A rough-and-ready looking young man wakes up alone in the middle of a ruin, as a mysterious narrator with Old West flair describes his every move. It seems that this young man knew that a disaster was going to beset his world, and he and his friends had a plan to meet up in the Bastion - whatever that is. With that, my demo time with Bastion at PAX East began. Bastion is the first offering from proud indie developer Supergiant Games, which describes itself as "two guys and a girl in a house in San Jose," plus a few scattered friends. The game itself, however, feels nothing like a garage effort. It's a well-tuned action RPG that sports superior production values from the get-go. The demo featured the game's introductory area, which thrusts the player directly into the action.
The player's goal in the beginning of the game seems simple: get to the Bastion and rejoin everyone else. This goal is presented by the narrator, who names the protagonist "the Kid" and serves as a guide to the player. His voice and delivery are perfect for the post-apocalyptic semi-Western setting, and lend the game the flavor of an evolving story, especially as the narrator reacts to things that the player does. In the portion of the game I played, the developers had hit a sweet spot for using the narrator, with just the right amount of comment on the proceedings that he never wore out his welcome.
"The development team has pulled off a high-concept game that is also unpretentious and fun."
As the Kid moves around, the game world is constructed around him, bricks and tiles flying together to form hallways and rooms. In a refreshing change from many other action RPGs of this type, the levels aren't randomized. This allows for well-designed challenges for the player to conquer. Bastion's introductory area begins with a series of basic game tutorials, and ends with a taste of the challenges that await the player in the rest of the game. The player must deal with monster ambushes in crowded quarters, corridors lined with archer-style creatures, a boss fight, and finally a segment in which the area begins to crumble and the player must race to safety, while of course being attacked by various enemies.
Combat is handled in a familiar way for action RPG fans, with one button for a melee weapon and another for ranged. On the Xbox controller, the shoulder buttons/triggers handle blocking, dodging, and other advanced maneuvers. The controls are tight and responsive, and the player can fight effectively using smack and block, run and gun, or stab and dodge-style tactics. No matter a player's preferred style, the combat focuses on positioning, balancing offence and defence, and developing a strategy to overcome encounters rather than memorizing complicated combination attacks. This makes Bastion easy to pick up and play and should give the game broad appeal.
There are a number of possibilities for character customization as well, all of which are found while playing the game rather than assigned during a character creation process. Players are able to customize character attributes by stopping in at a pub-style station and creating droughts to drink. Weapons are similarly customizable at blacksmith stations, where the player can choose between and alter any melee or ranged weapons found so far. Different melee and ranged weapons work differently, so weapon choice and customization are as much about gameplay preference as statistics.
The shining features of Bastion are the graphics and sound design. Beyond the aforementioned narrator's excellent voiceover, the music and sound effects are quite nice, building the atmosphere without being overly intrusive. The graphics are frankly gorgeous. The hand-drawn watercolour-style pathways and objects are a breath of fresh air in a genre that's usually dominated by paint-by-numbers tilesets. The monster designs were fairly simple in the demo, and will hopefully reflect the same level of imagination as the background graphics later in the game. The only complaint one can muster about the game's visual design is that some areas are a bit cluttered, and since the world is built as the Kid walks around it, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where it's possible to go next.
Without spoiling the opening area too much, I can say that my preview of the game ended with me wanting to know the answers to the mystery of why this world is the way it is, and hoping that The Kid will be able to meet and rescue more people in his travels. The premise of the main game, that of building a final refuge for humanity, is appealing to anybody who likes games to be about creation as well as destruction, and the world's secrets are intriguing. I'm excited to get my hands on the final product, both because the game is fun to play and because I want to know how the Kid's story turns out.
In the end, because of the major importance of the game's artistic and sound design to the overall experience, Bastion is a game that needs to be experienced rather than simply read about. While many of its individual qualities sound fairly standard, they come together to form an experience that is interesting and unique. From my experience with the game's introductory area, the development team has pulled off a high-concept game that is also unpretentious and fun. It's certain to be brought out as an example in many future "games as art" debates, but gamers who don't give a toss for that debate will still enjoy simply playing. For that, I take my hat off to them, and I encourage action RPG fans to check Bastion out on its release.