Bastion Hands-On Impressions

There's a lot to like about this indie role-playing game, not least of which is the all-encompassing narrator.

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There's a point in Bastion when you wonder to yourself if the narrator is going to stop chattering anytime soon. It's not that he's annoying; in fact, the mysterious voice that describes nearly every move you make is a terrific accompaniment to the action and exploration that make up this indie role-playing game. Go east instead of west, and he's got something to say about it. Swap out your hammer for a sword, and he's got something to say about it. It's an effect that feels as though you're hearing a story and creating it at the same time. But the omnipresent commentary kind of makes you wonder: How long can he keep this up?

If the hour-long demo we played is any indication, the answer is more or less the entire game. That type of storytelling--the sensation of hearing a tale unfold while simultaneously dictating its events--is one of several reasons this action-RPG looks so promising. First, a basic rundown. You play as a child who has woken up with the decidedly unsettling realization that he seems to be the last living person on Earth. The world around you has undergone a terrible disaster--referred to as "the Calamity" by the narrator--and all that's left at the outset of the game is you and a bunch of mysterious monsters that have overrun what once was home.

Said world is portrayed in vibrant hand-drawn illustrations. It's a striking art style filled with all sorts of rich and varied detail--a hodgepodge landscape that feels like an eccentric amalgamation of Old West saloons, medieval stone buildings, and outdoor bazaars. The musical soundscape is equally varied, going from ambient and moody sounds during the subdued moments of the game to, at one point, a raucous bluegrass number with what appeared to be dueling banjos during a major battle scene. Take all of those elements--the art style, the unique music, the narrator--and what you've got is a game with a nice bit of character.

From what we've seen, Bastion seems to do varying emotions pretty well. You've got the bright, vibrant colors and music of certain early environments, but toward the end of our demo we encountered a much more haunting level. In this one, the main character runs into statue after statue, but these aren't monuments--they're the petrified remains of those who weren't fortunate enough to survive. The grim subject matter and the sparse music combine well with the low-key narrator to create a very eerie, somber level--one that feels pretty powerful in an otherwise heavily stylized game.

While Bastion's presentation sets it apart from a lot of games out there, its core gameplay is a little more rooted in old-school inspirations and tried-and-true action-RPG formulas. You run around the isometric landscape doing battle with enemies large and small, attacking with a single button press. You can equip two different weapons, each of which has a dedicated button on the controller for making mincemeat of foes. It's a simple choice between ranged and melee weapons, and the animations that accompany each attack are quick and responsive. In the early goings, it's very much a game where you can get away with good old-fashioned button mashing.

But as you progress further into the game, that tack doesn't work anymore, which is when the layers of customization come into play. You'll routinely pick up new weapons, weapon modifiers, and personal attribute boosts, which all vastly alter how you or your weapons perform in battle. A lot of these have strengths and weaknesses, so there's very much a mix-and-match, risk-versus-reward element to the customization options. The new weapons you pick up feel quite different from one another, as well, like going from the giant battle hammer early on to a lightning-fast machete, or transitioning from a bow and arrow to a mortar gun. The arsenal selection feels good and varied, but the new weapons you pick up aren't really worlds better than the ones you start out with--they just seem like different offerings that work better in some situations.

Welcome to the world after the Calamity.
Welcome to the world after the Calamity.

Because this was a roughly one-hour demo, it was hard to get a good sense of how the combat in Bastion will shake out for the duration of the game. The big question will be just how deep the customization system gets, because the core combat itself is a simple matter of pressing one or two buttons at the right time. Right now, we're big fans of the aesthetic and presentation, and it looks like the combat has a nice, solid foundation--we'll just have to see how well the initially simple combat will hold up. Nevertheless, we're eager to see more of it. Look forward to additional Bastion coverage leading up to the game's expected summer 2011 release date on digital distribution channels.

(Disclosure: Bastion is being developed by Supergiant Games, a studio that includes former GameSpot editor Greg Kasavin.)

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