This week, Zero Punctuation does another XBLA double review with Bastion and From Dust.
I always feel around this time of year that playing nothing but AAA mainstream games is like eating McDonalds for every meal of the day, and my mental equivalent of my intestinal tract is about ready to slither up my throat, pop out my mouth, and go look for food on its own. So enough with these iron sight examination simulators, I'm going where the worlds are bleak and the heads are large for my third XBLA double bill.
And with characteristic convenience, the kus-blah has recently chundered up two games that both approach the theme of world building from vastly different directions. Perhaps this speaks to some larger trend within society today, a prevailing desire on the part of indie developers to recreate the entire world into one where you can charge more than fifteen bucks for your game design degree coursework.
Well, now I am reading too much into things, so let's start with Sebastian - sorry, The Bastion. Sebastian is a 2D, isometric, hacky-slashy but also long-rangy fighty clustery mobby...thing. You play a dude - perhaps named Sebastian - who wakes up one morning to find that the ten or fifteen square feet of floor on which he went to sleep the previous night is now floating apparently unsupported in thin air. Soon we learn that an ominously-named calamity has blown up most of the world, the kind of blown up that grants the debris the ability to fly and makes more debris materialize under your feet when you walk off it. Man, that doesn't sound like a calamity at all; that sounds pretty fucking rad! Okay, it killed the vast majority of the population, but still, it's paradise for an anthrophobic aeronautics engineer.
Your task is to assist in the construction of a floating stronghold from which a new society could be formed by going to missions and murdering everything that moves, as well as quite a few things that don't move, too. The environments are absolutely littered with clashing terrain, enemies and destructible furniture, and together with the isometric viewpoint - which is to confusing perspective what the Thames was to cholera - it all looks a bit of a mess, which is, funnily enough, something else people say about the Thames.
Combat is quite efficient, mind, creating the right warm jolt of self-satisfaction that comes from correcting dodging, countering, or snorting coke, but there are probably too many weapons and the usual problem with an upgrade system: that you become fucking Thor by the end it, who annihilates every possible challenge with a single shift of his tightened buttocks.
But where Bastion shines is in the story. People ask me, "Yahtzee, you say you like story and gameplay to blend seamlessly, but can you give an example without mentioning Silent Hill 2 or Half-Life like you always bloody do?" All right then, now there's The Bastion as well. Without interrupting gameplay (much) the story is told by an ongoing and disturbingly sexy narration by someone who appears to have replaced his lungs with two chocolate profiteroles. From a starting position of knowing something between "bugger" and "all", we gradually piece together the storied history of the world before it got reduced to cornflakes, all while remaining focused on a core group of interesting characters so the story retains emotional weight and events are driven by the actions of the protagonist. It's everything a game story should be. That said, if you are going to have two endings based on the last decision we make in the game, for fuck's sake put a save point before it, because I've now got the entire last mission of the game stuck in my head like it's "Oh, What a Night" by The Four Seasons.
Anyway, let's leave you trying to remember how that song goes and move on to this week's second game, From Dust, a new game from Eric Chahi! And those of you who weren't testicle spelunkers in the early '90s may remember him as the developer behind the ground-breaking and atmospheric Another World (that's Out of This World if your country is dumb). But let's stop upsetting the children with references to the pre-Lady Gaga world.
From Dust is sort of a mythic creation story about a tribe of primitive people overcoming their crippling shyness to colonize a series of lands. And just to show how far Eric's come in twenty years, the main character is not a ginger dork in a t-shirt but a magic glowing snake with the power to move terrain around on a terrifying scale. You have to help the little masked men found a set number of villages and fend off environmental hazards like floods and lava, because magical glowing snakes lack the communication skills to suggest their masters build a village somewhere other than an active volcano mouth, you stupid, gibbering tits.
At first glance, From Dust strongly evokes both Populous and Black & White, as if it was developed by some parallel universe version of Peter Molyneux who didn't start taking loony pills around the early 2000s. Your standard workaday skills are the ability to pick up earth/lava/water from one place and drop it in another, and it must be said, the physics of it all would make a Minecraft enthusiast's brain burst out through his eye sockets. Water bobs and flows and foams, dirt piles and settles, lava oozes along and sizzles as it ploughs through the home of a family of three, the stupid screaming blisters. Can't you even pick up lava? I can!
As nightmarish as the programming job probably was, the gameplay itself is deliberately simplified, which is a good and bad thing. There's no dull micromanaging, but when you're not just telling your dudes to move to the next village, they could give a banana-scented shit for your clever plans. One really misses the ability to make specific men stand on specific spots when the elements are closing in. But it's hard to feel guilty about losing anyone when they didn't think to sprint away from the red glowing jam, nor when they stand in place and scream for help because their path is blocked by a one-foot rise. That's always the problem with the gameplay mechanics in this kind of procedural generation stuff: there tends to be fine line between what it'll accept and what it'll throw back in your face like a bowl of mashed apple. The game refuses to let you build your village in a recently-drained area if so much as a spoonful of moisture remains anywhere within a fifty-foot radius. But once it is built, you can practically build a waterslide park and no one seems to care, as long as you don't wash all the laundry away.
On the whole though, I had fun with From Dust, and if you get through to the very end, you unlock a sandbox map that lets you build whatever, but after finishing my inevitable spewing lava penis I realized the game really did need some challenge to make it interesting. And giving me the power to spawn a tsunami but not telling me which button it is only really works once, game.
Of the two games herein discussed, I think I prefer Sebastian. He feels a bit richer and doesn't spend so much time rolling around in the dirt. But then again, we'll never find out if Sebastian gets better if you get bored and drop five hundred tons of molten stone on someone's conservatory.
- Creator of all that the light touches: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- On reflection control over dirt is probably an even worse superpower than control over fish
- What if God were one of us and he had a big shovel