Bastion (2011, 360)

By George Smith / November 4, 2011

Bastion would be perfectly adorable as one of those free-to-play browser games that bored housewives and 8-year-old children seem to be so fond of these days. In such a field, in fact, it might even be the best of the bunch, a tremendous value for the asking price of $0.00 (excluding microtransactions).
   We don't have that here. What we have here is an extraordinarily easy, repetitive action game with minor stat-management elements that they charge you $15 at the gate to play.
   To be absolutely fair, Bastion makes a great first impression. The art — Bastion's greatest asset — is stunning. It is phenomenal, dreamlike stuff that deserves better than this game (though character design, especially the protagonist's, is not quite up to scratch with everything else — but that's par for the course for an "indie" game). The combat is simplistic, yes, but at first it seems simplistic in an elegant, refined way. You master the basic controls within minutes, as the game teaches you the correct timings to shoot, dodge, and attack, with special abilities and a heal button available to you on a limited basis.
   Bastion's opening stages give you hope for what lies ahead, for all the new abilities you will unlock at the game's various shops, as well as the new challenges that will surely come along to put those abilities to the test. The trouble is that, like so many other "indie" games, Bastion never does outgrow its opening stages.
   Yes, there is an upgrade system, but it's not terribly deep. Over the course of the game, you get access to a handful of weapons and your choice of a "spirit" each time you level up. These are basically stat bonuses. In most games that give you several abilities to choose from as a reward for leveling up, there is a sense of gravity to your choice, as they tend to be permanent with serious pros and cons attached to either choice. In keeping with the grand casual "revolution" motto of ESSE, NON ERAT, NON ARTE, however, there are no such dilemmas here: Bastion allows the player to change their skillsets in the hub world, at any time, free of charge.
   Bastion does have another "shop" of sorts, the shrine, where you can enable/disable different idols. These idols give you bonuses when enabled, while also making combat extremely difficult. Some would call this system Risk vs. Reward. Damned lies and balderdash. With most games worth the disc they are printed on, a team of devs will spend months if not years tooling, retooling, and re-retooling the various aspects of the game, including difficulty, until these elements all line up to (hopefully) mesh as a singular piece of immensely playable electronic entertainment. Sure, there might be various difficulty modes to entice players of varying skill, but when one plays a game on NORMAL mode (as opposed to EASY or HARD), one can (or at least should) be reasonably assured that one is experiencing the game as it was meant to be played. The makers of Bastion, like so many of the "indie" crowd, could not be bothered to do this. "Make your own difficulty" sounds great as a selling point to those rotten sons of bitches in marketing who insist that videogames ought to become mere commodities, able to be bested by any nitwit with two brain cells to rub together, but once again, we must remember that the devil is both a liar and a motherfuck.
   Which brings us to the single aspect of Bastion that has every sissy in the games journalist racket creaming into their hoisery en masse: Bastion's "story", such as it is, is told by a sassy, wise-sounding black man named Rucks. The GJR, easily amused peons that they are, would have you believe that Bastion's storytelling device is "revolutionary" because OMG THE NARRATOR TALKS ABOUT YOUR ACTIONS.
   In a game where you had any real plot-related choices to make, this might have been a nifty trick, though it would hardly rise to the level of typical GJR hyperbole. In a game like Bastion, it doesn't matter. Case in point: The first thing you do when you start the game is get out of bed as the world around you crumbles. After you push the stick for the first time to get out of bed, the Narrator says, "He gets up".
   I'm sorry, but aside from choosing a decent voice actor, there is nothing impressive about this trick. It is true that the narration does not come until after the player moves, but so what? Maybe if there was the option to go back to sleep, and the narrator said something along the lines of "The Kid went back to sleep. He slipped into a dream as the world ended around him", then we'd be talking. If Bastion were a game of plot-related choices, a real role-playing game, this particular storytelling mechanism would be worth gushing over. As it is, it is the medium's March of the Penguins, as both works aptly demonstrate that the quickest way to turn something entirely bland and unremarkable into Oscarbait is to hire a warm, soft-spoken Magic Black Man to do narration for the project.
   Bastion's creative director is Greg Kasavin, former captain of GameSpot, the world's largest videogame website. A professor once told a class I was a part of that many reporters with J-school degrees realize they can make a whole hell of a lot more money working for the "Dark Side", and ultimately go into public relations, as the skillset is similar. Even beloved former GamePro editor Dan "Electro" Amrich ended up taking a lucrative gig with Activision, in which he faithfully toed the company line when that institution boned those behind the most lucrative entertainment property today.
   So it is with Kasavin, who undoubtedly possesses a treasure trove of insight with regards to how the mainstream games journalism racketeers would respond favorably to a baby's first action title that co-opted both the "handpainted" art style and the first year creative writing major non-story from Jonathan Blow's artputz wank opus. As the financial and, indeed, the talent bars to entry fall ever lower (game "journalists" are making the fucking things now?), one should not be surprised to see more moves like this.
   So, yes, Bastion does have some pretty competent elements, such as its art design, which deserve a better game. But it is not a triumph, or a gem of a game, or whatever the games-as-abstract-art movement cult would have you believe. It is style dressed up as substance. It is lipstick on a pig.


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