Bastion is a hack-and-slash, button-mashy action RPG with very nice art and absolutely gorgeous music bogged down by mediocre gameplay and a story that ranges from boring to bizarre. And I don’t mean bizarre as in strange, I mean as in wtf were the writers thinking.
The final choice in the game is you deciding whether to wind time back a few weeks weeks to prevent the genocide of two peoples or destroying the undo machine and running away, and this is presented as some kind of extreme moral quandary.
Spoilers inside for Braid, of all things, which is an excellent game you should go play.
Aside from its music (seriously check out the music), the thing Bastion has going for it is its narrative gimmick, wherein the PC’s story is narrated as it goes, and this is done really well. The writing in the narration is solid-to-good, and the voice actor is excellent. The narration gives the mediocre gameplay some spice, and makes the story bearable early on, where it’s really nonexistent. It doesn’t try to get metafictiony, either, which I appreciated.
The gameplay is pleasant but button-mashy and requires absolutely no skill. The game tries to compensate for this by providing like 15 different weapons, but in practice the only difference between them is how you time your button-mashing. All of the levels are functionally the same, and a handful of the baddies require some actual thought, but the vast majority can be brute-forced through. But this in and of itself may not have even been a huge deal if it weren’t for the story.
First, this is one of those instances where not only is there no reason for the PC not to be gender-neutral, but it would have actively made the game better if it had gone a Road Not Taken route and just made it so that it would have been impossible to tell exactly who the Kid was. Immersion and role-playing boons aside, the whole point of the Kid is that they’re anonymous — nameless and voiceless and confused. “The player charcater is No One, but they’re male No One” is contradictory and suspension-of-disbelief breaking, because the authorial hand and how it views personhood is immediately apparent. It’s shitty writing.
Anyway, the story itself starts out boring and cliche — the kind of juveile grimdark cliche where you use alcohol for powerups. A few hours in I was really bored and was about to quit, between the repetitive gameplay and complete lack of story, but then suddenly it threatens to get interesting, and then instead careens off into WTAFery and never returns.
The game has… weird issues with race. The narrator is voiced by a black man in what is clearly the accent of a black man from the South, but his in-game sprite is of an old white dude. I’m not really sure why no one was like, “This is weird, right?” during production, and it’s one of those small things that’s really pointless and inexcusable.
The weirder thing is that the story is about murdering all Asians.
The people called the Ura all have pale skin, black hair and dark eyes (whereas the other characters are caucasian with white hair), come from “the east,” fight with long thin swords in robes with their faces covered, and are stealth fighters, teleporting around the screen when you approach them. The Ura are Asians; there’s no way around it. They are Asians who backstab the player after finding a mysterious book full of math and equations. Asians whom the game is way, way too blase about killing.
Because about 2/3 of the way through the game, you find out the current grimdark state of affairs is the result of the people of Caelondia decide to quite literally kill all the Asians at once… using some sort of bomb that will obliterate them/turn them to ash/trap them in tunnels and suffocate them/blast them into space, depending on how the game feels at any given moment (the game is really confused about what the Calamity actually is). One of the Asians managed to somehow fuck with the bomb so that it also took out Caelondia, so when the game starts two peoples have been wiped off the planet with the exception of small groups of survivors.
Now, I’m not sure anyone sat down and said, “Let’s make the Ura fantasy Asians.” It’s possible, but I can’t tell from what we have. I’m also not sure if anyone sat down and specifically said, “Let’s have our plot be about using an atomic bomb to wipe out the enemy,” especially since it’s so confused as to the specifics of the Calamity. What I have a hard time believing is that you could have a plot about wiping out an enemy with a fantasy atom bomb and then make the enemy fantasy Asians by accident. You just don’t write a plot about secret bomb development that can vaporize people on contact and was developed as a governmental last-resort secret and not realize you’re talking about the atom bomb. You also don’t decide to use the fantasy atom bomb to genocide the fantasy Japanese and not go: hey, this is a thing that happened IRL, right?
That said, if this was all on purpose, it isn’t inherently problematic. After all, you should go play Braid it is an amazing, amazing game. There’s a reason Braid used the “now we are all sons of bitches” quote — there’s a lot of moral horror in the atom bombing and there’s still a lot there for fiction to examine. And I actually think that if this game had taken the Braid tack and had it slowly revealed that actually, this all happened because your government was really into killing all
humans Asians, I think that could have been a really neat twist, if kind of predictable. The Kid would essentially be the modern gradeschooler reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.
