I love Bastion. What an absolutely magical, generous game. The folks at Supergiant really outdid themselves. I had expected was something in the Braid model, a quirky indie game built around the premise of exploring one or two core ideas. And while the narrator is certainly a stand-out element of the game, it’s only a part of what makes the game amazing.
The core gameplay is simple but tight. I particularly like the strong priority on input over animation. Just about any move can be canceled out of. It just feels good. Executing a perfectly timed block and reflecting a projectile is particular nice. There’s also a lot of content in the game. I was expecting to get four hours out the game, but it lasted almost twice as long. Every time I thought I had a handle on the scope of the game, it would open up and there would be another level and an interesting new enemy, and some clever new system to play with. At the same time, it’s wonderfully paced. Each level is long enough to feel satisfying, but never so long as to feel grueling.
What’s so remarkable is the amount of control and customizability that’s given to the player. The game keeps handing out weapons right through to the end, and they’re all useful, so hard choices have to be made about which ones to use and upgrade. Each weapon has a cute little challenge associated with it that encourages practice and mastery. There are all sorts of tonics and special attacks that can be equipped to tweak the experience. Difficulty is also customizable. By default the game is fairly easy, but there are idols that can be acquired and activated each alter enemy behaviour in some way that makes the game more difficult. But all of this is optional, and none of the choices are irreparable, so there’s plenty of opportunity for experimentation, and for challenging oneself.
The biggest deal, though, is the stuff around the gameplay. The music is lovely and evocative. The songs are haunting. I have had endless trouble getting them out of my head, especially the closing one: The storytelling is absolutely top-notch. Evocative, again, is a good word to describe it. The story of the world and what has happened to it is rolled out gradually, and the player is left to fill in the gaps as things go along. The narrator is funny and charming, and every word he speaks feels significant. I love the twin reveals first that he’s an actual character in the game, and second that he’s actually telling the story to a specific person in a specific time and place and context. And the game isn’t afraid to have fun with its narrative mechanic. I love the level where the Kid inhales a hallucinogen and starts flashing back to earlier points in the game. Not only does it break up the pace of things, it is also very cleverly used to provide some of the first insight into the Kid’s back-story.
I love that there’s moral ambiguity to the story, and that at the end, I had to make some hard choices based on how I felt about it. For the record, I did the reboot, though I’m still very ambivalent about it. On the one hand, saving everyone feels like the right thing to do on a very basic level, even if it means recreating a flawed, unjust world. On the other hand, it seems wrong to throw away the experiences from the game, to abandon any opportunity to learn from past mistakes. I also saved Zulf. That was a no-brainer. And I’m so glad I did. That sequence, with the song, and all the little touches of animation, is truly something special. Gamers With Jobs has an active thread right now on our most poignant moments in games, and this one comes up a lot for obvious reasons. For me, it puts Bastion on a level with games like Lost Odyssey and Shadows of the Colossus and Dreamfall as the games that made me feel something deep and genuine. GWJ also has a great podcast where they discuss the ending, and the rest of the game, at some length with the game’s writer Greg Kasavin.
One more thing: while it’s on the difficult side, I love the fourth, downloadable Who Knows Where combat arena. Instead of giving character back-story like the other three, the narration is an alphabet book. First of all, I love how it emphasizes the two-sided, slightly sinister nature of the gods of the game’s world. (“J is for Jevel, the God of health and atrophy. We each have the Tower Keeper’s strength in us, until that strength runs out.”) But the one that stands out most to me is ‘K’. “K is Kid, a guy or gal just like you. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, since there’s nothing a kid can’t do.” This makes plain something that was implied by the rest of the game. Greg Kasavin is a father. I don’t know much about the other members of the team, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had kids too, because I suspect this game was created very much for them. Bastion is a throwback to the sort of game that caused myself and people of my generation to fall in love with games in the first place. It’s easy to imagine that the team behind Bastion wanted to give their children just that sort of experience, and that that’s where the passion to create this remarkable game came from.