01 December 2011

Review: Bastion (PC)

It seems so often with indie games, especially "artsy" indie games, that there's this feeling I get that the developer(s) is/are very talented, but not talented game makers. It's probably a more comprehensive version of the "pretentious pixelated indie platformer #46382" complaint. People produce great art, great voice acting, great story and then they go and implement ridiculously generic gameplay and spoil it all.

Sometimes they do actually try to add a few trivially original elements. Of course, self-respecting games journalists tend to stretch that and make the game into God's gift to gamers, due to their indie bias (while the shills all produce incoherent rants and bust out the 4/10s). Mind, I don't disagree entirely with that- I do think that indie devs need all the help they can get. But bias is bias.

I'm not really claiming anyone is pretentious, by the way. Nor do I fail to appreciate the reasons for choosing a low-fi graphics style, especially when you don't have the means to make much better graphics. It's just that ultimately, games are about gameplay (in the same way movies are about telling a story- and yes I am aware that exceptions are possible with either). Think of it this way: If a game has shit story and/or shit graphics/sound/music (Tetris? Chess? Dwarf Fortress?) but the gameplay is solid, you will still love the hell out of it. But if a game is great in every aspect except gameplay, which is shit, you'll end up in this situation where you just endure the "game" part for the sake of watching the custcenes, listening to the dialogue, reading the story and so on (WH40k: Fire Warrior would be an example for me). It becomes a passive artistic work, like a film or book, except there's this annoying shitty gameplay part that interrupts your experience... And I always wonder, if you're gonna put in all that work and imagination into making a quality game, why not devote some of it into gameplay? And if you won't, then why make a game at all? Why not make a cartoon, or a comic book, or even a visual novel or something?

And although I've mostly talked about indie games, when you think about it, some (a lot?) big-name games are like this, too. To give just one example of many, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had shit gameplay. I mean, it was pretty much MW1 with new graphics, and MW1 was kind of fun, but it was so similar that it really was like you were still playing MW1, so A) you could go and play MW1 and B) if you've had enough of MW1, MW2 is just a drag from the first second. The story was also absolute trash. But you gotta admit that the graphics were good. In some ways, you could even say revolutionary. And overall, having played MW2, I am left with this feeling of having played a crap game, but I know that some elements of it really are quite good, and it's just that the main element, the gameplay, happens to suck, and spoils everything else, and it's an awful waste, really.

To get back to Bastion...

So Bastion has lovely visuals. Really, the game is beautiful, visually. Sound-wise, too. The voice acting in particular, it's not just well executed... I mean, it's mostly narration, because the characters don't speak much, this being a game about a silent protagonist beating up monsters, but the way that narration is integrated into the game is really quite nice. In fact, the visual style, and the narration, are both worth playing the game for on their own, and they really were why I played it.

Oh, also, Bastion's "gimmick" is that landscape forms around you as you walk (there are other gimmicks but that one is immediately apparent). This is almost purely cosmetic, so I'll chalk that up to visuals, but it's sort of nice, too.

It's an action-RPG, you sequentially embark on isometric missions which are fairly linear monster bash-athons. You can level up, which slightly increases your health. You can spend points to buy upgrades for weapons. I'd say there's about 20 different weapons in all. All the while, the narrator produces exposition in a hilarious trying-too-hard-to-be-cool voice and tone. Just watch:

What sucks

And that's all the positive I'm gonna say about this game. Now, more complaining: First, the gameplay is bad. Controls are laggy and clumsy, and the game is all about reflexes, so it's very annoying when you go from fighting the mobs to fighting the controls. One notable offender is movement- the diagonal movement direction of your character, and the orientation of thin diagonal walkways is quite different. You have to constantly change direction while traveling diagonally, and yes you do fall. Another one is the cursor for aiming attacks- the attack lands a character's height below the cursor, and not at the cursor. This gets really annoying when shooting arrows at small, far away enemies, and it makes you miss. It doesn't even work, since not all enemies are the same height anyhow. I'm really baffled as to how anybody thought this was a good idea, especially in an isometric 2D game. When I click on a pixel, my guy should shoot that pixel, not the one 30 pixels below it! I know it sounds pedantic, but this is basically an action you do over and over throughout the game, many thousands of times.

The mechanics are also kind of meh. There are some mildly interesting monster types, and some interesting weapons and map areas, but really nothing to write home about. The 20 weapons I mentioned earlier, pretty much fall into 4 classes of melee, accurate gun, shotgun and grenade launcher, and only melee and shotgun ever proved useful to me (the grenade launcher that you get for the final few missions is nice, but too late, and the other ones are impractical). Some aren't completely unoriginal, but none are really remarkable. There are a few optimal combinations, too, so there's not really any point in using most weapons, which contributes to the feeling of repetition.

