E3 2011 Preview: Bastion
When it comes to downloadable console games, it seems that recently there has been no shortage of new ideas and fun gameplay. Every few months we get a breakout game either on PSN or XBLA, bringing us innovative designs in a budget-priced package that big publishers wouldn't risk trying in a flagship game. One of the upcoming games that shows this best is Bastion, a game that is now being published by WB, but that's only after it's garnered a lot of attention at trade shows and quietly built up a lot of hype with the indie gaming crowd.
I got the chance to play Bastion at E3, and I have to say that its blend of familiar isometric action, hand-drawn art, and weird narration style seem weird when you see it at first, but it actually comes together nicely. You play as a fine young chap, thrust into a world that's seen from the three-quarter isometric angle. Everything is hand-drawn in 2D, but the game doesn't feel flat at all, and the world kind of floats up from the abyss and builds itself as you traverse it. (It's the same layout and design every time you play, but often the stuff that appears as you travel can take you by surprise - or at least, it will your first time through.) Falling off of this teetering world of platforms is always a risk, and while there are no jumping puzzles, the game will gleefully put you near an edge and then throw monsters at you that require a lot of dodging to beat. One bad dodge, and off you go. You come right back with lower health and can always crack open a health potion to repair the damage, but you'll also be needing those to survive fights with the game's tougher enemies, too.
It probably sounds like this is some kind of medieval adventure game, but it mixes in guns, fantasy, and just a lot of seemingly mismatched themes in a way that's held together by the deep-voiced, film noir-style narration. This is used to very briefly prepare you for new situations, but it's also used to deepen the storytelling. I've heard a lot of comparisons to Braid or Limbo, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the gameplay - it seems to be mostly because of the 2D drawn visuals and hints at a deeper storyline. The style of play you get has more to do with adventure, action, and exploration than Braid's puzzle focus, and the reliance on a real voice means Bastion is doubling down on a more hands-on and less abstract style of storytelling. Whether that pays off or not in the end is a question that can only be answered by actually playing the game all the way through.
My particular adventure was supposedly through the harder of the levels that was available for this demo, and I had to use my musket-styled shotgun to take out bullet-shooting plants at a distance while also using a hand-held shield to block their projectiles. I got my hands on a spear which allowed me to unleash precise throws as well as a powerful melee attack, and found myself hunting some kind of weird below-ground-dwelling crocodile monster. All I had to do to trigger an attack (in the style of a land shark) was to walk in a particular kind ofl grass, and I figured out that using a dodge/roll maneuver would get me out of harm's way. Then I could get in one or two counter-attacks with the spear before repeating. I managed to beat the level with a handful of health potions left, and while the developer that watched over my shoulder told me I did really well, I'm always skeptical hearing that at trade shows, because hands-on gameplay like that is often very carefully put together to make the player feel like they really accomplished something. I imagine that most gamers did just fine on that level too - and I'm sure they found that level wasn't terribly difficult in the first place.
While Bastion doesn't really invent whole new gameplay ideas, it does mash together some under-utilized and really fun ideas to make something entirely unlike any game I've seen before. I will say that people are looking for the the narrative to really go somewhere as story goes, so hopefully this game's eventual conclusion will get people talking like Braid and Limbo did. Bastion is set for release on July 20th on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 points ($15), and while I see a Windows version listed on many sites, no release date for that has been announced yet.