TBT – Bastion Review
“Words can’t express what happened, but they’re all I got.”
Memories are selfish designs. We recontextualize past events into more acceptable accounts to reminisce upon, allowing our minds to escape into ‘better times’ or perhaps simply deny history and proclaim that everything turned out just fine.
But as the world is crumbling around one’s feet, a journey into the past has the capacity to be an enlightening experience. Such ventures can allow us to reexamine our own decisions. Actions speak louder than words, and often what we say is not exactly the true state of our consciousness. It is that divide between the conscious and subconscious which truly defines an individual: what they want, where they are headed, how they want to be remembered, how they want to remember themselves.
The world of Bastion is designed as though following a trail of breadcrumbs. It is a world separated by destruction, an event known as The Calamity having lifted distinct landscapes into the skies, leaving them to cling onto whatever form of Life will maintain their structure. The Kid, our protagonist, travels between these separated lands in constant pursuit of someone whom he may or may not even remember. But the clues are there, urging him forward. It is all he needs.
Specifics are simply defined in Bastion. There is little left to allow for distinction; there is only the Calamity, the Bastion, the Stranger, the Kid. Specifics do not matter in a world trapped halfway between the heavens and Earth. Like a fading memory, there are only fragments of what once was to latch onto and desperately plea for recollection. Something to hope for, in a present state of liminal existence.
Every action, every collectible, every design choice in Bastion acts as a direct reference to the overall worldbuilding and storytelling structure, recalling Okami’s own innovative approach to progression. Indeed, this purgatorial universe is a wonderful mish-mash of influences, from Super Mario’s Hub world to Crash Bandicoot’s crystal-hunting, to Zelda’s dungeon crawling, combat, and upgrades. But the magnificently subtle subversions to popular gaming tropes are what fuels Bastions constant sense of bewilderment, utilizing these familiar mechanics to often examine the medium as a whole.
The top-down viewpoint recalls many RPGs like Fallout or Diablo; however, the isometric camera position wonderfully obscures perspective, allowing The Stranger’s unique narration to leave something to be desired. The game is rather built like a sidescroller, as players follow a path constantly in the process of rebuilding itself as they progress forward. Memories of forgotten realms lift themselves back up to forge a semi-cohesive structure, only to be ripped apart once more as The Kid collects each level’s Core.
These Cores act as the primary goal across each level; the MacGuffin to guide players through obstacle courses while The Stranger waxes on about lost cities and citizens, decaying ruins where wildlife is doomed to destroy themselves. Collectibles along the way hint at a world that once was, memories themselves, and their ambiguous descriptions are much akin to the game’s 2011 companion, Dark Souls.
Perhaps most striking, and most discussed, is the narration itself. The second-hand present tense descriptions remark upon nearly every action the player takes, suggesting an unfinished story which may never be resolved but is always continuing, and looked upon from afar. It is gaming’s most unreliable narrator, an inescapable monologue offering little insight into The Kid’s own motivations, simply assuming his, and subsequently our own, selfless heroism.
A cyclical design fuels Bastion’s main arc, afforded by The Stranger’s narration and the narrative’s lack of satisfaction. Upon rebuilding all of the Bastion’s Foundations, villains terrorize the place of refuge, and the game asks players to begin again. Reconstruction and improvement are all that can be done in this liminal landscape; and victory only appears in short, seemingly miniscule bursts. This purgatorial functionality emphasizes Bastion’s central conceit: The present is constantly disappearing within each moment, fading into memories which may or may not be retained.
Simply as a game, Bastion excels. There are a bevy of weapons introduced throughout, with upgrades and special abilities applied to each. And while some certainly feature similar capabilities, they are designed to allow for a manageable unique style of play to every player. Combat demands precise timing and attention, swarming players with enemy types as they become more acclimated to their attacks and characteristics. Maneuverability flows with the fluidity and grace of an emotional ballet, breathing Life into the chaotic world through competitive survivalism.
But defeating enemies serves an even grander purpose. These corrupted individuals were once human like The Kid, and the fragments they leave behind act as currency for buying upgrades and abilities. Vanquishing squirts and gasfellas is therefore an act of remembrance itself, a reminder of the world that once was and the significance of its demise. Using the fragments they drop for means of self empowerment is a fascinating ploy, literally building one’s self up with the memories, expanding the capabilities of the mind.
It directly instills a player-protagonist relationship through the screen, tying them together psychologically, allowing physical strength and competence to arise through mutual assurance. Which, of course, is an historically prescient design of nearly all combat-centric games. Only here, Bastion’s narrative implications give the combat far more compelling substance.
Simply put, the narration gives connotation to every single action the player makes. Each petrified figure he smashes into dust without thought; each slip that sends him careening off the side of the world. It creates this liberal universe where anything can happen, and in fact necessarily happens for the sake of forging the player’s own story. Bastion is a game which understands that in order to connect players to its experience, they have to actively involve them within it.
Reviews have criticized the story, arguing its inconsequentiality. But there is far more beneath the surface to unveil for oneself. The Stranger’s constant monologuing gives little breathing room and can often fade into white noise as players dispatch waves of enemies. The art style and meticulous combat sequences clash with the narration, which can often disorient and bewilder.
This substantial disconnect plays with the psychological functionality inherent in Bastion’s design. Context itself becomes a distant memory waiting to be forgotten, pushed away for the sake of progress alone. Don’t allow the past to distract you from the now.
But while Bastion’s narrative may be seeped in basic plot structure — rebuild a dying world one step at a time, meet others along your travels, experience betrayal and perhaps forgiveness — waves of nostalgic power underline the familiarities. This is a world worth rebuilding, one that the developers invest much more time in describing. A world of fantastical creatures, an ambiguous history, exotic locales, vibrant colors, environments each housing their own intricate lives.
Ultimately, Bastion is concerned with the significance underlying everything we hold dear. The magnificently intricate art style stresses the merits of every nook and cranny housed within its individual settings. A wide valley of brush serves as home to a massive ground-dwelling beast; charred thickets imply a rotting wildlife; wrecked mining operations detail a once-thriving community lost in time. It is as if each miniscule detail was pored over during development to allow the environments themselves to speak their own story, one which The Stranger simply cannot articulate through words alone.
Storytelling is such an encapsulating means of experiencing the past. The Stranger’s monologues lay down the foundations for which Bastion’s world continuously restructures itself. Each new path unveiled suggests another tale to be told, to be heard, to walk through and experience for oneself. The game bridges the past with the present seamlessly. Bastion is storytelling redefined.
Perhaps most importantly, this wonderful title fervently illustrates personal attachment to objects. Placators of stories and emotional significance: a harp may imply liberation; a city crest may invoke union; a Marshal’s badge, authority; a crystal barrette, hope. Bastion asks the player to hold onto these mementos as though they are of far more importance than weapon upgrades or special abilities. To conquer and slay is to progress, but to investigate and remember is to enliven the world.