Two more obnoxious things the game does with weapons: First, you take two weapons with you on a mission (and can only ever carry two at a time), and it has this habit of introducing a new weapon at the beginning of the mission, and then force you to use that weapon, even though it's worse than the one you originally picked and now have to drop, and it's sometimes a really bad idea for that mission (and the one you had to drop would work great!). Second, there are challenge missions where you basically have to use only one weapon, and do well for an upgrade. The upgrade is always for that weapon. If I've beaten the hammer challenge all the way, doesn't that prove I'm already really good with the hammer, game? Why are you improving my hammer? Why not make the hammer challenge upgrade the bow and vice versa? That would actually be useful when you get stuck due to not being good with a specific weapon that's needed on a mission.

The writing is... Well, the dialogue per se is written wonderfully. As I said, the narrator just really works, and the writer is clearly very, very talented, at writing dialogue, at least. It's really fun to beat a group of enemies and then hear the narrator dryly remark on how they didn't stand a chance in the first place because you're such an awesome motherfucker.

Unfortunately, the story that the narration tells is crap. The plot is an awful, dreary sequence of one cliche after another to the point where it is trivial to guess the next "twist". When a particularly nasty piece of plot corresponds to a long mission with a difficult part near the end, you end up playing it over and over and being forced to really pay attention to the silliness, too, so that doesn't help.

Besides the cliches, the plot also has a message/theme that it likes to shove in your face (hurr durr war is bad). And because the narrator, your primary source of exposition, happens to have such a ridiculously too-serious attitude, it becomes more annoying because you get the feeling of listening to some pompous person who takes his half-baked ideas too seriously. I actually liked the narrator, so I wish they made the plot either more personal and less about messages and themes, or more obviously satirical, or had done that message part in a more sophisticated manner.

Overall, the game was both very pleasant and tedious. Playing it was mostly tedious. Watching it and listening to it, that was very enjoyable. So unless you're all out of action-RPGs to play, and you absolutely HAVE to play another one, even a not very good one, it's a good reason to play the game, but otherwise just watch a playthrough. I'd like to say I liked the game, but it really was fraught with frustrations. Hopefully they can iron out the mechanical kinks in their future releases, because I really like the narration and the style.

Score: 4/5

Bias: Bumped up from 3, because indy game and art style tries to (and does) go above game standards.


About the story. First, the way things look by the last mission, Caelondia obviously was doing laps around the Ura in every conceivable way- they have whole intelligence stations, on their territory, operating undetected (they are so brazen as to make unrelated weapons tests there as well!), the military has beaten them before and is stronger now; economically they're also well ahead, having swindled them out of that invaluable mine... Why bother nuking and genociding them? Supposedly it's paranoia, but this is an almost Nazi-like obsession with what a subjugated nation could do at some point in the future.

No other big powers are mentioned (nor intevene), and presumably Caelondia has cores while Uras don't. So the Ura really are at Caelondia's mercy in every sense- it's like a space-age empire being afraid of some cavemen. At least with Nazi Germany, the country had suffered an enormous defeat and economic downturn. What was Caelondia's problem? Paranoia sounds like a really bad justification to me, especially when relations with the Ura have apparently been getting better every year.

And even if for some reason there was a plausible motivation for the genocide, why bother nuking them? You've beaten them in a war already! Just round them all up and stick them in concentration camps. Why risk an experimental doomsday weapon, which could, you know, backfire and screw you over, too (like it did!), being experimental, and should only be used in extreme all-or-nothing scenarios, you know, doomsday. Stupidity.

And why did the scientist agree to activate the machine, anyway? He could have just said he sabotaged it when they "force" him to activate it. Even if they shoot him for it, he's still no worse off- it's not like he still won't die if the machine is activated.

Oh, and, what's with this theme of the architect of a nuke trying to right his wrongs in the wake of the apocalypse his creation has wrought? Games do this all the time (I'm looking at you, Braid!), and it makes no fucking sense. I mean, in WWII did Oppenheimer or anyone else go to Hiroshima and try to rebuild it or something? No! At best they dabbled in political commentary. People just don't do it! If they had been that concerned, they would not create the catastrophe in the first place- make no mistake, the scientists on the Manhattan Project all knew just how destructive a weapon it was, and they all knew it would be used. It wasn't a matter of "Oh no, I never realized they would actually use this! On people!". People smart enough to build weapons of mass destruction tend not to be, you know, stupid.

What I did like was the exploration of the scenario where you can turn back time and bring everything back to how it was before. You know, on one hand, it "fixes" everything, but then if you just rewind everything then the same calamity will reoccur anyway (barring some non-deterministic funny business). Well, I say explore, but they didn't at all, really. They just mention it. But you still do get that evacuate/restore choice, and potentially it could prompt you to think about it, I guess, and really it's an interesting thing to think about.

Besides, either option sucks anyway. Restoration is just the same armageddon over and over again, forever, while evacuation is not only awful because apparently the (at least local) human population has been reduced to 3-4 people, but also because the potential restoration of two whole nations of people is apparently less important than some silly romance between one guy and one chick.

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