We find ourselves once again in the middle of Xbox Live’s annual Summer of Arcade event and, as usual, they’ve brought quite a collection to the table. The first game I picked up from this event was the action RPG, Bastion. I looked at the provided screenshots and thought about the positive things I’d heard, but I still decided to try the demo first. Thirty seconds in, I knew I’d be buying this game.
You are immediately introduced to our ever-silent protagonist known only as “The Kid.” And when I say “introduced,” I mean it literally, since Bastion has a constant narrator. His low, drawling tone pulls you in and is perfectly suited to the delivery of his sober acceptance of the Calamity, an apapocalyptic event that starts the game off, mixed with a grim determination to continue forward, and more than a dash of dry-witted deadpan tossed in. The narrator always had something to say, and whether he was filling me in on what had happened or hinting at what to expect next, I never grew tired of listening to him.
As you move, the world builds itself around you, rising from the depths to catch your every footfall. It’s an interesting mechanic that can take some time to get used to. I found myself walking off the occasional edge while thinking I was going in the right direction. Falling off the edge is a constant threat throughout Bastion, but mostly a toothless one. You lose a small measure of health, and the narrator will sometimes have something witty or somber to say about it, but there are no other ill effects. You quickly find your first weapon: a hammer, soon to be followed by a repeater, a shield, and a special weapon skill.
After a few minutes of gameplay that is essentially a meet-and-crush between you and some of the common enemies you’ll be seeing, you find yourself in the Bastion. The Bastion is this world’s safe haven and stronghold; it will also serve as your home base between missions and will provide the means to explore new areas. Throughout the game, you will be building different shops in the Bastion that will do everything from upgrade weapons and change loadouts to a distillery, which allows you to choose passive buffs. My favorite buff was Werewhiskey, which grants a 100% critical hit rate when low on health. This proved to be a powerful tool, as long as I kept a watchful eye on my health. The few other characters in the game will generally be found in the Bastion as well, and will sometimes comment on things you’ve found whilst exploring.
From the Bastion, you set out on a series of missions to help rebuild a broken world. Along the way, you find a number of different weapons, all upgradable, and a fairly large variety of enemies. It didn’t bother me that all the missions were basically fetch quests; I was too absorbed in the art style, narration and solid battle mechanics to care. One thing I did notice, though, was how easy the game was. It bothered me a little, but about halfway through the game you gain access to Idols, Bastion‘s version of Halo‘s Skulls. These let you tailor the difficulty, and rewards, to your preferences.
The main story is relatively short, about 6-7 hours, but several things help extend its life. First, every weapon has its own challenge mission, each with its own rules for winning and unique prizes depending on how well you meet goals. There are also three “survivor-mode” style missions that aren’t strictly tied to the plot, but give significant backstory and context to some of the main characters. Perhaps the best way Bastion keeps you playing is the game’s New Game Plus feature. New Game Plus is pretty much exactly what you would expect: you keep your level, all your weapons and their upgrades as you start the story over from the beginning. I found it rather satisfying to use upgraded late-game weapons on far weaker opponents when revisiting the first few levels. Bastion provides you with a pretty good reason to play again, too. Late in the game, you are given a few decisions to make. I found these decisions rather difficult, leaving me to ponder the existential ramifications of my actions for several minutes before choosing. I also felt that these decisions had appropriate weight in changing how the story played out, giving two very different endings.
Overall, I enjoyed this game immensely. From the hand-painted art direction to a score that I find hard to describe (acoustic frontier trip-hop is what the creators call it), to the unique narration style, I lost myself in this game. I can’t help but feel that Bastion is this year’s Braid or Limbo, so give it a try. Oh, and don’t forget to enjoy what all action RPGs are made for: smashing things with hammers.
The Good: Interesting story and method of storytelling; music and art style work well; late-game decisions feel meaningful; New Game Plus.
The Bad: Weapon challenges non-repeatable after mastering them; New weapons/skills replace your chosen loadout on pickup.
The Ugly: Only two endings in a game with New Game Plus? Come on, I want 83 endings like Chrono Trigger.