Bastion quickly got people’s attention when it launched in 2011, in part due to its gorgeous art style, but mainly because of its fantastic use of narration as a story device. A couple of years have passed now, so how does it fare?
It is immediately apparent that a lot of time and thought has been put in to the art and design of Bastion. It has that subtle, painted, concept-art type look, with a broad pallet of colours, and a distinctive world.
The world is a mostly-flat plane of seemingly cobbled-together bits and bobs. The world will build itself as you approach and fall apart as you steal Cores in order to build a new, more stable world. The art-style is very Myazaki-esque, as are the enemies, whereas the PC and NPCs are more reminiscent of old-school JRPG characters. The combination works perfectly, but the laconic, Southern drawl of the omniscient narrator ensures Bastion keeps its Western flavour.
The narrator is many things in the game. He is – rather obviously – the narrator, recounting the story of “the Kid” as you play it, and he is also a tutor of sorts, the lorekeeper, historian, endless font of knowledge, and the first NPC you meet. The Kid might be a boring, anime-haired protagonist, but the Narrator adds enough character to the game to make up for the player-character’s lack thereof.
Bastion manages to have a distinctly retro, nostalgic feel, without having to rely on pixel art. I love me some pixel art, but it’s great to see a game that can look past the graphics to see what made games great back in the day. Bastion feels to me, like what the Legend of Zelda or ChronoTrigger would look like if they came out today – bright and clean, yet mature graphics, an interesting world and a story that doesn’t feel the need to cram itself down your throat all at once. Sure, plenty of it is told directly to you by the Narrator, which is the laziest kind of storytelling, but at least it’s given to you in bite-sized morsels as you progress. There’s also a smattering of lore in the descriptions for many items, but you’re free to pay as much or as little attention to the backstory as you like.
The meat and potatoes of Bastion is level exploration and combat. It’s not genuine exploration, but the way the ground comes up beneath you to give you a path makes it feel like you’re breaking new ground every time you start a level. It’s a powerful feeling – this world is here just for you, it is literally coming to life just for you – and it could even serve as a metaphor for games as a whole.
The combat, sadly, isn’t as interesting or inspiring as the world-building and the story-telling. The core concepts are all in place, but it lacks fluidity. You’ve got a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a shield and a special attack. The shield lets you reflect ranged attacks, and a well-timed block allows you to deal a powerful counter. There are different special attacks to go with the different weapons you can wield, and others that work like grenades, landmines, or various sorts of spells. In theory, these special attacks would help you deal with different situations, but in practice you can only equip one special attack at the hub world, when you have no idea what you might end up facing in the next level. A less restrictive specials system could have really helped to open the combat up.
I’m happy to forgive the slightly clunky combat in Bastion, because they’ve given us a rich, detailed world, an interesting story and a fantastically unique storytelling format with the dynamic narration. Countless other games give us good or even great combat in dreary brown-and-grey worlds, so I know which of the two possibilities I’d prefer.
Bastion is well worth the time it will take you to explore its world.