October 22, 2015

That's A Wrap: Bastion

warning: may contain spoilers

Bastion is a 2011 action role-playing game made by independent developer Supergiant Games, published by WB Games, originally for the Xbox Live Arcade. It's been sitting on my 360 forever now, but it's distinct personality was never forgotten, so I decided it was time to give it a proper start-to-finish. Bastion was recommended to me by an indie-savvy friend after my whining about a lack of great 360 games. I played the demo and was blown completely out of the water. Bastion is among the most outstanding and unique games I've ever played. Not only is the concept interesting, but the way it melts together with the art and the narration makes it a truly unique experience. Games like this help prove time and time again that it is possible for indie games to hold their own against AAA competitors, and what's more, they look real good doing it! What I really love about Bastion is that the levels are relatively short, and while still challenging, you do feel like you can take a break whenever without leaving a whole lot of unfinished business. It's a tight and uniform game to be sure.
If you want it done right, do it yourself. Bastion is some of the prettiest, most saturated art I've seen on a console. While every level is quite busy, you can still see most everything with clarity. There is a really brilliant mix of hand-painted and hybrid-style art that both sets the tone of the game and nearly overwhelms you with eye candy. Every level is new and different, whithout ever losing its signature style.

I briefly mentioned this before, but one of the coolest components to Bastion is the narration. Everything you do and see is narrated to you by a man with a deep, smooth voice. His name is Logan Cunningham. Hire him. You might expect this would grow old after a time, but because it adds so much character to the game, it never does. Beyond adding interest, the narration also warns you of upcoming bosses and points of interest, and will often indicate when it's safe to explore, so you'll learn to depend on him.
Elsewhere in sound land, the musical soundtrack will not be overlooked, either. If I had to define the music for Bastion I would call it a modern form of classic country western with a touch of industrial. It - much like the rest of the game - is one of a kind and very memorable. I'll definitely be hunting this soundtrack down A.S.A.P.. (Nevermind… already got it.) Likewise, the sound effects in the game are subtle but suitable, and often add to that industrial business I was talking about...

In spite of having a narrator, the game's story is not evident right away. You work to unlock the history of your world and the past of the Kid as you go, and even then, it's hardly the focus of the game. You spend more time looking to the future, which ends up playing a big part in the end.
Essentially, this is a classic tale of war. The two groups at the center of the conflict are the Caelondians and the Uras. Apparently these folks didn't see eye-to-eye and tried to tear each other apart in what's called "the Calamity." Our story takes place just after, and the Stranger asks the Kid to help him build a sanctuary for the Caels, the Bastion. But there are plenty of other creatures to take into consideration and they all play a small role in the big picture. The game uses these guys for several purposes, and the plot eventually unfolds to develop an interesting mechanic in which some former foes are actually your allies. Furthermore, rather than ending the game with some epic boss battle and a cheap tie-up of loose ends, instead you're forced to consider all you've learned on your journey, and decide the best course of action via a couple of tough decisions that really make you ruminate all you've learned. I really loved this aspect.

Seriously. Creepy.
The cast of Bastion is pretty manageable. First we meet the Kid and his best mate… a hammer. The Kid is the one under the player's influence for the whole game, and he uses a series of weapons to get through the various trials and tribulations. The second fellow we meet is the Stranger (whom we later learn is called Rucks) - he sounds familiar. He guards the Bastion and helps you make heads or tails of everything going on. Later, you'll rescue a survivor called Zulf - an Ura (different race of people) - who's got the creepiest avatar ever. He's a bit of a troublemaker. The last major character we find is the singer, Zia, who can sing for me any day. She's a lost individual with a deep story and a beautiful song.
All of these characters help the plot along as you sort out which are your friends and which are your enemies. It's a simple but complex cast.


I thought I'd try something new this week. Instead of simply describing gameplay to you, I thought I'd show you a snippet. Here's a random level in Bastion, as played by me:
As you can see, the game offers you reminders and tips during load screens. Sometimes these are actually important plot pieces, too, so I'd recommend keeping an eye on them. If you're wandering around for too long after you've completed a level, a giant blue arrow will point out something of interest, such as pickups or switches, or the exit.

