Also available on: PC (later this year)
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive
Genre: Action role-playing game
If you've loosely followed its trajectory into release, you might have been expecting something a little different from Bastion. Comparisons with artsy downloadable fellows Braid and Limbo have been rife because of its hand-painted visual style and an unusual narrative delivery that shapes itself around your actions, but in truth Bastion is as action-focused and gameplay-driven as they come.
And that's most certainly a good thing. Not only does Bastion have plenty of ambience and an interesting story approach in its stride, but at its heart it's a superb experience to simply play - thanks to some deep and flexible combat - and also to replay, thanks to some smart means of extending replayability, making it more widely recommendable over art house downloadables Limbo and Braid, who are unfairly passed over by some for being 'a bit too pretentious'.
Bastion starts with the end of the world. Somehow saved from destruction, our hero makes his way through what's left - not a wasteland like other post-apocalyptic tales, but a series of isolated cobbled paths that stylishly piece together upon approach - towards the Bastion, the last refuge of civilisation. Under the guidance of a stranger, our hero must return to various districts of the world and collect crystals to power up the Bastion in a last ditch bid to make things right again.
Not unlike Torchlight or Diablo, Bastion has enclosed areas to explore and hordes of enemies to vanquish as you go, before you return to a hub and prepare yourself for the next trip. While there are role-playing elements to look out for, there's a much heavier emphasis on action, in that skill takes paramount over any weapon or stat upgrades you come across. The isometric viewpoint gives you a great view of the battlefield, and you'll need it; enemies are diverse and devious, sprouting around you and on far away platforms, requiring you to be quick off the mark and spatially aware to survive.
The controls are sharp and fluid, and battle encounters always feel incredibly situational, mixing and matching different enemy types to keep you on your toes. Bastion's combat is very self-contained, a feeling no doubt helped by variety in its levels, where each has a slight twist in its outcome - whether it's escaping over collapsing ruins, transporter ships under siege or through bizarre dream sequences, as well as the campaign's bitesized nature that sees you duck in and out of a stage within ten minutes flat. As a result, Bastion's trials are certainly more involving than the occasionally grind-like appeal of Diablo and its kin.
The stars of the show, more than anything else in Bastion, are the weapons. Each one, from the humble hammer to pikes and old-fashioned muskets, all feel unique, multi-faceted and most importantly truly useful. While some weapons (especially those in the late game areas) are stronger than others, playing Bastion I never felt the need to stick to a familiar few types, but instead was compelled to continuously experiment and see what each one can offer. The campaign encourages this also, with each new area requiring you to try out a new weapon as you discover them, and bonus training areas task you with mastering their strengths before you can bag their most potent upgrades.
The experiments and tinkering continue well beyond Bastion's playtime, with a New Game Plus option that would be familiar to role-playing veterans, seeing your hard-earned stats and upgrades carried over for a fresh playthrough. Not only will you want to try out your most powerful stuff against early game weaklings, but there's plenty of side objectives you probably didn't find time for the first time round; Achievement-style Memorial challenges, wave-based survival arenas, experience-boosting modifiers that also make enemies far more dangerous, and high-powered weapon upgrades are there for the taking, all holding up over time thanks to its flexible combat system.
But as strong as its core gameplay is, it's those initial artistic selling points that give Bastion its personality. Visually it's bold, beautiful and surprisingly varied in its themed locations, and is complimented with an array of crunchy, satisfying sounds. The narrative director is also a very valuable addition; while the actual story doesn't feel as dynamic as billed, and that he essentially acts as a commentator for your actions, he's responsible for delivering most if not all of the game's story and does so in a suave and natural way. He also acts in the same way as Portal's GLaDOS did - without the humour, obviously - by filling in any lulls in exploration with incidental points of interest about the destroyed world around you, and ensures everything moves along at a strong pace.
Bastion's only visible flaw is that it takes a little while to show its true colours. While it's not at all slow or plodding in its opening stages, its most powerful assets - the many imaginative and useful array of weapons, its challenging side activities, and a story far more interesting and thought-provoking than what first appears - aren't obvious from the outset. A demo might not reveal these strengths, but give Bastion a chance - it's a whip smart action title that's satisfying through and through, and gets the Summer of Arcade off to an absolutely rollicking start.
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