Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bastion Review: Get Up, Now.

(Disclaimer, before we get started: I would not personally consider myself an indie game purist. I'm far more interested in playing unique games, and supporting the designers who want to put something different out there and push the boundaries of what a videogame can be, regardless of who was ultimately involved in getting that game from the concept stage through development, and ultimately into my grubby mitts. In fact, I'm only assuming that there is such a thing as a contingent of "indie game purists" out there, the gamer equivalent to indie music hipsters who insist they played Super Meat Boy before it was cool and hate everything that Warren Spector does because they consider him a sell-out. I have never met such a person, but I'm assuming they're out there, doing I Wanna Be The Guy speedruns and writing vitriolic screeds about the lost potential of Cave Story.)

"Squirt" (t-shirt) by Ashley Hay

What makes an indie game truly independent? Once upon a time, indie games were a verifiably underground phenomenon: small developers, or sometimes just a single person playing the role of designer and programmer, would release a game on their own website, or occasionally just on forums of likeminded enthusiasts. These games would get traded around, built up by positive buzz, and sometimes - rarely - ended up making their way into the mainstream consciousness.

There's no question that this still happens, and that there is still a vibrant community of DIY game development going strong. What has changed - what started to change around 2008, when indie classics like Braid, Castle Crashers and N+ were released on XBox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network - is the way that independent games are able to reach their audiences and gain recognition: namely, through established channels rather than in forums or through simple word-of-mouth. And part of gaining access to these pre-existing channels is for developers to partner up with big-name distributors and publishers.

While it may not be quite as "indie" as something like, say, Kian Bashiri's You Have To Burn The Rope, Bastion most certainly falls into the category of the contemporary indie game, in that it was developed by a small studio (Supergiant Games) and was later picked up to be published by a big company (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment). These days, this is the status quo: it can be compared to the most common mode of independent film distribution, where an individual or small production company create a movie, take it on the festival circuit, and, if they're lucky, garner the interest of an established distribution. Kevin Smith's "Clerks" is still considered the definitive indie movie, even though it was distributed under the auspices of Miramax. By the same token, Bastion should still be considered an indie game even though Warners was ultimately involved in getting it into the hands of players.

"Bastion Squirt Plush" by Arixystix

I guess my point with all of this is to try and place Bastion on the spectrum of games ranging from extreme indie (Mark Leung, ie: the indie-est game I know) to entirely commercial (Call of Duty: Black Ops, the biggest-budget, most by-the-numbers videogame ever made) and coming to the conclusion that it falls somewhere just indie of center. Thanks to its high visibility on a console channel, it's hardly underground; but it's also very clearly a labour of love and a product of individuals with cool ideas and a desire to push the boundaries of what games can do, rather than a full-force team of industry developers.

And Bastion does a number of very interesting things. The most apparent example of this is The Narrator, who is both an NPC and, quite literally, the game's narrator. Games have played with the role of omnipotent narrator in the past (everything from Dear Esther, which was more narration than game, to the episodic Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse, where the Narrator shows up in-game as an interactive character, not unlike how Bastion handles its Narrator) but where Bastion differs is how it incorporates and utilizes its Narrator. Narration is done on the fly, recapping your actions as they occur: this may be as simple as a pre-scripted commentary when your player character, The Kid, takes damage or uses a special skill, or as off-the-cuff as the Narrator telling an unrelated tale as you battle your way through a level. The sheer amount of scripting is impressive, given that The Narrator is the only speaker for the game's duration, and that the fact that it comes across as dynamic and dependent on one's choices raises Bastion from the realm of the established interactive narrative to one which is being written as the game is being played. It's a highly novel experience and hopefully the success of Bastion sets the stage for this sort of mechanic being used to even greater effect in the future.

Nominally, Bastion is an action RPG based on a three-quarters isometric level system. There are weapon upgrades, character levels, buffs, achievements and a shop; there's even, through the amusing mechanic of praying to a particular deity, a means of implementing handicaps for boosted XP or monetary benefits. All of these elements of Bastion have been done elsewhere and are not particularly new, but they're presented in such a simple and straightforward way that they feel fresh and serviceable. At times, Bastion reminded me of a less-complex roguelike, or a more artsy Diablo. It's a short game - my playthrough lasted less than six hours, and I would consider myself a moderate completist... I would imagine a single playthrough of the primary campaign could be stretched out to no more than ten hours or burned through in four. The New Game+ mode allows the player to retain their character, XP, items and all, while playing through the same levels with various additional elements and options.

"Bastion Arrives" by Jen Zee

The artwork and visual style of Bastion deserve special note. Designed by artist Jen Zee, there's a painterly, oils-on-canvas feel to the game's look, similar to that of Braid. Each landscape that The Kid visits stands unto itself, from lush green forests and jungles to snow-covered ruins, and the "road rises up to meet you" mechanic - in which the world seems to be assembling itself around you - is a clever take on the traditional "fill in the blanks" style of map exploration. The world of Bastion comes off as having a history and despite the repeated references to The Calamity that destroyed the world, it never feels post-apocalyptic or monotonous. Played in high-definition at the highest resolution settings possible, Bastion is absolutely stunning.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Bastion is how Supergiant Games clearly saw a number of failings in modern videogames and sought to address them as effectively as possible. One might not even notice these subtle design choices on a standard playthrough, which only speaks to the thoughtfulness of the designers. For example, there are no lengthy Wall of Text descriptions or narrative expositions anywhere; instead, presenting The Narrator or one of the other NPCs with an item will prompt a close-up of the item along with a short, typically one-line descriptive response. The Narrator spins tales of The Calamity, Bastion, The Kid, and various other characters while The Kid plays through a level simultaneously; the information being provided is only necessary to the background story, not to the actual gameplay of Bastion, and so listening to it with half an ear doesn't really impede anything. Rather than providing an endless number of modifications, upgrades, character levelling options and so forth, Bastion offers a minimalist RPG experience without ever coming across as simplistic or stunted.

It's a fascinating experience, playing a thoughtful game. Unlike the Saints Row IIIs and Street Fighter x Tekkens out there, which are no more and no less than they appear to be, there's something very refreshing about playing a game like Bastion that strives to be something more than the sum of its parts. This isn't to say that it's a perfect game, by any stretch; besides being on the (far too) short side and doing just one thing well (that one thing being isometric hack-and-slash), Bastion does have a tendency to come off as explicitly self-aware, just falling short of injecting meta-text into the proceedings. Whether or not this is a negative depends on how much you like thinking about the game that you're playing: a game like Diablo requires very little of this and instead demands immersion, while a game like Braid is, in my opinion, all the more enjoyable for its slight detachment, not to mention its deconstruction of certain traditional gameplay mechanics.

While Bastion is in no way as intellectually detached as Braid or Dear Esther, nor is it a meta-textual joke like You Have To Burn The Rope, Barkley: Shut Up And Jam! Gaiden or Cthulhu Saves the World, it does have elements of both, and shares something of the same underlying self-reflective commentary on games and the game industry, whether it realises it or not. The fact that it skirts this potential pitfall and avoids becoming the dreaded "Game About A Thing" is a testament to the skill and sense of consideration on the part of Supergiant Games, and I look forward to see what they come up with in the future. As for Bastion, I think I can honestly say that it's a game I'll be coming back to repeatedly.

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