It's utterly amazing how much the indie game scene has changed since 2011. Sony has started to heavily promote teensy developers at major industry conferences, Valve's Steam Greenlight has allowed thousands to publish games for players to test before they're even finished, and Kickstarter has made it possible for runaway successes like the critically acclaimed Shovel Knight to get made. Nearly four years ago, this was unheard of, and this humble scribe was only dipping his toes into a couple of indie titles a year. One that caught your host's attention at the time was Supergiant Games' Bastion. And it ultimately managed to alter how this author thought about low budget, tiny games from that point forward. But after a prolonged absence from PlayStation platforms, is it still a must-play in 2015?
As a young man simply named the Kid, you wake up to a world in ruin. A gruff-voiced narrator says that something called the Calamity has shattered the land of Caelondia into countless pieces below, creating a bizarre reality where you must live on sections of land that float in the air. After guiding the Kid through remnants of this post-apocalyptic world with nothing but enemies to fight, you soon stumble upon the titular Bastion: a place of refuge meant for anyone to come to during a disaster. Luckily, you happen upon an elderly man here named Rucks, who encourages you to find Cores imbued with power to restore this place to its former state, seek out survivors, and perhaps find out how all of this came to happen.
There are some games that just have the ability to pull you into their worlds, and Bastion is a great example of this. You're dropped into a dark fantasy tale that portrays its people, culture, towns, wildlife, and more through a broken lens, which catches the history behind these things with snippets of brief dialogue from the narrator, items with telling descriptions in every level, and environmental set pieces that show what society was like before the Calamity. There's a slow and ambiguous yet compelling sense of world building, and though the story has a minimal cast of characters, they are subtly built upon to keep them mysterious but worth caring about in this lonely reality. The smooth plot progression, twists, and astounding final hours add up to an emotional rollercoaster of a ride, and we were surprised just how invested we were in the narrative by the end.
Contributing to this alluring world is the gorgeous artistic direction of Jen Zee, bringing the game to a level of quality unlike anything else. Her painterly style demonstrates mastery over utilising strokes and vibrant colour to create a distinctly expressive look, and from an isometric viewpoint, the hand-painted environments, backgrounds, objects, and characters are stunning. While the 3D character models and their animations look a bit rough, we believe that this title's translation to the PlayStation 4 has slightly benefitted from less washed out colours and sharper visuals. Either way, this art museum of a game will make every one of its players stop to appreciate its scenery from the get go, which we did countless times.
It's critical that we mention the sheer brilliance of the audio department with the clever sound effects, the composer's self-described "acoustic frontier trip-hop" music, and the direction of the narration. The soundtrack alone is an absolute treat, replete with jazzy, percussion heavy, and guitar-driven songs that are simply a blast to jam to, and you'll be sure to listen to the album long after the game is over. As for the narration, Logan Cunningham's deep lines actually respond to your actions, react to your weapon and customisation decisions, and tell the whole story through the eyes of Rucks. It's an unconventional means of storytelling, but one that's still neat and memorable.
As we mentioned, this action RPG is played from an isometric perspective, which has you brawling through loads of enemies by exploring numerous levels scattered throughout the broken, levitating isles of Caelondia. Your primary means of action come with two primary weapons, and you will be experimenting with nearly a dozen of them from beginning to end. This is our favourite gameplay aspect because each weapon has meaningful pros and cons, giving you the option to tailor weapon sets that match your play style or specific kinds of levels. Whether you prefer a long-range bow or close-range blunderbuss, a devastating mortar or fast-firing repeater, and so forth, there's something that will click with you.
You also have a special ability that can be a grenade, a barrage of arrows, a brief status boost to a weapon, or what have you. There are many to choose from, and with a shield mechanic (which can counter attacks as well) and dodging, we never tired from the combat and variety of enemies we faced with our ever-changing loadouts. You can increase weapons' characteristics with rare materials and currency as well, but it doesn't stop there since you choose between two upgrades in each weapon's three tiers, forcing you to figure out what fits your fancy for every other situation.
You can also assign a small amount of exotic beverages that change your stats or grant triggerable abilities and activate Idols, which make the game harder but grant you more currency and XP from defeated foes. There are those who consider this game design superficially deep, but we disagree. It can be dissected into simple parts, but when they coalesce, there's so much going on with the action and RPG elements. Folded in with the level design's winding paths, damageable ground you can fall through if not paying attention, and various enemy types, the slick, satisfying gameplay demands bits of strategy and quick thinking that never lost our interest.
Besides the host of levels that move the story along, there are small challenge stages where you earn prizes by mastering a specific weapon. Some of them may be easy, but there were others that had us stumped for a while with how they tested our strategic mind and reflexes. We found them incredibly addicting and loved how they broke the story levels in even slices so we could constantly alternate between them both. There's also a couple of neat challenges that require you to beat a certain amount of rounds with enemies that only increase in number and power, which we recommend playing with the Idols for a real, sweat-inducing test of your abilities. Overall, you're looking at around 10-15 hours of content if you decide to dig into most of the game's offerings, which are more than worth pursuing.
When we played Bastion for the first time a few years ago, we literally gave it an instinctive standing ovation as the credits began to roll, and our pleasantly surprised reaction remains justified. This game is a testament to the type of human creativity, innovation, and wonder that are sometimes only possible with indie games, and now that it has graced Sony's systems, you can understand why it will continue to entrench itself as a classic for years to come.