Developed by: Supergiant Games
Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Supergiant Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: Out Now
After recently playing the superb Hades from Supergiant Games, it pressed home the need for me to amend a severe gap in my gaming portfolio – you see, Supergiant are a developer I regard very highly, through time with Transistor, Pyre, and Hades, but for some reason I had not played their original 2011 breakthrough hit Bastion. Until now! After purchasing it digitally for Switch, I got to witness the awesome way it interweaves a distinct narrative approach, wonderful art direction, and gripping action gameplay. Those are all aspects which Supergiant is known for across their games, so seeing the origin is fascinating. At the same time, comparing it to their later efforts does shine a light on certain rough edges within Bastion which are perhaps understandable given it being released earlier.
I Woke Up Like This
An immediately striking aspect of Bastion is how it presents the narrative; as in, it literally has a narrator. You start the game off waking up as the Kid – the protagonist – on an isolated floating platform, with a vague concept of the world having suffered a catastrophic event that split it apart. As a survivor, you are battling through the aftermath in order to uncover what caused this Calamity and how to potentially fix it. The Kid is mainly silent; the Narrator (Logan Cunningham) is the one giving context as you progress, talking over your gameplay with a poignant but witty tone befitting the Supergiant style. Paths form underfoot as you move, emphasising that this is a crumbling world you are piecing together. Narration continues in tandem, everything encouraging you to keep moving, keep playing.
This initial stage of the game is efficient at teaching you all you need to know – from the third-person isometric movement, to which parts of the environment you can traverse/destroy, to the combat. Make no mistake, whilst there are RPG elements, Bastion is first and foremost a real-time action game. The first weapon you encounter is a hammer, reliable for dealing damage in a direct way; you soon start to find alternative weapons, such as the bow (my favourite, shock), a machete, guns, and many more besides – there is a real creative feel to the sheer amount of choice. Furthermore, by picking up Black Tonics you are granted access to special moves you can deploy – such as a spinning attack for the hammer.
When you finish this tutorial-esque area, you get to a hub location, the Bastion itself. Rebuilding it is core to rebuilding the world; when you first reach the Bastion, you actually meet the narrator himself in person: Rucks, a sort of guide for the Kid. He explains the state of the situation and how, in order to potentially bring back all those lost, you must venture throughout the world to collect Cores that will revitalise the Bastion. By doing this, you additionally open up new facilities: for example, for upgrading your equipment with collected fragments, viewing your collections, and more – it is a very rewarding gameplay loop that means you eagerly anticipate returning after each outing. The end goal is that if you continue to do this, eventually you shall fully restore the Bastion…
As you are led through initial excursions, the feel and flow ingrain naturally – fast-paced but never overly chaotic. If that reminds you of my description of Hades, that’s apt. However, as you would perhaps expect three games on, that comparison makes Bastion seem lacking in certain areas. Movement stuck out in this regard; there is an option to roll that helps with evasion, but it is a bit clunky and can feel ineffective. Similarly, when you are hit, sometimes you are sent into the air with the option to recover and land on your feet, but the way this is animated against the background can make it difficult to judge. These are certainly small issues, exacerbated by how later games from Supergiant have improved in this department; the majority of combat in Bastion is responsive and energetic. Also, there is an impressive balance – it consistently ups the ante on challenge, striking a fantastic note of giving just enough initiative to keep you in control of whether you succeed or fail. Take your health – it and the health tonics for replenishment are not plentiful, but there are enough dotted around to keep you teetering on a fine edge.
You can have two weapons equipped at once, so mixing and matching in the arsenal to find your ideal combo allows much choice and personalisation. For example, with the bow and the machete, I had ranged and close-quarters scenarios covered. As you get deep into the game, some quite outlandish weapon configurations pop up that surprised me and help to make Bastion stand out from other action games with more reserved selections. Here is where I have another small gripe though, as when you find a new weapon, you are forced to equip it at the expense of your current loadout – at times this was a bit awkward as I had taken time to choose my weapons and now had to wait to change back. I get that it ensures you try them all out, but a prompt to ask you whether you would like to revert to your previous set-up would have been welcome.