I'm sure you've gathered that the greeny-blue or yellow bar at the top left is your health indicator, and the purple bar beneath it is your level up meter, or experience bar. Beneath that are two sets of inventory: the first are your stocked health tonics, and the second are your black tonics, which more or less act as "MP" in Bastion. You'll need them to use secret skills. I particularly love the little animation when the Kid downs a bottle of health. That's why I got hit so much... I just like to see it... yeah... Sometimes (seen in the video) you'll come across fruit that will also restore your health.
Often not pictured, but found in the top-right corner is your fragments, or money. Those are the little blue chunks I picked up. Rucks describes them as "fragments of the past" which you spend to "make things whole again". A small but neat concept.
On the bottom-right, you'll see which weapons you've got equipped, and which buttons they're assigned to. Your secret skill is on RT.

Speaking of weapons, there are a million of them, which means there are as many ways to complete the levels!
Cael Hammer - a heavy melee hitter. There are a number of hammer skills to master.
Fang Repeater - an automatic shooter. You cannot move whilst using it.
Breaker's Bow - a good ol' reliable bow!
War Machete - a very fast slashing weapon, perfect for those with no patience! You can also throw it!
Scrap Musket - the makeshift "shotgun". You will literally blow your enemies away… if they're nearby.
Dueling Pistols - exactly what it sounds like: a pair of quick firing pistols!
Brusher's Pike - an excellent range weapon, this spear is actually required for one boss. You can either poke or toss it!
Army Carbine - this is a nifty little gun. While firing, there are two guides which slowly converge on the enemy. Waiting until fully targeted results in a more powerful shot!
Fire Bellows - essentially a flamethrower.
Galleon Mortar - this is a sort of canon. As you hold down the fire button, a target slowly moves away from the kid. You'll want to release once the target has found the enemy! Great for far away baddies.
Calamity Canon - this is supposed to be the best weapon in the game but I say it's rubbish. This is just a powerful energy gun which is very difficult to aim and often results in your own harm. Not a fan.
There is one last weapon in the game, but hell… let's leave it a surprise.
As I'm sure you saw, you can have two weapons equipped at a time. Those, along with a number of secret skills, help you tear up the dance floor! In the early game, I found the War Machete much better suited to my close-combat style, the hammer was simply too slow for me. A lot of people favor the musket, but in an odd turn of events, I actually ignored it for most of the game. The pistols, on the other hand, I was never without. I love those bad boys! Towards the end of the game, I fell in love with the Fire Bellows. It makes quick work of virtually every enemy, especially after upgrades. But before we discuss them, let's talk about the Bastion!
Basically, your purpose during the first half of the game is to build the Bastion. The Bastion is the place the Caelondians were meant to flee after the Calamity. Problem is, there's nothing there. By inserting the cores reaped from various post-Calamity areas at the monument, you unlock new foundations on which to build one of a number of useful places:
The Distillery, where you can equip Spirits which improve your skills and attributes. Upgraded health, damage or speed boost, etc. You earn one Spirit for each level you grow the Kid.
The Arsenal, is where you can change which equipment you have. When you pick up a new weapon or skill, it automatically equips, and you cannot change them until you find an arsenal. You can assign one weapon to X, one to B and one Secret Skill to RT. Secret skills typically favor one weapon, but some can be used no matter what.
The Forge is where you can upgrade these weapons. To do so, you'll need materials you can pick up here and there, buy, or earn from the proving grounds. Each weapon requires a material like "something heavy," and can be improved up to three times (at first). For each of the three upgrades, you're forced to choose between two potential improvements (it also costs money!), but you can switch to the other option later at no cost, if you please. Upgrades vary from the size of your clip, to firing and reload speeds, range, damage boosts and so on.
A Shrine is a unique sort of place. Here you can place idols you've found or bought, and doing so will change the game slightly. You might get money or XP boosts, but it can also change the difficulty of your enemies! I humbly chose to ignore this altogether.
In a Memorial, you can access mini games or challenges, called Vigils. Sort of like in-game achievements for which you are rewarded fragments.
And finally, in a Lost-and-Found, you can buy things! Like an ordinary shop.
You may also come across one of these places while wandering about, but it never hurts to have one at the Bastion!

