Bastion – Final Review

Aesthetically, Bastion is a masterpiece, its environments often singular in their beauty, abounding in creativity and whimsicality. Much of this beauty stems from the bold usage of color, vibrant greens having a very prominent presence, resulting in an almost inviting atmosphere, suggesting tranquility, bliss. But the color palette is multi-faceted – it is not monopolized solely by green, striking oranges and reds also present, while at times a more moody atmosphere is sought – and frequently realized. The environments show considerable variety, each map very distinct from the last, each map thus having their own unique identity; repetition is fiercely spurned – creativity reigns supreme. Green hills may be explored one moment, frigid wastes the next, resulting also in a perpetual freshness, preserving the joys of exploration, heightened further still when considering the vacillation between daytime and night, some levels transpiring after the sun has set, others occurring as she looms sweetly in the skies above, maps benefitting from her beautiful, sustaining rays, everything baked in light. Rain is a rather frequent occurrence, and when those droplets are falling, moodiness is at its zenith. Clever particle effects, meanwhile, heighten immersion, as snow flakes flitter through the air, or as flower blossoms are similarly tossed about by the wind – here are additional displays of that characteristic whimsicality. The Bastion, the game’s hub-world, is positively brimming with detail, and is accordingly enjoyable to explore, despite its smallness; greens are particularly abundant here, and it truly seems a refuge from a darker, more corrupt world. The Bastion can also be expanded upon, new structures constructed, and this construction process illustrates the fact that the player’s actions do indeed matter, that they are acting upon – and influencing – that world, resulting in a certain impactfulness – the world is dynamic rather than static, being ever-evolving. From a presentation perspective, then, many are the successes, and a certain childlike wonderment is evoked – what will be the precise nature of the next explorable location? Will it occur at night or the daytime, in the dreary rain or under the blazing sun? This curiosity, this excitement, is a wonderful achievement, and it is difficult to overstate these successes.

The narrative, while wholly unique in terms of delivery and construction, is not as compelling as the visual design; a certain imbalance is in place. The narrative’s greatest failing is present from the first, illustrated by the narrator’s first statement, something to the effect of, “all stories start at the beginning. Ours does not.” The narrative opens in a fallen world, though the precise nature of that fall, its causes, is hidden from the player, limiting engagement with that same world, its inhabitants. Either way, a devastating event, the Calamity, has precipitated the destruction of humanity, drastically altering life for all those subject to the occurrence. Life before the collapse is in not developed in sufficient detail, a major narrative failing. If the world and its inhabitants were better known, then the destruction of those inhabitants and their lifestyles would only grow more impactful. But it is not to be. Instead of embracing a more explicit manner of narrative delivery, the game eschews formal cutscenes, and consequently adopts a more investigative tone, as the nature of the Calamity is periodically revealed; the vagueness at the beginning can seem damning, though by the conclusion, as more and more of the lore is obtained and compartmentalized, the narrative has truly hit its stride.  

Even if the narrative remained unengaging throughout, it benefits immensely by nature of its adaptive style of narration, the narrator commenting upon the protagonist’s actions in real time, virtually every completed action drawing some kind of commentary, even the most miniscule, seemingly insignificant of actions warranting this commentary, and it is astounding to consider how many different voice lines are present within the title. The narrator’s presence, his speech, results in many cinematic qualities, contributing to the game’s forging of a more distinct identity. The gravelly nature of the voice acting also endears the narrator to the player, and it is clever that this narrator has a tangible presence within the gameworld, settling down in the Bastion; he is not some disembodied non-entity, but is instead an actual character, who greatly expands the lore, oftentimes showing his knowledge of life before the Calamity. Despite the fact that he is almost always speaking, his presence never seems excessively intrusive; instead, it is seamless. But somewhat of a failing is present, when considering the vast majority of this dialogue is communicated while in combat. Combat generally can be highly frenetic, demanding considerable concentration. In consequence, it can be difficult to focus on the narration and the gameplay simultaneously, which dampens potential narrative strengths, owing to this divided attention. It is a small gripe, but certainly worth mentioning, while the narrator’s dialogue again contributes to the game’s sense of dynamism, its ever-changing nature. The narration never grows tiresome or unengaging, but it would certainly benefit by the inclusion of more traditional cutscenes, for variety’s sake, and for the sake of narrative coherence: here is great potential. As matters stand, a beautiful world steeped in history has been created, and that selfsame world is populated by interesting individuals like the narrator, and while sorrowful betrayals and defeats are present, they are rarely as impactful as the developers might have desired. Generally, despite the compelling world-building, the narrative is carried by the adaptive narration, novel and original certainly, though incapable of fully masking other narrative failings.

