Bastion impresses with creativity

Credit: Katie Chironis | Copy Manager Credit: Katie Chironis | Copy Manager

You can put down Catherine now; the indie game of the year has arrived. I promise.

Amid a sea of unoriginal 2-D action titles released over the last year or so, Bastion manages to distinguish itself nicely. A new XBLA and PC title developed by the independent studio Supergiant Games and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Bastion combines the smooth-as-butter, dungeon-crawler play style of Diablo and Torchlight with lusciously detailed artwork and a compellingly minimal story told in bits and pieces. After an apocalyptic “calamity” destroys the world in Bastion’s backstory, the main character, known only as “the Kid,” must rebuild his home town piece by piece. It is a romantic game, part end-of-the-world story, part fairytale, and part adrenaline-pumping thriller. Not sold yet? The clincher: Your entire game experience is personally narrated by a war-weary version of Morgan Freeman.

Bastion’s unique dynamic narration system is what makes it truly shine; from the first scene in the game through every level, each moment — whether the player is changing weapons, falling off the edge of the world, or drinking the last healing potion — is elaborated upon in exquisite detail by an omniscient narrator (later revealed to be tough-guy character Rucks, voiced by Logan Cunningham). Rucks also delivers much of the backstory as if told by a dear old friend: “There’s three things I always miss, though. One — not having to watch my step all the time. Two — ah, forget about two. And three — I miss the songs. Folks from Caelondia knew how to carry a tune.... Those were the days.”

The narration changes over time, too, eventually going on to remark about the player’s personal style of combat and choice of paths within each level. Rather than distracting from the gameplay or becoming repetitive, Cunningham’s narration converts Bastion into a whole new animal. Rather than a passive auditory experience, it becomes an interactive storybook — a playable novel; the player creates the story as much as he or she also observes it.

The gameplay admittedly is the weakest part of Bastion. The game itself is short, barely four or five hours’ worth of play without completing the available side quests and optional “Proving Grounds” levels. With a total running length shorter than even Portal, players might well be wary of purchasing; then again, for $14.99 on Steam, it’s not a bad bargain. For a total of $9.99 extra, players can also get their hands on the official soundtrack. With everything from backwater bluegrass to melancholic violin pieces to lullabies, it’s composition work that, one could argue, rivals the work of Nobuo Uematsu, of Final Fantasy fame.

Actual play, on the other hand, is nothing players haven’t seen before. The Kid is outfitted with multiple weapons (up to two at a time) which can be fired or used with a single click. Enemies attack in small scripted formations and clumps, and each level revolves around balancing available health potion refills against onslaughts of tricky enemies, all the while attempting to collect key items within the level.

There is one new trick in the bag, though: The base-building aspect of Bastion lends itself to player creativity. Players are given the choice of building different venues within their bastions, and no two bastions are built the same way. As players also gather new pets and NPCs to their bastion, a new town slowly begins to come together.

Ultimately, Bastion’s success can be attributed to a solid combination of nicely polished mechanics and a brief, almost Braid-like narrative that begs thoughtfulness and introspection on the part of the player. More than that, it’s a novel concept — fresh in a way that precious few games attempt to be in today’s Metacritic-formula-driven market. And with any luck, this is just the first in a legacy of great titles from Supergiant Games.