Every once in a while, a videogame comes along that transcends the limitations of traditional criticism. In these times, when we are required to analyse these games and facilitate a discussion around them, we as critics are forced to start re-evaluating the very fundamentals around which we base our work.
The broadest definition of the word “review” is simply: A formal assessment or examination of something. Our experience with mainstream games journalism has conditioned us to expect a certain structure; a videogame must be judged on its core aspects – how it looks, how it sounds, how it plays, with the ultimate intention of answering the most important question of all: is it worth your money and your time?
Bastion simply cannot be judged on these fundamental components alone, however, for it is far more than just the sum of its parts. The true beauty of Bastion, the thing that sets it apart from pretty much every other game released in 2011, is in the experience of playing it – and that experience cannot be summarised in mere words. You need to play it for yourself.
What I can tell you, though, are the basics. I can try and tell you why you should play it, what it does right, what little it does wrong… but I cannot provide you with the experience. Ultimately, that’s yours to seek out and enjoy. In a way, that’s the most beautiful thing about it.
Bastion’s beauty runs deep, though, and manifests itself in countless ways. Aesthetically, it shares much in common with Jonathan Blow’s Braid, the indie time-shifting platformer that looks like a living watercolour painting. The comparison is just, though Blow’s offering provides nowhere near the visual virtuosity that can be found in Supergiant Games’ action-RPG.
In the City, the tattered remains of a devastated civilization squat amid the lush, crawling foliage; the dull uniformity of day-to-day life juxtaposed against the persistence and beauty of the natural world. We are reminded, as the brickwork literally assembles itself beneath our character’s feet as he walks, that there is hope here yet. Life and colour sprout from the gaps in the stone, and we press onwards with renewed vigour.
We can rebuild this place.
Our character is the Kid. He doesn’t speak, though he doesn’t need to. We know his purpose, his motivations, and his goal. His world has been torn asunder by the Calamity, a catastrophic event that has fractured the very foundations of his home. He wakes at the beginning of the game on a floating patch of land, suspended almost by invisible puppet strings as it floats noiselessly through the void left in his planet’s wake. He knows what he needs to do, and so do we. His story is our story, and we create it with him.
We have a guide, though; an ever-present, omnipotent voice of reason and intrigue, narrating our every movement, action and decision in whiskey-soaked mysticism and philosophical musing. It is no surprise, then, that this man is known as the Narrator. He is our guide and friend. His rough voice reverberates around that impenetrable void – seemingly he is everywhere, yet nowhere at all.
The Narrator is perhaps Bastion’s biggest triumph. His character is an amalgamation of various disparate elements; a genius concoction of exposition, tutelage and narrative development that holds our hand and guides us through this tattered landscape. In a world so devoid of order and infested with evil brought on by the Calamity, the Narrator represents salvation and, again, hope.
We can rebuild this place. He will help us.
The titular Bastion is now a shell of a once-great floating haven, the place everyone said they would go in times of trouble. Here the physical form of the Narrator waits for us, the wise old man named Rucks, and it is with his companionship that we can begin the reassembly. There will be others who join us; they each have their own reasons, their own past, but we are united in this time of desperation and struggle.
Together, we can build something special. Together, we can reconstruct the Bastion.
The Kid needs Cores to achieve his goal, Cores that have been scattered across the length and breadth of this ravaged world. With each he finds he can rebuild part of the Bastion, each core having the power to assemble a single, necessary structure. Later, after betrayal threatens to undo everything he has worked for, he must locate Shards to strengthen the buildings he has already created. Everything in Bastion flows inexorably towards a single goal; that of rebuilding and reinforcing what has been lost, and weakened. The Kid is no exception.
Though the Kid is undoubtedly skilled in combat and weaponry, he has more to offer – he too can be strengthened and developed, through experience and, sometimes, other means. By collecting Minerals, a loose form of currency, he can spend them at the establishments he erects in the Bastion. In the Forge, he can upgrade the weapons he takes with him into battle. At the Lost & Found, he can purchase equipment that might save his life.
The Bastion itself isn’t merely a commercial district, though. There is more to this place; culture and religion run deep, and the Kid’s aid (or hindrance) does not necessarily come from items of steel or stone. At the Distillery, he can equip Tonics which passively boost his attributes, but he must choose which he wants to take with him. At the Shrine, the Kid can invoke the spirits of fallen Gods – these offer great reward, but at great penalty. To rely entirely on the physical, on the tangible, is to misunderstand this world. Stones may form the surface of the Bastion, but it is faith and hope that hold them together so resolutely.
Ultimately, the true beauty of Bastion is, like the adhesive force of its world, located beyond what is “real”, away from the naked eye. It is not physical, not a “thing” that can be described and analysed and examined. The structures we build on the Bastion do not truly summarise its importance and significance, and likewise how we play Bastion, how we see or hear it, is irrelevant. These things are transient. The real experience lays beyond that, in a place few storytelling mediums ever enter, and to try and encapsulate that journey in simple words would be naive. More to the point, it would be doing this wonderful game a disservice.
There is hope here yet.
Together, we can rebuild this place.