Bastion Review Part 1: First Impressions

Bastion, a new Action RPG by Supergiant Games, was released on XBLA yesterday, July the 20th. The trailer for Bastion had caught my eye at E3 and I downloaded the game yesterday afternoon and got a chance to play it in the evening. After just an hour or two of time in the world of Bastion, I can't wait for more; honestly I'd rather be continuing my adventure in Bastion than writing this article. I will do my best to discuss my first impressions with Bastion without spoiling anything important, but beware minor spoilers if you like to dive into a game without knowing anything about it. In Bastion players take control of The Kid, a young(?) man who wakes up after the events of what the game calls the Calamity. The Calamity seems to have torn the colorful world into pieces, leaving only a few floating paths and platforms left. Setting out for the safety of the Bastion, as The Kid pushes onward what little is left of the world pieces together as paths allowing him to progress. After reaching the hub-like Bastion, The Kid must search for the world's Cores which have the power to rebuild the world around the Bastion. Though this premise is simple, and not a new idea for a video game plot, it is The Stranger that makes the game truly special. The Stranger is the narrator of the game, and from the first moment that the game begins this easy-on-the-ears drawl tells The Kid's story. The narration is very well written, and dynamically responds to the player. For example, within the first 30 seconds of gaining control of The Kid, I accidentally walked off of the edge of the precarious world and without missing a beat The Stranger said something along the lines of "And then the kid fell to his death...just kidding" as I was dropped back onto the platform sustaining a small portion of damage. Within the first couple hours of the game The Stranger's narration is varied and consistent. He does not repeat himself when The Kid does something repeatedly, but instead narrates the players story as often is as interesting and entertaining. Backing up the excellent narration is a soundtrack that so far I am loving. The music so far is not extremely catchy – I didn't wake up this morning remembering a theme song – but I remember that it was beautiful and fitting for the world. If the music continues to provide variety, I will not hesitate to purchase the soundtrack if it becomes available. The graphics of Bastion are special in their own right, an interesting style that reminds me simultaneously of cartoons and water colors drawn into a world formed of floating chunks high above the distant ground. The sound design and graphics create a world that I want to play in, so of course I must discuss just how the playing goes. As an Action RPG Bastion's gameplay is somewhere in between the hack and slashing of the Diablo series, and the combat mixture of Devil May Cry. While Bastion does not have a complex combo system and long move list like DMC, The Kid carries two weapons, usually a short range weapon and a long range weapon, can easily use a shield, and has a dodge roll ability. The rapid transitions between beating on enemies with a giant hammer, firing off arrows, dodging enemies and blocking attacks remind me of the combat decisions in DMC but are paired down to a 2D plane and Diablo like viewpoint. The Kid does level up, as the RPG part of it's genre claim would suggest, but instead of a complex stat upgrade system, leveling opens up new slots for special distilled beverages. Each drink provides a unique status boost such as increased health, loot magnetism, or extra damage, and players can swap which beverages they fill their level slots with anytime they have access to a Distillery (which is often – you can build one in the Bastion hub-world). Combine the many beverage choices when you level, with a rapidly expanding list of special abilities, multiple long range and close range weapons each with their own choices of unlockable upgrades, toss in a variety of aggressive enemies and I think Bastions fighting system will be entertaining until the games end.
I plan on finishing the game before coming back to do write my final opinions on the game, but so far Bastion seems to be a fun and artistic game with no obvious flaws wrapped up in excellent narration. My only worry at this point is that the narration and story won't continue to be as unique and special as the game continues, and that the truly great fantasy story I am hoping for won't be there. 

