Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bastion Review

Bastion, developed by Supergiant Games and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Neat visuals and narration, cool abilities and weapon variety with upgrades
The Not So Good: No lowered difficulty settings, angled level design annoying for keyboard controls, imprecise aiming doesn't attack where you click, linear level design, arbitrarily limited inventory, lacks mid-mission saves
What say you? A uniquely colorful art style and memorable narration elevate an otherwise average role-playing game with an underwhelming PC port: 5/8

Against my typical agenda, I’ve been playing or reviewing a disturbingly large number of action role-playing games lately (meaning one of them in the past six months). While standard fare in the genre doesn’t interest me, a unique hook will, like hilariously incompetent co-op or inspiration from a different genre. As another example, take Bastion, which has recently graced the PC after originally being released on something called an “XBOX”. This game features vibrant art and narration that describes everything you do. Do those unique features advance this action RPG beyond the typical?

Easily the best part of Bastion is the great artistic style. You've seen the screenshots, and they are a sight to behold. The PC allows the game to live in its high-resolution glory, and live it does. The hand-drawn, bright, and colorful world of Bastion shines through, creating a stark contrast to the typically dark and gloomy world of action RPGs. The ground fills in as you walk, creating a neat effect of exploration, and the fuzzy backgrounds provide a subtle backdrop to the floating island levels. The enemy design is also good, although I'd like to encounter more enemy types, and the animations are top-notch. Bastion truly is a beautiful game. Not to be outdone is the sound design, which notably includes narration as you progress through the game. It's not quite as dynamic as some would lead you to believe, as it repeats the same dialogue at the same points in each level (I would know, since the difficulty required me to, ahem, repeat several of the levels). The music fits the game well and the battle effects, though generic, round out the package. Nobody will fault Bastion for having a bland presentation, that's for sure.

Bastion tells the tale of The Kid, whose world has disappeared overnight and must be put back together again. The game features twenty levels in the story mode that are all on the short side: each clock in at around ten minutes each (you can do the math for total game time). While the game does give you the occasional choice regarding which level to do next and which building to construct, eventually you’ll have all the levels completed (hopefully) and all of the buildings constructed, so it really does not matter. The levels are very linear: there is little side exploration to be found, and triggered events occur at the same time every time. Bastion also lacks lowered difficulty settings: while you can increase the enemy skill through the shrine (which grants an experience bonus), you can’t decrease it below what the developers have considered to be the entry-level skill level. This isn’t a problem most of the time, but some of the boss fights are tough as you are learning the game. You are given one chance per level to continue when you die; otherwise, you must go back to the beginning of the level and tediously completely everything all over again. Bastion also lacks the ability of saving your game at any time: it only preserves your progress when you enter the bastion (your home base), but if you’d like to save and pick up the game later at any other point, you are out of luck. Thanks for dictating when I can quit your game, developer: sorry, the fire alarm must wait, as I am in the middle of a level. Aaaaaaaaahhhhh it burns!

The PC version of Bastion features keyboard and mouse controls in addition to using a gamepad. The WASD keys are used to move, but the angled, isometric level design means you’ll have to routinely hold down two of the keys simultaneously in order to navigate the terrain; obviously, the keyboard was an afterthought. There are a limited number of advanced moves available: evade, shield, and canceling the use of the special move. The mouse is used to fire your primary and secondary weapons, but Bastion has terribly imprecise aiming: if you place your mouse pointer directly on top of an enemy unit, it may or may not actually fire your ranged weapon there. Instead, you have to refer to the aiming line on the ground to figure out where you’ll shoot. With constant hints to use the “auto-aim” tool, it’s clear that Bastion was not designed with the PC in mind, nor was a lot of work put into making the controls better on the computer.

Bastion features two types of weapons: melee and ranged. Usually (but not always), the most recently unlocked weapon is the best, and in general things are varied according to firing rate and damage delivered. The weapons are pretty bland to be honest, and nothing innovative sticks out. Far more interesting are the almost thirty abilities you can find in the game. In addition to a suite of passive skills gained by drinking potions at a distillery, you are given choice of active skills: spinning attacks, multi-shots, fast attacks, grenades, blocking, and more. Each use consumes a black tonic, so they must be used only in special situations. For some reason, you are limited to only two weapons, one special ability, and three tonics of each type (health and black) at one time. Why? No idea.

Fragments scattered around each level (and dropped by enemies) are used to purchase weapon upgrades, which breathes a little life into the generic instruments of destruction. Experience earned during combat also increases your maximum health and unlocks one more passive ability of your choosing. Changes to your arsenal are limited to the bastion (your home base), where buildings are placed to change abilities, upgrade weapons, raise the difficulty, perform achievements, or buy additional items for weapon upgrades. The inability to change your loadout in the middle of a level has one annoying consequence, as the game auto-switches to any newly acquired weapon or ability whether you want it to or not: I really hate that. I guess the developers feel that anything new always fits your play style; this is typical of the host of arbitrary limitations that permeate throughout Bastion. The gameplay is typical RPG fare: attack things at range, attack things up close, and learn the talents of each new enemy you encounter. The AI is generally just there to smash into little bits, although there are occasionally some special attacks that get used by boss-type enemies.

The two hooks of Bastion, the art style and somewhat dynamic narration, are undeniably awesome, but the remainder of the game is just OK. First, the good news: the graphics are fantastic, from the hand-drawn levels to the characters and backgrounds. Secondly, the almost constant high-quality narration adds significantly to the overall game experience. Unfortunately, things are bland from there on out. I'm not a huge fan of the control scheme: the levels are designed for angled movement, something that the keyboard doesn't excel at, and the mouse aiming doesn't shoot exactly where you click, leading to a lot of misfires and untimely death. The ranged and melee weapons are pretty standard fare, which means combat is as well, although the upgrades that are slowly unlocked let you customize their abilities a bit. Experience earned from combat unlocks new special abilities, some of which are quite cool. Sadly, no amount of cool abilities can save you from the sometimes distressingly difficulty, which cannot be decreased; I don't like it when developers assume the skill level of their players. In addition, you can't save your progress in the middle of a level, making the game that much harder. The game's twenty levels are over too quickly, and their fixed solutions and lack of exploration reduces replay value immensely. Ardent fans of action role-playing games will get grabbed by the graphics and narration, but the rest of us will be underwhelmed by the limited PC port and linear level design.