RPG Club Plays Bastion: Week 4
After going AWOL for a week and a half, the RPG Club is back with some concluding thoughts to offer as we salute Supergiant Games’ first masterpiece and reflect on some of the things that make it so wonderful despite any of its individual flaws.
Early on in Bastion, the developers take the time to unravel the seemingly simple combat system and reveal the depth waiting below. A series of optional training ground levels offer an in-depth look at specific weapons, explaining how they can be wielded to full effect and giving background on their place in Caelondian society. Successful completion of these training levels gives players bonus equipment and moves in addition to a fuller understanding of combat.
Now that the logistics are out of the way, I can confidently say that I hate the machete.
Typically, light blades are my jam. Whenever I use bulky two-handers or heavy characters, it’s because I’m specifically trying to escape the comfort of sneaky-stabby-speedy gameplay. I cringed when The Kid’s trusty weapon was revealed as a massive hammer—slow hands to match his painfully slow walk, I guess.
The machete *should* have been my salvation, and for a while, I thought it provided just that. The Kid lacks the agility compared to his enemies to make full use of melee hit-and-run tactics, and it may have taken a whirlwind of hits to down each monster, but at least things felt faster.
My uncomfortable illusion of speed shattered sometime around my tenth failure in the machete training ground. The arena tasks you with chopping down a horde of weak monsters, most of which run away as soon as you get near. However, the machete can be “charged” into a throwing attack, helping close the distance. This is the thing you’re supposed to learn here. Of course, the blade travels with the speed of a snail morphine and misses half the time, but sometimes it reaches the target. Oh, and you have to clear the room in under a minute for the top reward.
I’ve cleared every other training area with minimal difficulty while still having fun and getting better at the game. The machete area, though, I just can’t do. And despite switching back to the basic hammer weapon for melee, I’m just not comfortable with it. Apparently when I’m controlling The Kid, he either whittles monsters down from a distance or dies. There is no melee.
Melee, from the French “mêlée,” subsequently derived from the Old French “meslee,” meaning a “brawl” or “confused fight,” also a “mixture or blend.” Each of these meanings taken in concert certainly do a good job of describing most of Bastion’s combat. It requires trading blows, not in the distinct pitter-patter of two adroit boxers trading solid blows, but in a confused exchange that sees every acutely violent intention translated instead into desperate flailing.
You’re right Mike, Bastion really doesn’t make the machete an inviting weapon to master. The Kid is no more agile while wielding it, nor is the rhythm with which it slices conducive to roguish hit and run tactics. Indeed, charging it up into a throwing knife, while an interesting option, is usually useless in practice. Unless the target is separated by an impassable gap in the road, it charges and throws to slowly to make it significantly more effective than simply running up and slashing the enemy at point blank.
While I have yet to really invest time in mastering each weapon’s respective time trials, I prefer using The Kid’s long range gun more than any of the short range weapons. It puts some cuationary distance between you and the enemy, and fires off rounds with a satisfying enough *click* *click* *click*.
Combat in Bastion is less about reading enemy movements and finding opportune openings than simple resource management: knowing when to swig potions or unleash a special, when to unload on an enemy and soak up the damage or run for cover. The game’s magic isn’t hidden within the moment to moment details so much as how each throw-away interaction in the game gives the player a pathway into a deeper overall mood, one that’s at times both intimate, at times bleak, but always aesthetically resonate. Each pixel and every spoken word in Bastion pulses, building up into a whole that is unmistakably more affecting than any of its parts.
The first time through, the end of Bastion took me by surprise. And not even the very end – I’m talking about the part when you find Zulf again.
Super obviously, spoilers follow.
Up to this point I’d been tracking the plot, putting together piece by piece what had happened to cause The Calamity. The trips to “Who Knows Where” had filled in most of the exposition, and I’d seen how Zulf had destroyed everything I’d worked for up to that point. Slowly, painstakingly, I put the Bastion back together, and as it neared completion, I found Zulf. Beaten, broken, unconscious, the player is given an option. Leave him there to sleep in the bed he made, or try to bring him back with you (at the cost of your high powered weapon)?
I did my standard thing, which is overthink this decision. I thought about Zulf and what decisions had led him here, and even how I’d been playing The Kid. After a couple of minutes, I decided to help him; The Kid slung Zulf over his shoulders and trudged onwards.
Then the gates opened, and my heart sank. You remember the part, right? There is a narrow corridor, lined with the baddies who had been kicking my ass up to this point. I steeled myself and pretty much just kept trudging. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I had committed to taking Zulf so onward I went.
After a few steps, the firing stopped. In that moment, I lost by breath. These aren’t generic video game bad guys, intent on stopping you no matter your motives – these are characters, with motivations, desires, and respect for someone willing to sacrifice themselves for another.
That’s what I loved about Bastion. There’s no black and white – all the bad guys you fight are trying to do what’s best for them. Even the narrator is more than just an exposition machine. You could put yourself in the shoes of every character and understand what they’re doing – it’s not just the shallow facade of a game with flat archetypes of good guys, bad guys, damsels in distress, and antagonists. Each character has a role and layers, and that is what made the story in Bastion so rich and engaging. This one moment, as you’re trudging past a row of silent Ura, crystallized what I love most about Bastion, and the moment of clarity was startling – and I loved it.