September 7, 2011

My Thoughts on Bastion

Bastion is a recently released, critically praised Action RPG for Xbox Live Arcade and Steam from new developer Supergiant Games. I just finished the Xbox version and I wanted to note my thoughts. Overall I'm pleased with the game and glad I made the purchase and put in the time to finish it. However, I definitely have some complaints about the game. Despite what my Twitter feed indicates, I didn't find it to be the second coming.

Bastion will immediately impress you in two ways: firstly, it has beautiful, colorful art that really makes it stand out from a lot of games out there. It may definitely sit atop the visual throne for XBL Arcade titles. Secondly, the game uses a highly innovative narrator to comment on the game. You go on a rampage and whack a bunch of crates? He'll comment. You trigger a key story point? He'll comment. This is very unique and incredibly well done, primarily because the voice acting is excellent, the writing is tight and concise, and the narrator scarcely repeats itself.

The narration is a great feature and implementation I expect many developers to steal for themselves. I'm always fuming against games that force me to watch hours of cutscenes or wade through overly-verbose dialog trees to tell me their stories. Games are a uniquely interactive medium and I think it's a mistake for them to chase after books and movies. Bastion, like Valve with Half-Life and Portal, and Naughty Dog with Drake's Fortune has really entered the fray with an innovative form of storytelling. These are the types of things that push the medium forward.

I was very hesitant to pick up Bastion because on the surface it looked like a hack'n slash. Well, it is, but it's a good one and I found it very compelling for the time it took to finish. The controls are very tight and responsive and the game is typically well tuned to provide a challenging experience that requires decent responses. For one, it's a blast to roll past an enemy's attack and get them from behind. Another favorite of mine was blocking just before a blow landed to counter it. The game has options to up the difficulty, but I ignored them. I found the default game to be just hard enough to keep me engaged, but also not frustrated.

On top of tight controls and HUD UI, the game features a good number of ranged and melee weapons, of which the player can equip two at a time. Supergiant Games did a good job of not creating redundant weapons. It took a while, but I finally settled on the Pike and Carbine as my preferred weapons. The Pike has a long melee attack range and tends to have a lot of critical attacks. The Carbine was very effective for dealing long-ranged, high damage attacks relatively quickly. These two fit my play style, but what I really appreciated was that the mix of weapons was perfect for many different play styles. That's good game design.

I greatly appreciated how the character progression element had nothing to do with number and stat crunching *yawn*, but instead focused on upgrading weapons and choosing from a nice variety of passive bonuses to apply to your character. I'd always rather get abilities than improve numbers. I felt more powerful as the game progressed and I felt that I got to make great choices fairly often. Bonus points are awarded for giving me the option to change a choice and mix things up. I hate it when RPGs force me to start over if I mis-allocate a point.

In summary, I was very happy with the visuals, the narrator, the tight controls, weapons, and character progression. Now, for what didn't please me.

The save system annoyed me constantly. You only have the choice of auto-saving and from what I can tell, the game only auto-saved after completing a level. This meant if I finished a level and spent 10 minutes listening to story stuff, fiddling with weapon upgrades, and upgrading the Bastion, it would not be saved. This is just annoying and unfortunate.

I found the levels to all be a bit too bite-sized and insignificant. Many of them could be done in just 5-10 minutes, so it always felt like I was consuming appetizers. However, the levels rarely really changed things up, so I suppose if they were more substantial I'd be complaining that they were boring. Also, considering you cannot save in the middle of a level, I guess this is the preferred option.

If you died twice in a level you had to restart the entire level over. This only happened to me twice, but it was so frustrating for me I had to shut off the console and come back later. I hate having to replay content. I just think it's unacceptable. Give me a reasonable checkpoint and let me replay the point that killed me. Don't make me replay 5-10 minutes of what was easy.

The game constantly forces you to move along very narrow and irregularly arranged pathways. This is fine. What isn't fine is that you can fall of the edge (and you will) and that doing so is quite tedious in the game's isometric view. I don't really know why they didn't just put an invisible wall on the edge of the floor tiles. Falling off just dings your health a small amount and health potions are typically abundant. If it's going to have no effect, then just don't do it. I found it especially frustrating when a monster would spawn in a very tight corner and it was nigh impossible to not fall off. In those cases it did make a difference, and not one I found fair or interesting.

The final point I wish to make, which will probably be the most contentious, is that although the game's story was told in an incredibly cool and innovative way, the story itself was a gigantic video game cliche. The world is destroyed. You have to gather things to rebuild it. After you gather six of these, there's a slight twist and you need to go gather...six more. I audibly said "come on" when it happened. It reminded me of the critically panned fetch quest at the end of Wind Waker. The game has some serious low points, like the "acid trip" level where you go back and replay old levels/ghosts from the past. Then you eat some soup and have another weird "acid trip" like experience. The end level is a hodge podge of 15 second segments that just keep skipping ahead. A lot of this is very poorly explained and its weird.

I don't expect a Pulitzer when I play games, but I suppose I wanted something a bit more original from the team that came up with such a brilliant storytelling mechanic and very compelling world. It just reminded me of something I've already played a dozen times. Based on the gushing on my twitter feed, the game's story was hyped to be the narrative of the century. It just isn't.

All told, Bastion is worth your money. I'm not sure how long it is, but the first playthrough is probably somewhere around 5 hours and the game comes with a bonus mode of sorts where you can replay with all your weapons, XP, and try out new challenges. Bastion is a beautiful, expertly crafted game. It's just very refined and polished and despite some annoyances, the team's pedigree shines through.

I am very much looking forward to whatever else Supergiant Games creates.

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