Answer This Call: Bastion review

By Brian Taylor in Reviews
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 9:00 am
Wake up, Kid.
"Words can't express what happened. But they're all I got."

Words are key in Bastion. Like the similar Night of the Cephalopods, narration is triggered by events in the game. It's not constant, like sports game commentary, and the sounds don't emanate from the player character, like every other game's action-dependent cues.

The tension between words and action are well established in the Western. (That Bastion is a kind of Western is evident from the first dark acoustic strums of its title music.) Generally, action trumps words as more honest Action is closer to nature. Which is why the taciturn cowboy can negotiate the tension between verbal civilization and nonverbal nature but then find himself without a place once civilization dominates.

Any Western has a post-apocalyptic feel, with that struggle between city and wilderness, and building a civilization. Likewise, most post-apocalypses have a western feel. Bastion begins immediately post its apocalypse, the Calamity. What caused the Calamity is, at first, irrelevant -- all that matters are its effects. It's a motivation: the world is broken. The protagonist, the Kid, has to rebuild it.

Here, the Kid is using a shotgun to take out an enemy generator - a popcorn machine that shoots out little annoyances called Squirts.

The second half of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story deals with the rebuilding of a shattered world through the adventures of a kid named Bastian. Here, the Bastion is a place. By finding crystal "cores" scattered across the remains of the city and returning them to the Bastion, the Kid can restore its power to undo the Calamtiy.

As the Kid travels through different parts of the city (essentially linear dungeons), paths rebuild before him. He finds new weapons. Powerful ranged weapons have a kickback or splash damage that could harm you; melee weapons have the old speed-vs-strength trade-off. He equips two weapons and a special ability to destroy the wilderness and the outsiders. The destruction is necessary to rebuild civilization. Inside can't coexist with outside.

But then you start moving outside of the city, in the Wilds. Then you're rebuilding the wilderness, too. And so maybe the outside/inside isn't the wilderness/city, but pre-Calamity/post-Calamity.

The Wilds

As you and the Kid are rebuilding the space of the world, the Stranger is rebuilding its story. Early narration focuses on the Kid and his actions. As you move forward, the Stranger starts talking about what areas used to be, how the city was in the past. Combat never stops, and you don't have to pick up audio logs. Key plot points are reiterated in loading screens, just in case.

Sometimes the Kid ends up in a dream, remixing and revisiting earlier locations. Arenas are dreams where you fight off twenty waves of enemies, each wave accompanied by the Stranger narrating a bit of a character's story. Finish the arena and find out how they survived the Calamity to get to where you met them. That's when you find out that, like cowboys from which he descends, the Kid is an outsider as well. He has to be.

Weapon challenges encourage you to experiment with different upgrade combinations. Weapons have multiple tiers; each tier has two upgrades. Once you've unlocked a tier, you can freely switch between the two options on it. As you attempt to win the three prizes in each challenge, the Stranger tells you about the people who used the weapons before the Calamity, what their lives and training were like.

The Kid smashing up the city's trash in the hammer challenge.

The combination of narration with the gameplay (always in the present for the player) throws a wrinkle into game narratives and the kinds of time they play with. Recalling Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the first time you fall off of one of the game's narrow walkways, the Stranger says, "And then he falls to his death." After the Kid falls from the sky, landing near where he fell off, the Stranger finishes: "I'm just fooling."

The Stranger will tell you that "a story should start from the beginning." But the Calamity ended most of the stories; the people of the city, their histories, their weapons. Those are the stories the Stranger tells.

Those, and the story of the Kid, of course. Which is your story, I guess?

(CORRECTION:Originally this review credited Night of the Cephalopods to Supergiant. Cephalopods was actually made by Spooky Squid Games. Nobody from Supergiant worked on Cephalopods, and nobody from Spooky Squid worked on Bastion.)

The Official Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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