Technically Not Indie Time: Bastion (part 1)

After finishing LIMBO (read about it here), the next game on my list was Bastion, the first title from Supergiant Games. Bastion is technically not an indie game, as it is published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (I am defining “indie” as “self-published”). It was, however, in development long before that deal was signed, and most of the press is treating it as an indie title.

I’ve been excited about Bastion for a while, after hearing about it while it was still in development. In addition to some gorgeous visuals, it has an intriguing cowboy western vibe, complete with a narrator who sounds like the old, sage mentor of a young gunslinger in a western film. Released back in July on Xbox Live Arcade and in August for PC via Steam, I have only now started playing. It’s a bit longer than LIMBO, and I estimate I’m only halfway through, but I’ve seen enough to give some of my thoughts on the game.

The narrator is what will catch most players’ attention first. Even before the first visuals have faded in, we hear his voice, and he’s a constant companion from that point forward. And in many ways the narration is the most remarkable part of the game; not only is the voice work excellent, but the narration actually responds to what the player is doing in the game. Everything from battle tactics, to accidental falls, to the choice of paths, to simply deciding to smash some stuff rather than proceeding… all of these earn unique remarks from the narrator, and manage to do so without missing a beat. As I played further I was waiting for the narration to slip up, but it hasn’t, so far. It’s really quite remarkable, and plays a huge role in setting up the atmosphere of the game.

The visuals certainly don’t hurt either. The hand-drawn (or painted?) backgrounds are colorful and gorgeous, and while the characters are actually 3D models they’ve been painstakingly styled to fit with the backgrounds. This is done so well in fact that I originally thought they were 2D as well. But it’s not just the art itself, it’s the general artistic design that is so remarkable. Starting on a rock floating in the sky, the player discovers that the ground reassembles itself at your character’s feet as he moves through the levels, an effect which looks fantastic. Then there’s the character and enemy design, which is wildly imaginative. For example, an early enemy is the “gasfella”, a creature seemingly made of gas that is nevertheless able to swing a pickaxe at you. Later, I discovered that gasfellas are actually the same species as the small, teardrop-shaped squirts that I had also faced, just at a later stage of life. I’m not sure whether gasfellas eventually grow into the huge balloon-shaped scumbags, or if it happens the other way around. The game’s music is also excellent, and perfectly fits the strange fantasy-western feel. The music that plays at the title screen is a great example.

The actual gameplay is nothing revolutionary, but it is quite solid. Most have described the game as an action-RPG, but it feels more like a straight action game to me. More Zelda than Diablo. The RPG elements are there, certainly, but consist mainly of upgrading the pre-set weapons and choosing which pair of weapons to use at any given time. The weapon variety is actually quite nice, with plenty to choose from (I still haven’t found them all) and each behaving differently. The earliest weapons are not obsoleted by later ones either; each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and each encourages a different style of play. There are also optional challenge areas designed to train the player in the use of each weapon.

The default PC controls are a little awkward. The WASD keys for movement don’t allow for enough precision, and are especially annoying given the isometric perspective which means you’ll often want to move diagonally. There’s gamepad support, of course, although the game didn’t detect my third-party pad; it’s set up for an Xbox 360 controller. I’m sure I could have gotten it working with some third-party software, but before messing with that I tried the alternate mouse-centric control scheme, and stuck with it. After rebinding a few keys it was nearly perfect. Using the mouse for movement in a style similar to Diablo and its ilk, I bound the block key to the right mouse button, and attacks and dodges to the keyboard. The only change I would have liked to make would be to have my character’s movement stop as soon as I stopped pressing the left mouse button, instead of having him continue to move towards the cursor; that would eliminate the need for the awkward “stop” key. But I’ve slowly gotten used to that and am now moving, dodging and battling through levels like a pro.

But, as I’ve argued before, it would be a mistake to judge Bastion on its gameplay mechanics alone. The real reason to play Bastion is to experience its beautiful, strange world, and start to uncover its mysteries; for this, the gameplay is more than good enough. The world is really the star in Bastion, and the game is designed to let it take center stage. The narrator provides some background information, but he’s surprisingly cryptic about a lot of things, leaving the player to slowly discover the history of the world, the history of the characters and their motivations, and the nature of the Calamity that shattered the world into floating fragments. And all of this is brilliantly formulated and presented; even the various weapons have their place in the history of the world, as the favored arms of various groups of people that the player learns about as things progress. The early part of the game raises a lot of questions, and I’m just starting to get some answers. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

I’ll post some final impressions when I’ve finished the game, but so far I’m very impressed. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. Visit the game’s webpage for links to buy it on Steam or Xbox Live Arcade.

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One Response to Technically Not Indie Time: Bastion (part 1)

  1. Nate Sheetz says:

    Oof. I just spent almost two hours fighting with PS3 controller drivers for my PC, finally got the controller recognized and working in Windows, got Bastion to recognize it… but oops, none of the buttons actually work in game. :headdesk:

    Anyway I think I’ll just play the damn mouse-based controls instead. Thanks for the recommendation.

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