Every now and then, new things will pop up around the Bastion. Certain mementos will earn you pets, and eventually you'll get Zulf's smoking pipe, too. A huff of this bad boy sends you to a place called Who Knows Where, where you'll fight 20 waves of enemies. It's a stern undertaking, but I'm sure you can imagine the experience and rewards are plentiful. In between each wave, you'll learn a little more about a particular cast member, so there are other portals that send you to Who Knows Where as the game carries on. They're tricky, and in my opinion best left until later in the game (when you're well acquainted with your weapons and all upgraded and such) but mandatory if you want the full story.

The second half of the game is… well, unfortunate. Figuratively and literally. Of course the Bastion has to suffer some mishap, and now it's your job to build it back up - again - by finding shards that have been scattered about some more levels. Personally, I found this turn of events to be a bit sad and predictable. I'd have preferred to spend more time building up the Bastion to begin with, rather than feeling overcome with repetitive tasks. To make matters worse, your journeys to find the shards are often dragged out in an extended attempt at artistic license. It got to feeling like a waste of time, even if the game looked damn good doing it. That said, I'd quit the game only to come back to it an hour later, eager to move it along. Overall, the gameplay is so fun that flaws are easy to overlook, but I'd be lying if I said my heart didn't sink a little when I realized I'd be doing more of the same.

While not at the Bastion, you explore distant worlds via the Skyway. You'll find these ports at the end of levels, and ultimately unlock the whole world map. There are two types of levels for you to visit: core/shard hosting areas, and proving grounds. Rucks will casually find new areas with cores or shards for you to progress the game, or you can pop by a proving grounds for an extra challenge.
There is a proving ground for each of the weapons and well as your shield, so naturally each of the challenges is based around building your skill with that weapon. Sometimes they're puzzles, sometimes they're time attacks, sometimes a mix of the two. I found some of the grounds exceedingly easy, and others downright impossible. There are three prizes for each, and earning first place at the proving grounds rewards you with a new secret skill for the weapon in question.

Combat in Bastion weaves seamlessly into the gameplay. Enemies will spawn once, all over the place, and it's up to you to cultivate a fine combo of main and sub weapon attacks mixed with evading and countering. Do not neglect countering, I didn't learn this until midway through! Overall I find combat to be rather hectic on normal mode, so I was constantly healing and exhausting my tonics. The control map does not change for combat, so I'll save that for later! You can see some combat demonstration in my video!

If you're enjoying yourself, there are a couple of optional things you can spend your time on. I've already mentioned most of them, such as the proving grounds, Who Knows Where trials, and vigils. Technically the memento hunting is optional, too, but you'll probably pick up most of them by accident.  You'll want to speak to everyone at the Bastion each time you pick up a memento. As I touched on before, some of the mementos result in pets for the Bastion, which adds a little something different, and - like most pets - they'll help you out in a jam. Ahem. If you find the 'fine gramophone', you can cycle through the soundtrack and play whatever you like while at the Bastion. Neat! As mentioned, messing around with the idols will change up your game, so you can hunt down those, too.

The controller map for Bastion is pretty straight forward:
A is evade, while B is your first attack - with your hammer initially, but you can swap around your weapons later. X is your action button and sub attack button and where applicable, Y calls upon a healing tonic. Your left trigger brings up your shield, and the right summons your equipped secret skill, assuming you have a black tonic in tow. The left stick moves you around, and you can use the right stick to defend as well. With some weapons, you can instigate a manual reload by pressing the right stick down. I did this a lot since I used the pistols all the time. Pressing back opens up your inventory - mostly of mementos.
I'll admit, it took me a little bit to get comfy with the controls in combat. You're often bombarded by a variety of enemies and I found this control map worked against my instincts.
You can access a game menu by pressing start. It will pause the game but not the narrator, so pay attention! The menu simply consists of a resume function and an option to warp back to the Bastion without completing the level (you'll lose you progress); help & options; leaderboards; achievements and an exit to the main menu, as well as a spot to view download content. Not a terribly useful menu.

