The Bastion indie game title gives big time developers a run for their money. SuperGiant has created a polished and compelling world that even puts the likes of Braid to shame.
"A proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one. Here's a kid whose whole world got all twisted - leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky."
Bastion's gravel-voiced, wizened narrator doesn't do 'Once upon a time'.
Rucks is well-versed in your fate, your foes and your future - and before you've even trodden down a single blade of grass in SuperGiantGames' impressive debut title, he's begun drawling out his all-knowing balladry.
For the next seven hours, he calmly offers cryptic, languid half-riddles about things he's seen that you're yet to encounter; remarking on your mistakes and triumphs as if they were merely part of his forewritten tale.
His tone is deep and earnest - two parts Jack Daniel's ad voiceover, one part Morgan Freeman - and he confidently matches almost your every move around Bastion's grassy and floral locales.
Bastion review: Stunning art direction
It's a neat trick that rarely wavers off course; even if you suddenly flee from a scrap, drop off a ledge or meet your demise, there's Rucks, ready with a custom descriptive nugget.
SuperGiant's use of Rucks as a vocal centrepiece isn't just a charming trinket, however. He provides a key and underused gameplay function - the ability to keep the player calm.
Even in Bastion's most frenetic hack'n'slash battles, his touch of knowing tranquillity reminds you not to merely grind on through, but to actually enjoy the world around you.
And Bastion's is certainly a world worth enjoying. An enchanting hand-painted art style combines with imaginatively bizarre enemies and the game's trademark ground formation, which solidifies, rock by rock, underfoot as you canter around.
The overall effect is something akin to an interactive pastel comic, given extra gravitas by some refreshingly sincere folklore, tragic tales and, naturally, Rucks's reassuring timbre.
At the beginning of Bastion's journey, the narrator introduces our protagonist, The Kid, and spins us a little backstory. We learn that an apolocalyptic moment, described as 'The Calamity', has shattered the stunning Caelondia into disparate lands, and filled them with meanies of comic shape and proportion.
Your fateful task is to return six chunks of blue crystal-like 'core' from these areas (collectively dubbed the Wild Unknown) to The Bastion - a lush safe harbour where survivors agreed to gather during The Calamity. Sadly, The Kid appears to be the only one still standing.
Bastion review: Former glory
The chunks of core help rebuild The Bastion to its former glory, with each erecting buildings that play a key role in levelling up your character. As pieces of the Core are returned, you'll create an armoury (weapon choice), Distillery (potions) and Forge (weapon improvement), as well as a Memorial to remember the Calamity's victims.
It's at the Bastion that you first meet Rucks, and first stumble onto the SkyWay - a transportation device which flings you towards each new world and, crucially, the next piece of the core.
In an industry where 'indie studio' often automatically equates to 'ropey but fun', SuperGiant has certainly fought against convention with Bastion. The polish and high production easily even puts the likes of Braid to shame. If you're looking for stylised atmosphere and charm, Bastion offers it in spades.
Rucks' deep-throated delivery is brilliantly complemented by the game's music, which blends acoustic blues, trip-hop, choral chanting and even raga to otherworldly effect. Its role shouldn't be dismissed - each time you return to the Bastion, the combination of Ruck's throaty welcome and rootsy, homegrown strumming lend the land a real feeling of home and sanctity.
Bastion review: SuperGiant
SuperGiant obviously know the soundtrack's value; one of the many Old World items you return home with is a Gramophone, which allows you to select all of the songs from the campaign's duration at any time.
It's a slight shame, then, that Bastion's exploration and combat is never quite as interesting as the magical world in which it's set. That's not to say it's not stable or slick: Close combat, range attack, health top-up and dodge roll are mapped onto the main buttons; with a special move on one trigger and a shield on the other.
Weapon choice is generous, especially with the wealth of improvements on offer at the Bastion itself. The Kid ends up with eleven fighting tools by the end of the game, from which you might choose the Cael Hammer to dispatch larger foes due to its weighty, powerful qualities, or the quick and precise War Machete.