Bungie Celebrates a Final Halo Bungie Day

Bungie, known as the creators of the Halo franchise, have long held a fascination with the number 7, and as such on every July 7th they celebrate Bungie Day with their community. To make things more exciting they are simultaneously celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. After creating their final Halo game Bungie is using this Bungie Day to say farewell to the franchise by playing with the public. Today only, there is a Bungie Day matchmaking playlist in which Bungie employees are playing. Those who are lucky enough to get matched against one of their teams can attempt to earn a steaktacular (by beating the Bungie team by 20 points or more) and earn real steak. Bungie has said that, while supplies last, they will send out a pair of steaks to every player on teams that successfully beat them by that margin. This seems like a great way to thank the community, and from the time I've spent on the playlist everyone seems to be having a good time. So here's to Bungie! Thanks for making great games, supporting your community so generously, and preventing hunger with steak! Happy Bungie Day and Happy Anniversary!  

Sonic 3 & Knuckles Retro Review

When Sonic the Hedgehog 3 released in early 1994 it was really just the first half of the game originally planned by Sonic Team. The third game in the Sega Genesis flagship series was not on schedule for completion by Sega's planned date, leading Sonic Team to split the game into two parts, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic & Knuckles which released later the same year. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge for the Genesis launched with the rather unique ability to "lock-on" to other cartridges. (The top of the cartridge could flip back allowing for another cartridge to be plugged in on top.) Depending on what cartridge was locked on players could use Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (attaching Sonic 2), access extra special stages (attaching Sonic 1), and most importantly to combine Sonic 3 with Sonic & Knuckles to create Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the game Sonic 3 was meant to be. My opinion of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is positively biased by nostalgia, because I absolutely loved it growing up and played through it many times. However, I will do my best to write a fair review based on replaying it recently with a friend. We blasted through the whole game in two sessions, playing Sonic and Tails together. It was a game he had never finished as a kid, so I felt he should see the entirety of the classic at least once. Playing Sonic and Tails brings up an immediate complaint about cooperative play. For the sake of preventing frustrating, having Tails be unable to detract from the players life count or lose rings is a great design choice that lets a less experienced player be included without frustration. The fact that Tails cannot ever die permanently also makes the Tails player perfect for recklessly assaulting bosses, though this can take away the challenge and therefore possibly the fun of a boss fight. The big problem with Sonic and Tails cooperative play though, is how hard it is too keep tails in play with Sonic. Tails is able to leave the screen and get left behind, and this happens every few seconds in the hectic speedy parts of the game. After getting far enough off the screen Tails resets, and will come slowly flying back on screen with his two tails. This return is far to slow to keep a Tails player in play for much of the game however, and I think the cooperative aspect of the game could have been greatly improved if Tails had simply quickly jumped or run onto the screen and was immediately back in control. The speed that leaves Tails behind so often is of course iconic for Sonic the Hedgehog. With loops, bumpers, jumps and a variety of power-ups players will rush through Sonic 3 & Knuckles at great speed. However the speed is tuned well enough that an attentive player can respond to a trap or enemy that comes into the screen before Sonic reaches it preventing frustration that often comes with fast games. Also, there is much of the game the game that cannot be played at full speed, such as dangerous platforming segments, and rooms that have some form of switch or control to be found before the exit opens. The parts that force the player to slow down provide a welcome change of pace and keep the parts that are fast from going stale. The level design can be complemented not only for it’s pacing, but for its multiple paths and lack of cheap death pits. Sonic 3 & Knuckles provides large platforming environments that often have two or three branching paths through them, and some paths are only accessible with Tails ability to fly, or Knuckles ability to climb and break through rock on contact. These various routes are laid out in such a way that the lowest route rarely has any gaps that would allow the player to fall out of the level and die. This means that in most circumstances if Sonic or another character misses a jump and falls, they land in a lower area of the level instead of dying. The exceptions to this are usually found in levels that are meant to be high in the sky, and the death pits are use to symbolize falling off of the level entirely. In the end rushing through levels is very satisfying but there are plenty of secrets and obstacles to discover and avoid at a slower more exploratory pace. The game controls as all of the original Sonic games do, very simply and responsively. There is only one button, jump, which is also used to get a speed boost with a “spin-dash” if tapped while stationary and pressing down. If jump is pressed when Sonic is airborne a brief flash of lightning surrounds sonic protecting him from damage and slightly expanding his effective diameter which is very useful in attacking enemies. Tails can fly temporarily with his two tails if jump is pressed rapidly while he’s airborne, and Knuckles is sent into a gentle glide which allows knuckles to latch onto walls and climb. All three characters control with an excellent balance of momentum and control, allowing players to be agile without feeling like they are weightless. The environments are colorful easy to look at, and while some textures are repetitive for a game made in the mid 90s there is as much detail as I would expect in any platformer. The character animations for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are fluid and vary greatly depending on the situation. Some rotating platforms will spin the characters displaying sprites from all angles, and the way the characters are animated through different running speeds and poses is quite smooth. The enemies are more simply animated, but are well done sprites nonetheless. Playing through recently I did encounter some sprite layering glitches where Tails was behind the background instead of in front which creates some pretty poor visibility issues, but this seemed to be a fairly uncommon glitch that only occurred in specific circumstances.