There isn't much to do online in Bastion apart from leaderboards, but you can fetch an additional "Who Knows Where" DLC level if you so desire. For Xbox, there are plenty of avatar add-ons as well. If you're into that sorta thing…

You're offered normal and "no sweat" difficulty modes. So far as I can tell the only actually difference is the number of continues made available to you, but it's possible the enemies are less tough, too. You're normally only offered one continue (which you can boost to 2 with a Spirit), but "no sweat" means you simply keep chugging on no matter what.
I think the general difficulty of the game depends on your familiarity with the weapons. I found the game much easier when I used weapons I loved and understood. Hack and slash fans will probably have a one-up on others, since that skill is quite prevalent in Bastion. For me, the rest of the difficulty rests simply on the complete ambushes you'll frequently suffer. The enemies often arrive unexpectedly in very large numbers, making the battleground very busy and difficult to manage. There is a particular enemy called a 'Lunkhead' that caused me endless grief. In fact, the only time I ran out of continues was due to these asshats. I hate them!
Upon completion, you'll not only unlock New Game Plus - which is what it always is - but you get Score Attack Mode, too. I haven't delved into this just yet, but the game describes it as a fully unlocked mode with repeatable areas and a scoring system.

There doesn't appear to be a time clock in Bastion, which is a shame because I have absolutely no idea how long I spent on it. The design of the game means it was easy for me to conquer big chunks in little time, and I spread it out over a few days so I honestly don't even have a guess. I'm confident in saying I spent less than 15 hours... in fact I'd argue less than 10, but I can't be sure. Suffice it to say Bastion is not a long or tedious game.

So. What's wrong with Bastion? Not much. I'd have preferred fewer enemies that required more thought to eliminate, rather than an overwhelming swarm in which you just button mash and hope for the best. And I'd argue that the look of the Kid walking around is a bit awkward and clunky. You get over it quick, but still…

That said, should you play Bastion? Hell yes! Bastion will appeal to a number of gamers. There are hack and slash and shooter components, it's pretty as fuck, easy to play in short or long bursts, has an incredible soundtrack, and you can take whatever you like from the plot. Just a means to move on, or an incredibly deep war story? Your call. It's worth every penny of the $15 bucks or so you'll pay for it on the Xbox marketplace, and PS4 and Vita owners can find it on PSN now, too (I think it's also available for PC, but I'm not too knowledgeable on that stuff). If you're still not convinced, download the demo and have a go first, but bear in mind that you're only getting a small slice of the pie there.
If you liked this game, and are part of the PS4/PC crowd, the developer has another title called Transistor. If you've played it, let me know what you think! I'm excited to check it out next year.

LOTIPS
  • Watch your step. No seriously. I could not even keep track of how many times I fell off the edge. It will hurt you.
  • When you're surrounded, use the RS to defend. Find your foe's pattern and simply rotate. 
  • I recommend the Bullhead Court proving grounds as soon as possible. You'll learn a lot there.
  • In fact, go to all of them. Even if you don't clear them, you'll learn a lot about how to use each weapon, and it'll help you choose your mains.
  • The third upgrade for every weapon is painfully similar to the first, so don't stress too much about it. (Plus, you unlock more later anyway!)
  • I saw an in-game tidbit that said you can replenish tonics at some Arsenals. Would have been nice to know that earlier…
  • If you check your inventory while in a level, it will show you the Vigils available for completion during the that level.
  • Slinger's Range. WereWhiskey. You're welcome.
This is the most accurate review of Bastion you will ever find.

2 comments:

  1. What a great, and thorough review. This is one of my favourite games, the narration and soundtrack are so great. Usually things like proving grounds and combat challenges wouldn't appeal to me but I went for the top rank in all of them in this game, the combat is so satisfying.

    Have you played Transistor? While the gameplay in that didn't appeal to me as much, the soundtrack is worth a listen.

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    1. Thanks, Pam! It's definitely earned a very high distinction from me as well. I'm glad it was brought to my attention. I can't tell you how hard I raged getting top prize at some of those proving grounds! So worth it though.

      I've not had the chance to play Transistor yet, but it's definitely on my radar. I think the soundtrack was done by the same guy as Bastion, though, so it's sure to be good!

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