Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive
Sitting comfortably? Then listen close, because we're gonna tell you a story about The Kid.
The Kid was out on the walls when the Calamity hit. His city was smashed into floating islands, his friends and family turned to ash and dust. Now all he can do is run to the Bastion - collect crystal cores to make the heart of the city live again - and murder anything stupid enough to face him down.
And, of course, his every move is narrated by some of the finest dynamic dialogue we've ever witnessed.
At its heart, Bastion is an isometric brawler with tight controls and some nifty innovations. Its levels, as mentioned, are a selection of floating islands that actively assemble before your eyes - with tiles rising up out of the swirling clouds or dropping from the heavens as you approach. This novel structure makes for an unpredictable experience, providing plenty of scope for exploration and secrets to uncover. The Kid's hunt for cores is interrupted by hordes of foes including floating hooded gas miners, putrescence-spewing scumbags and powerful ancient security systems to contend with - so it's a good thing that the fresh-faced young lad is, in fact, a stone cold killer.
A selection of upgradeable melee weapons can be mapped to B, providing The Kid with devastating hammer blows and swift machete strikes - while gunplay is down to the X button. You can chop and change The Kid's gear t0 suit your tastes, or apply a selection of tiered upgrades that are hidden throughout the levels. Even though they only occupy one button, each weapon hides an impressive amount of nuance and tactical depth - such as focus attacks and uppercuts with the Cael Hammer or a tiny window of massive damage for the Breaker's Bow (which, on the flip side, can be somewhat difficult to aim at priority targets). Responsive controls, a complete lack of any latency and excellent balance between upgrades ensures that it's an absolutely joy to dish out the pain - and luckily, it's easy to avoid it as well.
Good defence can sometimes be the best offense, and Bastion takes this mantra very seriously. The Bullhead shield is mapped to the left trigger; an ugly slab of steel that can deflect attacks and send enemy projectiles hurtling back at their source with a well-timed counter. Just as importantly, the A button deploys a phenomenally useful dodge roll, which all action gamers will doubtlessly recognise as the most useful manoeuvre ever invented. Again, there's no lag or cumbersome animatons to contend with.
Combat, therefore, is an absolute joy; a deadly dance of brutal attacks, relocation and desperate defence. Rolling behind tough foes and countering incoming fire is just as important as pressing the advantage, with each arena or engagement offering a different challenge that can be circumvented in many different ways. Which is good, because that's pretty much all there is to Bastion. Thankfully, scant variation between foes is more than made up for by the different arenas and challenges that the floating islands pose - as well as a number of optional challenge missions that provide a break from the action, some puzzle elements and much-needed weapon upgrades. A very simple character upgrade system ticks along in the background (with experience from enemies gradually translating into levels and passive buffs), which turns grind into reward.
Once The Kid has stormed through a level, you'll return to The Bastion. This hovering garden was once the very centre of the living city - and acts as a level hub that can be upgraded with auxiliary buildings once you return with a core. You'll soon populate the place with shops, upgrade centres, a distillery to apply level bonuses via alcohol and even a temple that affects the game world in unpredictable ways. Though each player's Bastion will eventually end up with the same combination of buildings, it's certainly a nice touch to give us the illusion of choice.
Supergiant Games have excelled themselves as far as the visuals are concerned. Bastion is beautiful and genuinely adorable; featuring a warm palette, cute enemy designs and a fresh-faced youthful look for The Kid. The sumptuous backgrounds and detailed sprites bear witness to countless hours of painstaking work, and it's paid off in spades. However, the twist is that the story and action is as mature (and heartbreaking) as it gets - and the balance between the endearing visuals and the horrifying source material (charred corpses, anyone?) will frequently jerk you out of your seat in moments of disbelief. In fact, it makes the poignancy and violence feel more sickening by contrast rather than desensitising us with blood and gore. AAA developers could learn a lot here. Pay attention.
So, Bastion is a slick brawler with cute art design. This would have been acceptable on its own, but the major triumph is an omnipresent narrator who delivers the entirety of the plot, backstory and even the setting. Conventional wisdom dictates that this is a terrible way to deliver exposition... but Supergiant have managed to pull it off by employing some of the finest and most condensed scriptwriting I've ever heard.
At its most basic level, each stage contains plenty of context sensitive sound files that trigger once you reach a certain point. If you decide to go left at an intersection, equip a certain combination of weapons or complete objectives in particular order, the narrator growls out an appropriately badass one liner. The mysterious old man plays it straight, much like a classic noir film, meaning that it consistently clahses with the art style and portrays the fey youth as a hardened, cynical antihero with nothing to lose. It's a blast to hear your actions being directly announced - and though subsequent playthroughs betray a fair bit of repetition, it helps to root you in the world.
And that's where the narration truly comes into its own. As you proceed through the shattered remains of the city, our guide delivers tiny slivers of information that only The Kid would know. The names of smouldering corpses that were once close friends, for example, or little snippets of past events or trivia. We'll still know very little about the world even once we've completed the game, but by making everything personal, the narrator makes genuinely feel like we've lived there for years. The script has packed a huge amount of information into even the smallest sentences, which does more for immersion than hours of cutscenes ever could.
- Fantastic combat, loaded with content
- An enriching juxtaposition of cute visuals and bleak themes
- Dynamic narration delivers a truly personal story, amazing soundtrack
- A tad repetitive
- Targeting foes with ranged weapons can be tricky
- Makes most games look amateurish in terms of storytelling
The Short Version: Bastion is a triumph of non-traditional storytelling and brutal, pixel-perfect combat. It's the perfect start to the Summer Of Arcade... and for what promises to be an exceptional career for Supergiant Games.