Cast Your Mind Back
Working across the world map, your ventures get increasingly precarious. Not only the enemies you face, but the environments too; tangled grass or falling ground can quickly put a new spin on battles against adversaries you were previously comfortable against. This is done within vibrant yet melancholy graphics, everything very stylized, with bold colours yet a high level of detail. It is an aesthetic that means even when a lot is happening on-screen, you can judge the positions of others and yourself clearly – though, as mentioned before, certain backgrounds do run into perspective issues when you are rolling or in mid-air. Enemies themselves are delightfully varied to further keep you on your toes – close-quarters and ranged attackers are joined by shielded plants, teleporting fighters, flying birds… They all have distinct traits that give them personalities of their own, emphasised by the comments of the Narrator. In terms of tightly honed action scenarios, Bastion is brilliant at keeping it fresh.
It isn’t all action though, as more narrative-driven moments are peppered in to break up the flow nicely. You will meet the charming Zia (Ashley Lynn Barrett) in a beautiful musical sequence, complete with lyrical track – yes, this is the beginning of Supergiant incorporating beautiful original songs! Later on, you also encounter the mysterious Zulf (Darren Korb), who causes much suspicion, founded or unfounded… By presenting items you find to them when back at the Bastion, you unlock new dialogue and info fleshing out their characters and the lore of the world. It’s another way that Bastion rewards you for your adventures, contributing to that momentum driving you on. For me, the character of the Kid is the one slight disappointment, being more of a player avatar and less of a character of their own than the protagonists in Supergiant releases since.
The rhythm of gameplay, setting out from the Bastion to find items and returning to improve yourself, is complimented by other side quests. As you move along the Mario-esque world map, the path splinters at several points, with Proving Grounds along the way for each weapon. In these, you are put into an arena specifically tailored to a particular weapon, and then tasked with completing it as efficiently as you can, with 3 different rewards you can unlock depending on how well you perform. For those really trying to hone themselves on their weapon of choice, they are fun asides; on the other hand, with so many weapons in the game, I found myself going past some of them in favour of the main story levels. As intricate trials of your proficiency with different weapons, they are very effective, but they do lack the extra story element the rest of Bastion is so great at weaving in.
A side quest I enjoyed more was Who Knows Where, an occasional arena where the Kid battles through waves of enemies to uncover details on a character. As it continues on, the Narrator delves further into the memories, the gameplay simultaneously getting more intense as you progress. I think why this is more successful than the Proving Grounds is that it maintains that combination of narrative and gameplay that makes the majority of Bastion work so well, and is a key skill of Supergiant Games. Still, the extra twists on the formula these extra levels provide give the player more options and add more richness to the overall experience.
Let’s Go Again
Bastion can be played through in 5-10 hours, but as with many fantastic action games, a lot of longevity can be found in the different ways to play through the game. Beyond the core story, there are plenty of collectibles that unlock new illustrations and pieces of lore, extensive upgrade paths for each weapon, and a Level system running alongside it all. As well as this, a way to significantly alter the game is at the shrine, where you can invoke up to 10 idols of the Gods. Each makes the game tougher in certain ways, but offers more rewards in exchange. Another way to switch it up is in repeat playthroughs, whether that be via a higher difficulty or speedrunning. There is so much to do within a quite compact story!
I mentioned the lyrical music earlier, but before my Final Thoughts, I need to discuss the audio more. Throughout, it is amazing, kicking off yet another Supergiant staple. In tone, the soundtrack leans towards up-tempo tunes, pumping you up for the battles you are walking into, with quieter moments also tailored to with soothing sounds. This soundtrack is one of those that you consciously note and appreciate whilst playing. Considering that you are often in complex combat, with weapon impact sounds, enemy sound effects, and more, that is impressive!
Going back to Bastion has been intriguing, finally seeing where Supergiant Games started – and it is evident why this kicked off their success story, with many core aspects that have been carried over into their 3 games since. The focus on a smartly-told narrative and action-packed gameplay and how the two can combine seamlessly is delightful, delivering on each simultaneously and never feeling as though one is pushing the other back. My main complaint is that parts of the combat feel a bit unrefined, as if Supergiant was still finding their feet a bit within this art style and perspective. The overriding reaction from playing through to the end is one of immense enjoyment, having experienced a cohesive and compelling creation with inviting art direction and awesome combat. Imagine the games this developer could do next! Oh wait…