The gameplay on offer here is deceptively complex, that complexity only growing as the narrative continues ever onwards – the progression systems are remarkable achievements. Initially, the game seems like a mindless button masher, seeing the repeated pressing of the attack button until the opposition collapses. By the end-game, however, immense are the gameplay depths, immense are gameplay flexibilities, a decided strategic component arising. Foundationally, the player is permitted to carry two weapons, a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, though a shield is also wielded at all times. The control scheme on offer here is reminiscent of that found in the Fable series of games, and the controls generally are very intuitive: one button controls the melee weapon, another is dedicated solely for ranged weaponry. The shield is also crucial to success, capable of deflecting blows, and in some instances reflecting those blows back towards their firer, being a highly useful object in combat. Furthering this complexity are various equipable skills, oftentimes having vastly different effects, different purposes. Given that only one of these skills may be equipped at any one time, the player is forced into making a strategic decision – herein lies complexity, that complexity only expanding as more and more skills are unlocked. Many of these skills are viable, even as certain of them trend towards the gimmicky, serving little practical purpose, though experimentation marks one of the game’s greatest gameplay strengths. Each weapon handles differently, and the player will likely gravitate towards weapons which simply feel right, and they can depend upon that choice because, again, each weapon is viable, destructive.

And the choice of weaponry is immense, new weapons dispersed at a fairly generous rate – here are hammers, spears, and swords; here are rifles, revolvers, bows, and pistols: the armory is incredibly diverse, and the gameplay generally soars, enjoyability heightened even further when considering the upgradability of all weapons. Resources can be expended in the Bastion, drastically altering the function and strengths of any individual weapon, some merely increasing magazine size, others having a more creative purpose, such as one upgrade which causes pistol bullets to ricochet off of various surfaces. Even more complexity arises with the introduction of equipable tonics, which serve various functions, like increasing health or the restorative properties of health potions, alongside countless other tonics with similarly empowering effects. Slots for these tonics are finite, small, again forcing decision making. The gameplay, then, so basic and mindless on the surface, gradually grows to explode in terms of depth, complexity.             

When regarding game design, Bastion embraces some fairly strange principles, particularly when regarding level design, which despite their beauty are very brief in terms of length, many completable in no more than five or ten minutes, none of them demanding great time investment. In this sense, the game has almost mobile-like qualities, seemingly crafted for those with finite time, those unable or unwilling to sit down and play a game for any protracted duration. Protracted sessions are indeed possible, and the game benefits from such extended playtimes, though still the levels’ brevity is notable. The great haste with which new levels are thrown at the player of course means that environmental repetition never sets in, instead increasing the joys of exploration; no map outstays its welcome. Still, longer stages would upset this formula, and their increased complexity would result in depth, diversity; these aspirations for succinctness are personally very divisive. Also unique is the map selection screen, quite stylized and beautiful. Accessible in the Bastion, each region has their own icon, while the narrator provides a bit of backstory upon that specific region. The spurning of more open-ended design further contributes to the game’s originality, as player freedom in selecting which region to explore is actually quite limited. In some instances, multiple levels are accessible at any one time, and the player can choose precisely which region to explore. But this freedom is largely anomalous, and the game fiercely and affectionately adopts a more linear approach.  

