The debate over whether or not video games should be considered an artform will likely never reach a firm conclusion, but that doesn’t stop developers from trying to show how a game can be something more meaningful and touching than mere disposable entertainment. Enter Bastion, the debut release from Supergiant Games, which aims to infuse relatively safe and simple gameplay with a deeper story that aspires for something more. In this endeavour, Bastion succeeds, leaving us with a fun, challenging and emotionally-gripping experience that stands as a remarkable achievement.
Bastion follows the story of a nameless hero simply referred to as 'The Kid' who is living in the floating ruins of a once-great civilization known as Caelondia. After making his way to the titular bastion — the so-called ‘panic room’ that the Caelondians were supposed to run to in the event of the apocalypse — The Kid is tasked by a mysterious old man named Rucks to retrieve magical crystal cores from the surface world that will help expand the magical fortress. It may sound like a rather uninspired plot, but what’s striking about the storytelling method is how much excellent worldbuilding is done in the background through item descriptions and the environment. Though not much is revealed at first, the narrative is gradually widened as you move through different levels, learning more about the lifestyle of the fallen people while also piecing together exactly what happened to cause such a catastrophe. It’s a compelling way to tell a story, but what really elevates Bastion’s narrative above many other games is the narrator who accompanies you throughout.
From the very first moment The Kid open his eyes, the disembodied voice of Rucks talks about The Kid’s actions on-screen as if he’s wistfully telling the story to someone else at a campfire. Rucks’ heavy and sorrowful tones act as a constant companion in this otherwise lonely adventure and help to infuse the locales with a tonal sense of character and beauty that few games manage to achieve. Much of this is due to the exceptionally strong writing, which conveys a great deal of background on the areas you explore through bittersweet descriptions of what things were like before 'The Calamity' came. One memorable scene saw our silent hero aboard a floating barge being assaulted by enemies on all sides, while Rucks personified the vehicle beautifully, narrating ‘her’ last battle and death. It’s moments like these which hang in one’s mind long after the credits have rolled, and cement the game as a memorable and distinct experience.
As for the gameplay, Bastion could be best described as an isometric action RPG, and though the gameplay isn’t nearly as strong as the narrative, it certainly manages to entertain. The Kid starts the game out with a simple 'Cael Hammer' which is slow but powerful, and gradually amasses quite a diverse collection of lethal weaponry over the course of the campaign. Just about every other level has some new weapon to try out, with swords, bows, revolvers, and flamethrowers all being par for the course, but the catch is that you can only equip two weapons at a time. Though you’ll likely end up finding a combo that fits your playstyle well and stick with that for much of the game, having such customization makes multiple replays quite tempting, especially when there’s a 'new game plus' option once you’ve cleared the story once.
Enemies come in all forms, with some being mere fodder to cut through and others requiring a much more thoughtful strategy to deal with properly, and new varieties are introduced at a steady clip. Bastion loves throwing you into the center of a dozen or more enemies at once and seeing how you deal with the challenge, necessitating quick decision making and aggressive, yet careful tactics. Though the isometric view does make combat a little awkward sometimes — attacks don’t always land where it looks like they will — the generally fast-paced nature of the fights makes it easy to overlook the lack of precision.
The Bastion itself acts as a central hub that you return to after retrieving each crystal, with every new addition allowing you to build new structures that help support The Kid’s endeavours. Here, you can do things like swap or upgrade weapons, drink spirits at a bar that give passive bonuses, or worship idols that make the game harder in various ways in exchange for a boost in experience points; the player is given complete control over what services are available and when. For example, if you’re content with your current loadout, you can forgo building an armoury in order to build a bar sooner, and this autonomy over the use of the Bastion helps to make it truly feel like your fortress.
Once you’re done tuning The Kid up, you can then pick which location to drop to next from a map that gives players a smattering of levels which can be tackled in any order, with some optional locations being sprinkled in that offer special challenge courses for each weapon. Though level designs are rather homogenous in terms of the mechanics being explored, each one looks completely different from the next, and there’s a cool effect where the ground rises up to meet The Kid as he explores various pathways. Levels are pretty straightforward and linear for the most part, ultimately funnelling the kid toward the next crystal through waves of enemies, but stepping off the beaten path can net you extra goodies like upgrade materials and extra currency to spend on weapons and abilities. This core feedback loop of jumping to a location, using everything you get there to upgrade The Kid and the bastion, and then jumping to a new place makes for a smooth and satisfying experience, and one which is greatly boosted by the gripping narration and visuals.
Bastion excels in its presentation, painting a beautiful and broken world that inspires a deep sense of wonder the more you explore it. There’s an incredible amount of colour and detail placed in the various foliage and debris that covers each level, making each locale truly feel like a place that was once lived in. Supergiant has done a great job of selling the ‘calamity’ angle as well, with all the ruined buildings and uneven flooring making each locale look run-down and dilapidated. Matching these visuals is a similarly atmospheric soundtrack, mixing in emotional string pieces that act as a great backdrop to the narrator and the action on-screen. There’s even a voiced song at one key point in the narrative, with a haunting melody that perfectly encapsulates the vibe that Bastion strives for.
Bastion is an unforgettable and enjoyable piece of software that stands as a strong example of how games can also be perceived as art. A charismatic narrator, beautiful visuals, intense action gameplay and heavy character customization make this a fairytale that you’ll want to dive into again and again, and while the isometric view sometimes gets in the way of the gameplay, the other aspects of Bastion more than make up for this slight misstep. We’d highly recommend you give Bastion a try if you haven’t played it elsewhere already; though this Switch port brings nothing new to the table, Bastion is a memorable modern classic that is an absolute must-play.