F rom the crumbling Washington landmarks of “Fallout 3” to the alien-infested planet Sera of “Gears of War,” the post-apocalyptic wasteland has become a familiar setting for video games. There’s something haunting about such scenarios, but few games invite you to ponder the tragedies that have left humanity in such dire circumstances.
And then there’s “Bastion” (Supergiant, for Xbox 360, $15). It’s a somewhat humble offering from a new studio, but it delivers a devastating emotional punch.
When the protagonist, known simply as The Kid, wakes up, the world outside his bedroom has vanished. Each step he takes restores a small bit of his homeland, Caelondia, while a narrator comments on his every action. Eventually he makes his way to Bastion, a safe zone where a few other survivors have gathered, and learns about the Calamity that ruined his world.
The Kid’s education requires venturing out into the world to recover shards, which are used to rebuild Bastion’s central monument. The floating dungeons are filled with whimsically named beasts like gasbags and anklegators, as well as a dozen or so increasingly powerful weapons, most of which can be upgraded. While the combat is fairly straightforward, the levels are lushly illustrated and the controls are smoothly precise.
Composer Darren Korb’s soundtrack, which he calls “acoustic frontier trip-hop,” is a welcome departure from the orchestral bombast that usually accompanies role-playing games. And the narration, which reminded me of Sam Elliott’s cowboy in “The Big Lebowski,” is quite effective.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it takes on some issues — like remorse, redemption and forgiveness — that big-budget games typically neglect. Late in the game you’re asked to make some tough choices, and the path I took led to a truly breathtaking moment. “Bastion” is one of the year’s most satisfying releases, and a very promising debut for Supergiant Games. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
“Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” (Fuelcell, for Xbox 360, $15) is also eerily beautiful, a biomechanical mystery world that’s crammed with lethal wildlife and malfunctioning machinery. You control a flying probe sent to investigate the planet, and you’re initially equipped with little more than a peashooter. Again, you find better weapons — lasers, missiles, a buzz saw — as you explore, as well as other devices you need to unlock more dangerous areas.
In essence, it’s a two-dimensional maze in which you’re always searching for the key to the next part of the maze. Gamers refer to this subgenre as “Metroidvania” after two classics — “Metroid” and “Castlevania” — that pioneered the formula. “ITSP” strips it down to its core; there’s no story and not a single word of dialogue, just the pleasure of discovering what weird challenges are around the next corner.
“ITSP” delivers just the right mix of brain-bending puzzles and reflex-testing action. It’s short, although five hours of play for just $15 isn’t bad. If anything, it left me wanting more. Three stars.