The problem here is that the game doesn’t seem to see why genocide is such a big deal. And that’s weird and protagonist-centered-morality-holy-shit enough on its own, but when there’s such a clear real-life analogue you just have to wonder what everyone was thinking.
To be clear, the game never uses the word genocide. It never even gets close. But it is made abundantly clear that the Calamity was intended to wipe out every single Ura. The game goes out of its way to sanitize this and deflect blame for it. It starts the story of how this happened off with the Caeldonian government being so sad about war and wanting war to end forever — and incidentally, this is where the plausible deniability about the bombing-Japan thing gets really thin. You have white people deciding to drop an atom bomb on fantasy Asians, and their reasoning is that it would end the war? Really? Anyway, being rational and not at all evil mad scientists, the Caels decide the most sensible way to end war forever is to murder all of their enemies in one fell swoop. To do this they develop the weapon behind what becomes known as the Calamity. It then misfires thanks to an Ura worker in Cael who finds out, and kills all of the Caels and most of the Ura.
The Bastion of the title turns out to be a failsafe — it has the power to set the world back to a time before the Calamity, and the Narrator, PC, and Obligatory Woman hope they can ultimately use this to prevent the Calamity. The bulk of the gameplay is finding the power needed to fire up the Bastion.
The Ura, naturally, want revenge for the attempted genocide, and spend the game trying to finish you three off and stop the Bastion from being activated, since they rightly assume it’s not a tool to save them. To the game, this is a sign of how not “civilized” they are:
“Yes our people caused the Calamity, but here we are tryn’a fix it.” Did the Ura really think we’d turn around and walk away? Shame the opportunity for civilized discourse is over.
“Sure we attempted to murder you all, but god, could you stop acting like such barbarians and let us activate our other mysterious device?”
Then there’s quotes like this one:
Zulf, the Ura…they have every reason to be angry. Beyond angry. But when this is all over, it’ll all be water under the bridge
I just like that they view attempted genocide as something that makes you very angry. Grr, say the Ura! You might as well have gotten our coffee wrong at Starbucks for how angry we are!
So yeah, the game first sanitizes what the Caels were doing, and then characterizes the Ura as unreasonable for not being thrilled. Even if there were no IRL analogue, this would be really weird and unsettling. The game just doesn’t seem to get why the Ura see Caelondia as a bad guy just for trying to enact a genocide, and I really have no idea what the writers were thinking with this, because there’s no sign anywhere in the game they see genocide as kind of a bad thing, either.
To make IRL matters worse, though, the Ura are further characterized as sneaks and traitors — crafty Asians, basically. One you save turns on you for very good reasons — he finds out YOU TRIED TO GENOCIDE HIS PEOPLE — and then his own people ultimately turn on him for vague nonsense reasons. This is a game that dares to ask: who are the real bad guys — the ones who built a genocide machine, or the ones who were the target of it?
And then as the game is ending, the Obligatory Woman suddenly is like, really sad about resetting the genocide, and wants them to instead destroy the Bastion and run away, and this is presented as a totally valid option by the game. It seems to genuinely think there is some kind of deep, meaningful choice here for the protagonist. Yeah, sure thousands, possibly millions, of people are dead, but she had a shitty boyfriend :((((( Wouldn’t it be better just to get away from it all?
I can understand the Obligatory Woman getting cold feet about saving the world because it’s so hard and women are cowards etc. What I cannot wrap my head around is the game thinking this is a plotline that is worthwhile.
And this is where the Kill All Asians plotline starts to get muddled, because if there was some secret anti-Asian plot thread here, it doesn’t actually go anywhere. Should you try to save the world? Is it better with everyone dead? Are Asians evil? Is genocide wrong? Can going back in time change things? The best the game can come up with is an epic shrug. Why not just go take a vacation instead of dealing with all this shit, it says, God knows we don’t want to be here.
The best sense I can get about whatever the loving fuck is going on with this plot it that it’s just trying to be edgy. Early on it reminded me of Farla’s discussion in her Pokemon RMN review about That Fic that teenage boys always write. It had a GRIZZLED OLD NARRATOR and ALCOHOL and VIOLENT WEAPONS and was clearly trying to be edgy, and what’s edgier than ATOM BOMBS and GENOCIDE and HUMANS AREN’T WORTH SAVING. I genuinely think the most likely scenario is here that some bad writers thought they were being deep.
Gorgeous music, though.