In 1982, a little company called Electronic Arts asked a big question: Can a computer make you cry? The question doesn't merely ask about tears of frustration when a hard drive fails; it is asking about the narrative potential that videogames hold. I'm proud to say that I have witnessed that potential, though rarely. It began with Shining Force 2, when at the age of eight a dear friend's betrayal hit me particularly hard. It didn't happen again until Lost Odyssey, where a child's final farewell brought tears to my eyes. Earlier this year the indie game Solace, based on the five stages of grief, moved me to tears right on the GDC show floor. And now, thanks to SuperGiant Games, Bastion is the fourth game to help me answer EA's question with a resounding yes.
But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start with the beginning. Bastion tells the story of a silent and nameless hero known only as "The Kid." You play as The Kid, but you aren't him, the game makes that fact very clear. When I say Bastion tells a story, I mean that quite literally. There is a narrator telling The Kid's story, in the past tense, punctuating your actions with exposition. When The Kid picks up his first weapon, a hammer, it becomes his "old friend" through the narrator's voice. When The Kid smashes vases for loot, it becomes "raging away at the world" through the narrator.
The narration is perhaps an acquired taste, but it is a taste I acquired almost immediately. It raises many questions. Who is the narrator? Who is he telling the story to? What happened to the world, and why? Finding the answers to these questions drove the plot forward and kept me entranced by Bastion right through the game's final moments. And surprisingly, I actually found the answers immensely satisfying when they were uncovered.
The game's visuals match its impeccable narrative style. The world is in ruins, destroyed by some calamity. Each area begins with The Kid on a single platform, floating above chaos and nothingness below. Moving The Kid reveals new paths, which form up under his feet with each step. This world-building runs parallel, thematically and in presentation, to how the story's narration forms around him, you, and your actions. It is one of the most thematically consistent games I have experienced, with all aspects of its design reinforcing the narrative message right down to the inability to replay completed levels and the New Game Plus option at the end. In the interest of avoiding spoilers though I can't say more on that aspect, it is far better to experience them firsthand through gameplay.
Those worried that it has taken me this far into the review before actually mentioning gameplay should be at ease. The Kid can equip two weapons at a time, and discovers a total of 11 melee and ranged weapons before the adventure is through. Each weapon controls differently, with the slow and strong hammer quite different from the long-reaching pike or the fast dual pistols. There are no restrictions on which weapons can be equipped together, allowing for any mix of melee and ranged weapons that lend to a any play style. This includes using two ranged or two melee weapons at a time, encouraging the player to find what works best for them. New weapons are automatically equipped when found, which can be annoying when it replaces an old favorite with something unfamiliar, but also introduces you to new gameplay at a steady pace. I likely wouldn't have switched from my hammer and bow combo if not for being forced to use new weapons, and ultimately found my favorites that way.
The combat is challenging, requiring knowledge of each unique weapon and enemy as you attack, dodge, block, counter. Gaining levels allows The Kid to equip new tonics and spirits (alcohol, not ghosts) that offer a variety of status buffs. Weapons can be customized and upgraded to further specialize their uses. Players seeking more of a challenge can pray to the Gods at a shrine, with each God offering buffs to your enemies while increasing your rewards. "Since when have the Gods ever made our lives easier," the narrator quips.
As much as I praise Bastion's story and narration, I must admit that it is somewhat slow to get started. But once it picks up, it adds narrative depth and complexities that are the exclusive domain of videogames as an interactive medium. And as many games before have done, in the end, Bastion faced me with a moral choice. However, unlike other games offering choice there was no gameplay benefit to either decision, it was a true moral dilemma with no right or wrong answer. I made my choice, and as the credits rolled, so did the tears down my face. Three games prior to Bastion have made me cry, but for the first time it was a cry of happiness and hope. Sadness is an easy emotion to manipulate, but hope? No other game or film or novel has moved me in that way before.
A review copy of Bastion was provided by the developers for this review. It is the first game in the Xbox Summer of Arcade promotion, and will sell for 1200 MS points. I played the game to completion in approximately 8-9 hours, followed by a second playthrough on New Game Plus for a total of 16 hours. I earned all achievements, and cried at both alternate endings.