If you’ve checked out the new release rack at your favorite video game retailer, you’ve probably noticed that, with the exception of last week’s “NCAA Football” game, it’s been slim pickings for new releases, just like every other July in recent memory.
Since 2008, Microsoft has tried to capitalize on the July-to-August doldrums with its yearly Summer of Arcade program. For five weeks spanning late July and early August, the Xbox 360 gets weekly releases of high-profile, generally high-quality downloadable games.
The first of this year’s Summer of Arcade titles, Supergiant Games’ “Bastion” (rated E10+, $15) went on sale Wednesday. It’s a jaw-droppingly gorgeous, hand-painted adventure with a narrator who spoon-feeds players morsels of mythology throughout.
The game tells the story of The Kid, who awakens one day to discover his world has been bashed into fragments by an event the game refers to as the Calamity. Not knowing what to do, the kid heads out to the Bastion, a safe haven designed to serve as a meeting place in troubled times. But the only people who show up are the Kid and Rucks, a stranger who serves as the game’s narrator and puts the Kid to work rebuilding the damaged Bastion.
To do this, the Kid uses a skyway to travel to scattered fragments of his former world in search of “cores” and “shards,” bits of magical rock that allow him to upgrade the Bastion and unlock new abilities. Each of these fragments serves as a level, and as the Kid traverses them, the environment literally falls into place in front of him, constructing paths in real time as Rucks narrates the Kid’s exploits.
Even though the levels themselves are fairly straightforward smash-and-shoot affairs, “Bastion’s” art team has packed an incredible amount of detail into the environments. Logan Cunningham’s excellent narration, combined with the blocks’ tumbling into place, creates the feeling that you’re guiding the Kid through a living storybook as it’s being written. Contrary to marketing materials suggesting a dynamic, fluid narrative, much of the narration appears to be scripted so that lines are delivered when the Kid reaches a certain point in the levels. Nonetheless, the narration creates an enchanting effect that makes the game’s surprising ending feel unexpectedly heartfelt.
While you could make a case that “Bastion,” the work of a core team of just seven people, has graphics and sound design that hold their own against any of this year’s big-budget games, the same can’t be said of its relatively simple gameplay. “Bastion” gives players plenty of flexibility, with roughly a dozen weapons, plus other ways to customize your Kid’s arsenals and abilities, but the core game is easy enough on the first playthrough that many players won’t fully explore “Bastion’s” depth.
“Bastion’s” nuances are more likely to be appreciated after you finish the game and start over with all of your end-game weapons and upgrades. One of the structures you can build in the Bastion, the Shrine, allows you to activate different “idols” that make the game more difficult while allowing higher scores on the leaderboards.
Despite this added difficulty, “Bastion’s” action will revolve primarily around hitting stuff, shooting stuff, blocking and dodging. My main motivation for starting a New Game Plus was so that I could see the story end differently on my second playthrough.
And that’s kind of the way it goes with “Bastion.” What you get out of it will depend on how much you value things like original artistic vision and great storytelling. For me, those two elements trump gameplay. But if you’re the kind of player for whom sharp, nuanced gameplay is king, your mileage may vary. At any rate, anyone with an Xbox 360 ought to at least download “Bastion’s” free demo to sample Supergiant’s artistic vision.
And if you don’t have an Xbox 360 but are intrigued by “Bastion,” it will be coming to PC later this year.
Other than “Kinect Fruit Ninja,” a puzzling $10 re-creation of a middling $1 smartphone game, this year’s Summer of Arcade lineup boasts a string of great-looking games. But given the high quality of a number of recent non-Summer of Arcade download, it’s hard not to wonder if the whole showcase idea is becoming a little arbitrary and unnecessary. I’ll be taking a look at some recent non-Summer of Arcade downloads that I’ve been enjoying later this week.