Bastion - Brutal Backlog

July 16, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4

Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.Reviewed on Xbox OneAlso available on PS4, PC and Mobile

It was during a trawl through suggestions for Dungeons & Dragons session soundtracks that I stumbled across music I had not heard in the house for nearly seven years. Bastion was one of those games I watched a friend play, knowing I should go home and download it immediately and then…didn’t. But the sound design stuck with me all these years; mainly because I was absolutely convinced for the longest time that Bastion had Ron Perlman narrating it.  

I imagine I didn’t want to fact-check this at the time because I just adored the idea of Hellboy narrating a video game.

It wasn’t until listening to the soundtrack again (which went down an absolute treat during our D&D session) that I decided that Bastion was well worth downloading and playing through on a rare evening to myself. After a quick Google search to correct me that it was, in fact, NOT Ron Perlman but Logan Cunningham, I cranked the TV up and immersed myself into Bastion.  

Five Minutes In

As games go, I’m not impressed by ‘realism’ in graphics as much as I am about artistic style.  Bastion is a straight up call back to classic PlayStation 1 era JRPG isometric art styles that, for me at any rate, were just so much better than the desperate scrabbles to show off blocky polygons (looking firmly at you FFVIII). Naturally, Bastion is slicker as is the benefit of next generation technology, but straight away it’s an absolute love letter to the genre art style.  

But that’s not what draws you in. In a wonderful expectation subversion, the introductory narration about a vague apocalyptic event called The Calamity continues as you take hold of your character, simply known as ‘The Kid’. We even get fully meta in a matter of seconds: “Floor just springs up in front of him, doesn’t stop to think about why” — and I appreciate that.  Everything you do comes with a smokey southern drawl, and it’s utterly enthralling.  

The game wastes no time in getting its core mechanics taught, either. I already have my giant hammer and rapid fire crossbow, and I’m tearing up all manner of baddies. It’s a essentially a hit, dodge or block, dash mechanic. It’s not complex, but I already know that this is a calm before the storm.

“Sorry, can’t stop to chat! Gotta smash stuff!”

Twenty Minutes In

So I’ve reached the ‘Bastion’ which I’m told by the narrator, who I have now met in person, is a safehouse against the worst happening. The story definitely has that drip-fed vibe to tease me into playing more of the game, but…I’m not that sold on it. But I AM sold on the narrator just saying, well, anything.  We’ve had descriptions of weapons, the modifications of said weapons, alcohol (which you equip for passive boosts and gains), the areas I’m ransacking and the myriad of enemies I’m fighting. SuperGiant Games can’t possibly have recorded that much dialogue for a small bedroom (okay, living room) indie game…?If it seems that I’m focusing on the sound design over the game itself it’s because the mechanics aren’t all that exciting. It does what it says on the tin so far. One hacks, one slashes and one loots.  It’s good, it’s responsive, but at this point in time it’s just functional. The basic premise is to find survivors beyond the The Kid and The Narrator, get ‘cores’ (which seem to make the land float in the sky) to rebuild the Bastion and…that’s kinda it.

Each level drips with a gorgeous watercolour aesthetic

One Hour In

Now I’ve got a cluster of weapons that I can change about in the armory to match any favoured playstyle I wish. At this point in time, it’s a long bow with extra power combined with a superfast machete that has serrated edges that slash at super high speed but also I’ve got a slow swinging monster of a hammer and a rapid fire crossbow; so The Kid has got some options (and there’s quite a few spaces teasing potential other weapons too). Also now I’ve encountered arcade style challenges for specific weapons in the hope of unlocking specific super attacks. And gosh are they addictive — each challenge level pushes you just that little bit more in the hope of getting that super power. They don’t feel unattainable, but they joyfully challenge me.

At this point I’ve unlocked half of the buildings in the Bastion, so I can tinker with weapons and change up the alcohol supply because, in this world, The Kid drinks. But then again, he has survived the end of the world (no, I still don’t know what, why and how yet either…). I wouldn’t say the story has become secondary, but I’m still not drawn into the peril of it either. The levels are consistently beautifully coloured and designed floating lands in the sky, with various colour palettes to change up the level design. The music has a Western and Asian mash-up flavour that strongly reminds me of Firefly (Browncoats, Unite!) that consistently pricks my ears with interest. I really just wish SuperGiant had spent as much time with the feedback on thwacking things with my glorious weapons as they did the sound design. A small sympathetic rumble within the controller would have done!  

We built this city … !

Three Hours In

So I now have all of the weapons (but not all of the special attacks), and I have met and brought back two other survivors. In a slight act of pulling the rug out from under my feet, the Bastion now requires further upgrades, which open up even more options and power-ups —  and I’m glad!  Up to this point Bastion has been easy. Even a thirty-wave monster mode to collect more coin for upgrades was completed on the first run through, and surely such a slog should not be so easy on the first run through? As it is, now I can ‘invoke the Gods’ to gain more EXP by making the game harder. For example, specific Gods can make enemies hit harder, or take more damage. It’s a good mechanic, but one I feel should have been available a little bit earlier in the game. Right now everything feels like a deliberate attempt to lengthen the game by any other means barring an engaging storyline.  I still don’t really understand what and why this is all happening.  

Five Hours In

Okay, so I can finish the final level any time I want, but I’m a bit of a completionist so want to get all of those weapon upgrades. Remember I said that it challenges you by skill? WRONG. Turns out all I had to do was collect enough coin to do some weapon upgrades and VOILA! The challenges fell before my might. Ah well. So much for raw skill.  I’ve grinded out plenty of coin to purchase upgrades and completed ‘vigils’ (small tasks such as ‘shoot five enemies at once with a musket’) that give extra challenge and some bonus coins to the game. Sadly this has all been rather rinse and repeat, which really disappoints me. With so much attention to style, I just wish there was the same level of love and attention to substance. The levels have some subtle differences, but really are often the same kinda thing with a slightly different colour palette. End of level bosses haven’t really left a mark, barring an ‘Anklegaitor’ called ‘Queen Anne’. But again, that was more memorable due to the narration rather than the mechanics. I smashed through the final level in no time at all.

“Woah, this place does not obey the laws of physics AT ALL!”

Final Verdict

If you’re interesting in a different kind of storytelling, or just curious about sound design then Bastion fully delivers the goods. The dialogue talks vaguely about the world and the characters, giving off a strong sense of world building, but if you start to dig and think too hard about it, the lack of depth does begin to show. The gameplay is charming and colourful but the mechanics themselves begin to feel a bit like a chore in their implementation. That being said, it’s a good game to power through on a rainy afternoon if you’re at a loose end. And if you have kids, they will definitely get a kick out of the smash-and-grab mechanics and colourful art style.

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Worth playing? MAYBE - if there's nothing better on your shelf.
Daniel Garrod

You can usually find me scrabbling in the low Golds of Competitive Overwatch (the fact that I'm a Roadhog main this season is a coincidence), or shouting to any poor soul within earshot how amazing Dungeons & Dragons is (it is).