“Now here’s a kid whose whole world got twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky... Ground forms up under his feet as if pointin’ the way – he don’t stop to wonder why.” So intones a silky baritone at the opening of Supergiant Games’ beguiling new XBLA action-RPG, Bastion. “Finds his lifelong friend just lyin’ in the road” the unseen commentator continues in his glorious southern drawl as ‘The Kid’ stumbles upon and picks up an enormous hammer. Then finally, as The Kid clobbers the ground enthusiastically with the hefty tool: “Well, it’s a touchin’ reunion.”
This sliver of an introduction is axiomatic of what makes Bastion such a wondrous locale within which to linger; laconic yet wry voice work, efficiently-conveyed mystery and characterisation, the earth literally assembling itself around The Kid as he moves, and the largest character-to-hammer ratio in video gaming since Donkey Kong. This is one RPG where exposition doesn’t choke the action but rather is infused within it; The Kid’s mysterious narrator not only keeps apace and comments (often humorously) on The Kid’s actions, but also provides background details on the fly as the game swiftly expands. Dynamic narration – though hardly a recent development – has never been as entertaining as it is here.
The Kid was once a citizen of Caelondia, a glorious and bustling floating city that – like a forested Death Star – was nine-tenths of the way complete before an unforeseen event known as the Calamity wiped out its citizens and tore apart its landscape. The Kid’s task, then, is to gather fragments of this old world and with them, fashion a new one. However, Caelondia now exists on a knife edge; unstable underfoot and with many once-subterranean terrors now stalking its fractured surface. These beasts include Gasfellas, Squirts, Scumbags, Ol’ Fellas, Stinkeyes, Peckers and other creatively-drawn, amusingly-named creatures, each of whom float, crawl or ooze their way towards our hero, or lob missiles while keeping their distance.
The Kid’s home base is the titular Bastion, wrecked by the Calamity but able to be rebuilt in the order he sees fit. Expeditions outside the Bastion more often than not grant The Kid a piece of Core – material that revives a fractured building – or a Shard, which upgrades a revived building so more benefit may be derived therein. A distillery for potions, an arsenal for weapons, a forge for weapon upgrades, a shrine for increasing difficulty (and in turn, rewards), a memorial to keep track of unlocks and a lost-and-found for other items are all available eventually, and the management of each is crucial in keeping The Kid alive and exploring.
Proving grounds for each weapon are also available as that weapon is found or purchased, and trials completed therein bestow further bonuses upon The Kid’s arsenal. Though not drawn in such a fashion, the Old West looms large over Bastion with its grizzled down-home narrator, silent white-hat protagonist, western-themed acoustic guitar score and sense of back-country openness.
Combat in Bastion – more third-person shooter than anything - is firmly entrenched at the action end of the ARPG scale, although deeper than first impressions convey. The Kid is finished quickly in wars of attrition and so must constantly dive-roll and weave his way around the screen, using his ranged weapons to keep enemies at bay, ducking in for quick melee combos when a foe foolishly strays from his kin. The Kid’s shield is of great benefit, blocking all but the strongest attacks and when brandished at precisely the right time it deflects incoming missiles back to their point of origin. As well as the shield, two weapons may be carried at once, and a variety of melee and ranged delights are available, from the War Machete to the Scrap Musket and Galleon Mortar. Ammunition is infinite but loading times vary, and some ranged weapons have power shot functionality that – like shield deflection – rely on correct timing to be effectively executed.
A weapon-dependant special move is also at The Kid’s disposal, at a cost of one black tonic. Up to three black tonics and three health tonics may be carried at once, although like everything in Bastion this number is upgradable. As expected, these special moves come in the form of deadly weapon combos but auto-deflection, invisibility and other sneakier options are also up for purchase. Potions are like tonics but their powers are passive, and The Kid unlocks one new one every level he gains, allowing him an extra life without restarting a level, faster movement when blocking, a raised critical hit chance and so on. Favourites of ours include Stabsinthe which grants the ability to auto-retaliate when injured, and Werewhiskey which auto-crits with every strike but only when The Kid is below 33% health.
Narration aside, the most immediately striking feature of Bastion is its lush hand-painted visuals. Manga-style and gorgeous, they are a joy to behold. Backgrounds are varied and engaging, and the character and creature designs are inspired. Colour and haze are used to great effect too, with flashbacks occurring in a washed-out palette and dreamier psychedelic sequences soft-focussed and appropriately ethereal.
The story’s main thread – while initially gripping – wanes somewhat in the second half of the game once some characters who never appear onscreen become its major players, but the lure of Bastion’s lore with its Skyway transport system, boundless oceans and odd traditions endures beyond the final climatic battle and touching resolution. Clever variation within the narrow confines of hack ‘n’ shoot gameplay means battles never grow tiresome, and watching the world come together as The Kid wanders through it never gets old. Beyond the final battle is New Game Plus mode where The Kid begins again with all his power-ups intact and with the narration slyly referencing that he’s done all this before.
Given the precariousness of the land and how easy it is to topple from it, it was a smart move on the designers’ part to have falling from a path merely nibble at The Kid’s HP rather than kill him outright. The inclusions of destructible scenery and monsters that can be lured into battling each other are also most welcome. Special mention must also be made of the music, an outstanding mix of lonely Old West guitar strumming, mournful ballads, and rousing full-band battle numbers.
Some tiny and infrequent aiming and walking glitches aside, it’s ten hours of well-balanced, irresistibly charming gameplay, great visuals and evocative sound design that deserves to be savoured and repeated by the widest possible audience. With this release, Supergiant Games has set a new high-water mark for not only for budget-price RPGs, but XBLA games as a whole. Highly recommended.