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The Tech Deck

Head above the clouds: a review of ‘Bastion’

Title: Bastion

Genre: Top-down action/RPG

Platform Reviewed On: PC

Developer: Supergiant Games

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Release Date: July 20, 2011

Films often get criticized for their use of narration as a lazy means of exposition. Narration in video games, on the other hand, has gained no such stigma, mostly due to the fact that it has seen little implementation in the medium. Bastion's choice to place narration front-and-center proves to be both a virtue and a vice. Though the ever-present ramblings of the narrator's buttery-smooth voice certainly succeed in setting Bastion apart on a stylistic level, they highlight the ineffectiveness of the game's attempt at telling a truly meaningful story.

The framework of the narrative is established slowly. Bastion places players in the shoes of a protagonist known only as The Kid, who awakens in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event referred to as the Calamity. The Kid is tasked with rebuilding a floating structure called the Bastion, which supposedly plays some role in mending the damage caused by the Calamity. Players are kept largely in the dark for the first couple hours of the experience before various details on the back-story of Bastion's universe are slowly unveiled over the course of the four-to-five hours it takes to complete the main story. New characters are introduced and bring some elucidations to the narrative, but things are kept eternally vague to the point that, when asked to make the game's final, pivotal choice, I found myself facing a dilemma simply because the game failed to explain to me the ramifications of going one way or the other, and not because I actually harbored much in the way of care for the consequences my actions would have on the world.

It doesn't help that Bastion's tone is almost always deadly self-serious; the script provides little-to-nothing in the way of memorable personality or comic relief, which makes the game's big, climactic moments fail to resonate. If Bastion was more willing to poke fun at itself occasionally, sympathizing with the nondescript plight of its protagonist might have been made a slightly easier task.

Despite Bastion's failure to reach its desired narrative heights, the game's artistic flair kept me mostly absorbed in the experience. The game is beautiful -- so stunning to look at, in fact, that I'd be hard-pressed to find a single frame of the game that I wouldn't want hanging framed on my wall. The strange way the environments smoothly construct themselves around The Kid's movements lends a serene flow to the visuals, as well as an aura of mystery to the environments. I felt like I was truly exploring the locales the game sent me to, and uncovering the secrets left behind after their abandonment due to the Calamity.

The game's blistering soundtrack lends an aura of excitement even in the game's duller moments, and blends flawlessly with the art and narration to create a phenomenal audio-visual experience. Most of the tracks are instrumental, but even the single vocal track keeps up the consistently sky-high quality of the tunes.

Bastion's combat meshes well with the visuals and soundtrack. Though the game is never demanding enough to force players into developing much strategy beyond "dodge, block, shoot, whallop," dodging and blocking and shooting and whalloping Bastion's diverse roster of creatively designed, memorably named enemies is too consistently engaging to warrant much complaint. 

Players accrue a large arsenal of creative weaponry with which they can lay waste to the evils of the game's world. The Kid's signature Cael Hammer/Fang Repeater combo seemed an appealing option at the start of the game, but once I got my hands on the War Machete and the Scrap Musket I quickly dropped the default weapons. Then the same happened when I came across the Brusher's Pike and the Army Carbine, and then again and again as I unlocked the entirety of Bastion's arsenal. The game offers up a few particularly creative, gleefully destructive toys during its late-game that I won't spoil, but suffice to say the variety kept me switching up my loadout continuously over Bastion's entire duration.

Unfortunately, the game's upgrade system is at odds with its pattern of weapon acquisition. The game encourages experimentation through the quick rate at which new weapons are offered up, and yet players are simultaneously encouraged to invest their earnings in a single weapon's upgrade path in order to unlock said weapon's full potential. My tendency to swap out gear for the purpose of trying out all of the creative tools at my disposal prevented me from ever getting the chance to try a fully-upgraded loadout.

Bastion's biggest issue is that it thinks itself to be a better game than it actually is. The game's mechanics are mostly engaging, and its art and music beautiful, but the narrative crumbles under any sort of scrutiny, its lack of foundation causing it to collapse instead of pulling players in as was intended. Bastion is ultimately a breezily enjoyable action-RPG whose considerable reach far exceeds its grasp.

Verdict: 2.5/5 stars