Likewise, the Scrap Musket offers an effective ranged weapon, but the super-fast Duelling Pistols are far better to take on enemies whose weakness is only exposed for seconds at a time.
Bastion review: I like to special move it move it
Special moves include grenades, auto counter-moves and a variation on an airstrike, all of are powered by a black bottle. These are exposed as you chop your way through Bastion's environments, alongside blue bottles which offer health rewards.
In the early stages of the game, you'll fight waves of enemies of various ilks, usually built from a slightly stingy pool. There are the Windbags (hooded ghouls with axes), the Scumbags (balloons billowing poison) and Squirts (tadpole-like irritants that ghost around your head).
After a few hours, the variety of foe begins to improve - as does the strategic requirements needed to deal with them. Alongside plenty of flora spewing harmful bullets and balls, there are the Peckers (vulture-like gits who try and claw your eyes out) and spiked eyeballs that drift towards you with patient menace.
The biggest issue we found with Bastion was that almost all of its enemies could be all-too-easily countered by holding up our shield to defend, combined with a hammering of either the range or melee buttons.
Likewise, their attacks are usually a little hackneyed and repetitive - bullet strings that occasionally pause, for example. These rarely challenge you to react either instinctively or, more to the point, creatively.
Bastion review: Boss fights
The fighting style of bosses tends to be a little more interesting, where a well-timed dodge roll is usually vital in order to survive - never truer than when the Kid faces a subterranean, cone-nosed, raggle-tooth beast who tracked him like an earth-based Great White.
However, even these giants presented issues, especially when a loadout the game had encouraged us to adopt (by leaving weapons on the ground to collect) simply didn't do the job.
One particular sector left us with nothing but fire-based weaponry (including a very cool little flamethrower) against a giant frog-like creature best dispatched by the pistols. Although Arsenal are huts dotted around the levels - allowing you to to swap over weaponry at fixed points - once you're in the final boss fight, you're stuck there until you reign victorious - or end up restarting...
The occasional pad-mashing nature of Bastion's combat and its predictable enemies might not please action purists, then - but the depth of its RPG elements are likely to surprise.
Bastion review: Unlocks
As standard, killing enemies unlocks XP which can then be used to level up in the Distillery or Armoury. But there are also other less common touches, such as perks that make certain enemies protective (and even amorous) toward The Kid, and an option to increase the XP offered by each by invoking 'the Wrath Of The Gods' - which basically makes your foes either tougher or quicker for greater rewards.
Besides, Bastion's occasionally inelegant combat foibles never hang around too long. The game's made up of quick levels. In the beginning, these do tend to merge a little into one, offering little different in their challenge pattern (follow forming platform, slash through obstacles, take on boss). Your path is also pretty linear, usually set in a single direction by an elevated path set into motion by you standing nearby - a little disappointing for a world bursting with exploratory potential.
However, more variety and supplementary paths begin to creep in after the game's halfway point. This is especially true as you near Bastion's denouement, where dream-like sequences and - it has to be said - slightly trippy exchanges muddle with a universe we were foolish enough to believe we'd become accustomed to.
One particularly clever level sees you battling part-hidden enemies through undergrowth, and it would have been nice to see more challenges dissimilar to Bastion's regular stages thrown in. This wish is partly served by Proving Grounds - challenge areas that you're free to wander back to, in which you can test out your skills with a range of Bastion's weapons in return for tonics and other prizes. There's also a 'New Game +' option on completion, which transfers your XP, weapons and upgrades into a refreshed campaign. The biggest incentive to pick this one up however, has nothing to do with dispatching foes, improving potions or bulking up XP.
Bastion review: Verdict
SuperGiant has created one of the most bewitching universes available on console, made all the more heart-warming by Rucks' soulful storytelling and the best gaming soundtrack we've heard this year.
Bastion, then: a good, if flawed, place to play - but a fantastic place to be.