some players, and it is hardly the longest RPG title out there (especially with no multiplayer options), but Bastion is, so far, one of my favorite titles of 2011. It might be easy for players to say the developer should have done some of the elements differently, but it is obvious SuperGiant Games had a vision of what Bastion would be, and the end product delivers on that vision and allows the genre to travel slightly off the worn path.



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