It’s not often that we’ll comment on a game’s soundtrack for a review. Part of that’s on us: there’s a lot to cram into a verdict, and we’re often at fault for relegating it to the bullet points at the end, if we mention it at all. But it’s on the games we review too, as a lot of the soundtracks have a ‘will this do?’ attitude that means we focus elsewhere.
If there was a game to show what can be achieved through a soundtrack, though, it’s 2011’s Bastion. As an action-RPG it was pretty good. Nothing stellar, just some slightly shallow combat mechanics, strapped to a couple of really good progression systems, as you collect cores to rebuild the ‘Bastion’ hub, and fragments to upgrade your weapons and abilities. It lit up the Summer of Arcade back in 2011, and we had great fun playing it.
We wouldn’t be talking about Bastion today, though, if it wasn’t for the soundtrack. It wouldn’t have won its three awards at GDC without it. It wouldn’t be tickling four million copies sold at time of writing, and it wouldn’t have been ported to every viable platform and console. Supergiant might not even be the indie colossus that they are without it, with Hades arriving on Xbox in a matter of weeks to show us just how far they’ve come.
If you haven’t made time to visit Bastion yet, you might be wondering what the fuss is about. Outside of PaRappa the Rapper or Guitar Hero, how could a soundtrack possibly make a game? Well, the answer is in Bastion’s twin cannons: the narration by voice-actor Logan Cunningham, and the game audio by Darren Korb.
Bastion’s narration is a fascinating one, because it goes against all of narrative design’s best practices. ‘Show don’t tell’ is the common mantra, and Bastion can’t stop telling. Once you have met the old-timer Rucks at the Bastion, he’s ever-present on the game’s soundtrack as in-game narration, outlining the history of Caelondia and what brought about the apocalypse that made Bastion’s world a floating archipelago.
It should be irritating, but it’s the opposite. We were immediately brought onside by the way it happens to be tailored incredibly tightly to how you’re playing. Do something slowly and Rucks will complain about your tardiness. Get hit and he’ll reassure you that you’ll get better. He’s a backseat driver, but a funny and laconic one.
There’s the delivery too. There’s a reason Logan Cunningham has been the main voice for all of Supergiant’s games, being the Storyteller in Hades and the Transistor in Transistor. He’s got a wonderfully deep southern drawl that reminded us of Sam Elliott of Big Lebowski fame, but check a photograph and he looks nothing like. No spurs or stetsons in sight. It also helps that, when a voice is heard over the course of a whole game, it sounds like honey.
It’s interesting to think of Bastion’s narration in today’s terms. Biomutant has recently launched, and got kicked by plenty of reviewers for its overbearing narration. A few even commented on how it reaches for Bastion but fails. It just goes to show that Bastion’s narration is often about what it doesn’t say: there were very few repetitions in the voiceover, making it feel like an old friend was talking as you played, rather than some voiceover on an algorithm.
But we’d save the MVP award for Darren Korb’s soundtrack. Like Cunningham’s voiceover, it understands that Bastion is – at heart – a western. This is a desolate world with you, the outsider, looking to set up home and recruit people to your posse. The bluegrass and country notes of the soundtrack dovetail perfectly with Cunningham’s southern drawl, and he even growls Tom Waits-like through songs like Brusher Patrol and Get Used to It.
But Bastion uses the western themes as a springboard to other reference points. This is clearly a post-apocalyptic game, and the Bastion hub and weapons you tinker with have steampunk vibes. Darren Korb understands this too, and stirs in other references to correct for them.
While Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme) is a tender country ballad, and wouldn’t have been out of place on the True Grit soundtrack, Darren Korb brings in Nine Inch Nails-style industrial noise for more combat-oriented tracks, or plaintive instruments on tracks like The Mancer’s Dilemma, where story takes the front seat. It’s a cooking pot full of different musical references, and it matches the sliced up and confused world of Bastion.
We’re listening to it as we write this Looking Back article, and we’d forgotten how much we loved it (Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme) is just lovely). It’s Firefly’s soundtrack covered by the cast of Stomp, full of percussion and heavy beats throughout. Just as you get a sense of its rhythm, it quietens everything down with a ballad like Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme), before kicking on again. It’s great.
Even writing this, it feels unusual to be diving so deeply into a game’s soundtrack, but Bastion welcomes that kind of scrutiny. It’s a wonderful soundtrack, one of the best committed to game, and it’s making us want to change how we write, spending more time in reviews talking about the audio. That’s quite the achievement, as Bastion seems to open up senses that you completely forgot were there. What a game.
Did you fall in love with Bastion for its soundtrack? Or were you hooked more on its gameplay? Have you returned to Bastion after spending time in Supergiant’s latter games, like Hades? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
And if you haven’t played it, head to the Xbox Store and pick up a copy of Bastion on Xbox 360, Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S right now.