Question: in all your years of gaming, have you ever said to yourself, “You know what's really missing from the interactive experience? A voice that describes everything I do.” No? Me neither. Well despite the near universal non-demand for such a thing, developer SuperGiant Games figured the making of it was unavoidable and thus we have Bastion, a new never-endingly narrated action RPG. Lucky for us, even with this odd and not-so-successful audio overlay, the game is one of the best we’ve seen so far this year.
Bastion tells the story of how a once idyllic land called Caelondia is destroyed by a vaguely described Calamity and is saved by the efforts of one humble little hero. Starting in the middle of the narrative, the game gives us control of a nameless little hero who answers simply to “the Kid” and sets us on the path to restoring his lost society. In a system SuperGiant calls “dynamic narration”, every move the Kid makes--from the moment he wakes inside what looks like a ruined temple till he brings the story to a climactic close--is accompanied by a grizzled, throaty voiceover. This voice (we discover later) belongs to a mysterious wise man called Ruckus and while on paper, the idea probably seemed pretty cool, in reality, it's a gimmick that wears thin pretty quickly and just doesn't add very much.
Actually, if I'm completely honest, more than an hour of listening to this gravelly chronicler is extremely irritating. I mean, when you walk across a room, do you really need a voice that sounds like a chain-smoking cowboy to say, “The Kid walked across the room”? And that's the other thing; somehow the voice itself just doesn't fit the overall character of the game. Bastion’s artwork makes it look like some sort of anime-inspired fantasy while the narrator sounds like he belongs in a saloon in Dodge City. This disconnect wouldn't be quite so bad if only you didn't have to tolerate it throughout the entire game.
Thankfully, the annoying narrator thing represents Bastion’s only significant negative; otherwise, it's a really strong game. The colorful, 2D, hand-painted graphics will draw you in immediately and the fun, creative gameplay will keep you hooked. There are a number of things that make Bastion both beautiful and unique: to start, as the Kid moves through the environment, (seen from a top-down, isometric point of view) the nonexistent ground swoops up from below in mosaic-like pieces to form the path as he runs. This changes as environments change, offering a lot of different flavors of eye candy and lots of pretty special effects.
The game's RPG elements are also handled in a fun, fresh way. The Kid's overreaching goal is to restore Caelondia by collecting a series of magical shards and he does this by going on search missions. Between these missions, he returns to the Bastion where he can chat with his good buddy Ruckus and build things like an Arsenal, a Forge, a Shrine, a Lost and Found and other useful structures. Passive buffs are gained by drinking spirits obtained from a Distillery and weapon upgrades are done in the Forge using materials (called things like “Something Greasy” or “Something Scary”) found during missions. You can carry two weapons at one time and equip one special attack and all of these are fun to use. Simple tweaks to familiar weapons and combat mechanics make them unique, like the way the flamethrower has been turned into a squeeze bellows. In one of the most interesting additions, you can tweak your enemy's abilities as well as your own. The Bastion's Shrine allows you to invoke various gods who then impart their power to your enemies, making them stronger. Why would you do this? Because defeating stronger enemies grants you greater bonuses, of course. It’s fun experimenting with invoking different gods and testing the effects on your enemies and if these newly augmented enemies kick your ass, you can toggle the gods off until you or your weapons are stronger.
In addition to challenging yourself by creating stronger foes, you can also hone your combat skills in various Proving Grounds. These closed arenas focus on individual skills like pike combat or mortar usage, granting you both upgrade materials and, if you do well enough, new skills.Combat throughout the game is dynamic and interesting and with so many cool weapons to choose from, it's fun figuring out which ones fit your play style and which ones work best against which enemies. For story lovers, there are a good amount of collectible items that serve no purpose other than to provide hints regarding Caelondia before the Calamity and for music lovers, there's a beautiful soundtrack that's an innovative mix of Western and Eastern themes. Sometimes it sounds like something that would play at the end of a Hollywood Western and sometimes its Indian rhythms give it a much more exotic feel. Best of all—aurally speaking—are its haunting vocal themes.
While the game’s first playthrough is good for about four hours of entertainment, you can lengthen that by playing through again on the “New Game Plus” mode that unlocks once you’ve beaten the game. This mode allows you to start the game again with all your XP and weapons intact and unlocks new spirits and Shrine idols, a situation that gives you many new options in terms of upping the challenge and beating your personal best. Bastion’s a great little RPG but above and beyond genre, it’s one of the best-looking, best-sounding (despite the pointless narrator), best-playing games you'll download this year and a total bargain at 1200 Microsoft Points. We've still got half the summer to go, folks. Don't finish it without getting hip to the Bastion.