The portrait on the back wall is a prophetic hint at the optional final boss.

To people who grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog games, the music is often considered memorable and high quality. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is no exception, and the music for most levels is catchy, fitting for the environment, and loops quite well. Fans of old video game music will probably appreciate the soundtrack. The sound effects of the game are simple and effective, also well matched to their causal action. Sadly, one of my biggest complaints about Sonic 3 & Knuckles relates to music and sound. The loop of music that plays when a character becomes invincible is too short for the games good. If Sonic opens an invincibility power-up, the excited musical loop plays for a bit, but the power-up does not last long enough for the repetition to become an issue. However, if a player is good enough to collect all of the chaos emeralds hidden in special bonus stages throughout the game, Sonic can turn into the golden colored extremely fast Super Sonic, which also triggers the invincibility music. When this happens, Sonic is invincible to most forms of damage but his rings (the common collectible in Sonic games that are dropped when Sonic takes damage) count down. When they reach zero Super Sonic reverts to normal blue Sonic. However, a good player can collect rings as they rush through a level, and stay in Super form for quite a long time. The music punishes these good players by forcing them to listen to the short loop of invincibility music the entire time, overriding the much more varied and tolerable music from the zone Sonic is in. This seems like a major oversight in sound design to me. [Anyone who already knows they like Sonic music, or people who are interested in it and like video game music, should check out Project Chaos which is an entire album of remixed music from Sonic 3 and Knuckles.] Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a game is a solid piece of work. Environments are pretty, exciting,  and dotted with mini-game special stages to gain power-ups and rings, as well as special stages where Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles is controlled from behind while running on a giant sphere to collect blue orbs and unlock a chaos emerald. When players progress from the levels within the Sonic 3 cartridge to the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge new super emeralds unlock leading players to even greater power. The story is told through brief character interactions and level transitions. While still a simple story like most platform games of the 90s, the bits that are there help provide a sense of connection between the different levels, and display the plans of the evil Dr. Robotnik in a quick understandable way. Collecting rings and finding power-ups feels important for the sake of survival, but being without isn’t frustratingly deadly. The boss fights against Dr. Robotnik’s robots are extremely varied, but fair in difficulty. No one boss should stump a decent player for too long once they recognize the pattern. A final touch to make this game stand out, especially considering the time it was made, was that the game saves automatically, allowing players to start on the level they left off, it has multiple save files to provide for the variety of character choice and multiple players, and when a game is completed in a save file, players can then use that save file as a level selector to replay the game from any point with whatever chaos emeralds and extra lives they had collected.

The game begins with a brief cut scene in which Sonic loses all the chaos emeralds he collected in Sonic 2.

Replaying Sonic 3 & Knuckles let me realize just how well designed it was even by todays standards. Sure, games today are often much longer, and obviously the quality of graphics and sound has greatly increased over the years, but for it’s time Sonic 3 & Knuckles demonstrated the strength of good game design, and is one of the best examples of the platformer genre in the 90s.