Also notable is the upgradability of the Bastion, initially quite barren though eventually growing to possess manifold different structures, further reflecting the game’s desire for dynamism. Once a level is completed, a shard is obtained, which can promptly be expended to construct a new structure. Some freedom is present here, too, in that the player can choose which structure to build and in what order, and the presence of this freedom only makes more desirable even greater freedom; the linearity seems somewhat restrictive. A blacksmith can be constructed, alongside a bar which permits the equipping of tonics, and so on; numerically, these structures are present in fair abundance, and it is immensely satisfying to remedy that barrenness, to metamorphose a place of relative ugliness and vacancy into a place of beauty, grace, and grandeur. One construable building also permits the completion of challenges, which, when completed, reward the player with an oftentimes hefty sum of currency, which can then be expended upon upgrades, skills, tonics, and the like. The inclusion of this building results in a very satisfying gameplay loop, as challenge completion is deliberately sought. These challenges are oftentimes enjoyable to complete, though not all are excessively difficult. Indeed, the game generally seems tranquil and inviting; it is actually a challenge to fall in battle, especially when considering the white-haired protagonist can be resurrected a handful of times before true death settles in. This inviting nature must not be considered a flaw, but must instead being considered another marker of the game’s great uniqueness, managing to neatly condense RPG design philosophies while discarding their sometimes frustrating complexities, replacing them with engaging, easily understandable mechanics. Challenge gauntlets exist for every individual weapon, and these challenges are oftentimes brimming with challenge; accordingly, the rewards for their completion are immense. In a wise decision, none of these gauntlets are mandatory, present only for completionists or those deliberately seeks challenge. They can be rejected, total focus lavished upon the central narrative, though in the act of ignoring, the player misses out on useful resources and abilities, which can make the game more enjoyable, complex.  

While Bastion is abounding in compelling gameplay characterized by hidden complexities, it will largely be remembered for its creative excellence, its usage of bold, vibrant colors and environmental diversity, resulting in an overall rich gameplay experience. The narrative shows considerable ambitions, centered around an impossibly well developed world, an impossibly devastating occurrence. These ambitions, while present in great abundance, are not always realized, and it was at times difficult to engage with the Boy, perhaps because he is a silent protagonist. Not all player characters need voice acting, though here that silence is frustrating, that silence making the narrator monopolize the narrative. He does an excellent job, certainly, but complex protagonists directly equate to complex narratives. Even if the game’s ambitions are sometimes frustrated, the game remains a great joy to plays, both because of its gameplay, but also because of the world-building, the occasional discussions of the Calamity, that catastrophic event. Immense gameplay flexibility is also in place, and weapon experimentation marked another source of enjoyability. Finding – or purchasing – upgrade components for those weapons evokes childlike glee and wonder, that sense of wonderment persisting in all aspects of the game’s design. In many ways, then, Bastion is a remarkable achievement, possessive of some narrative heft, which is ultimately let down by its loftiness, the decision to open the narrative “in the middle of things.” Had the narrative opened earlier in time, before the collapse, its potential resonance would increase exponentially, as player investment in the gameworld would also increase. Bastion does not realize this fact, and it is accordingly difficult to identity with the Boy, the various other NPCs, even as they show villainy, or, conversely, commanding empathy; the narrative sometimes falters. But a fair degree of content is present here, even as the overall experience is a brief one. Much longevity stems from the obligatory New Game + system, wherein player skills, weapons, and tonics transfer over. The appeal of this mode seems slight, owing to the narrative heavy nature of the game – hearing that same narration for a second time would in no ways be as compelling as the narration of a first time playthrough. Whether or not this mode is rejected or embraced, Bastion displays considerable memorability, its visual presentation differentiating it from so many other titles. It may seek to evoke pathos and emotion, and while it may frequently fail on that front, the depth of gameplay, coupled with environmental beauty, results in a magnificent experience.

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