Seems like most of my gaming time this year has been on the indie scene, at least if you ignore that whole "World of Warcraft addiction" thing I had going on. It's not to say that there haven't been great mainstream, big budget titles around, just that I've found myself more enticed by the choppier waters of small development teams for most of the year, largely due to the siren lure of regular Steam sales. "Indie" is a big category, and somewhat hard to define, including breakout one-man hits like Minecraft, to games produced by fairly large teams aiming at the cheaper end of the market. All that really seems to link them together is the broad cost of the game, a digital distribution model, and a pleasingly common desire to take a bit more of a risk than the typical "man shoots gun at aliens" blockbuster games seem to want to.
Sometimes the risk is just to make something with a smaller sales base - open world building games like Minecraft and Terraria are never going to be selling out at Tescos, for instance - others are genre-mashups like Sanctum and the just-released Dungeon Defenders, and some are just flat out arthouse games.
At heart, Bastion is a pretty simple game. You move around linear levels that unfold in front of you, using either a ranged, melee or special attack to dispatch enemies of a fairly narrow range of types until you reach the end, kill a boss encounter and then head back to the hub world. You pick up cash that can be used to upgrade weapons, unlock additional items and features, and gain exp that lets you equip more power boosting tonics. Each level you complete lets you add another building to the hub world and later upgrade those buildings. Um. Thats about it.
What makes Bastion special? Well, like so much else, it's the execution.
First of all there is the look of the game. Bastion is gorgeous to look at and the screenshots I've got don't really do it justice. Everything has this hand-painted look to it, which is delightful, and as you move around the levels they literally build themselves in front of you, a simple yet evocative way of showing you the path onwards. Sure there isn't a lot of mob types but they're likewise lovely to look at and fit well into the environment. Everything is lush and vibrant and like playing through a painting, which is quite an acheivement.
These all tie together to make the final strength of the game, which is simply that it makes you care. The story is simple, but like the design and voice-over that simplicity is a strength, and has a power to it that at the end, when faced with the ultimate decision of what to do with the fate of the world, it feels meaningful even though all you're really choosing is which cutscene to watch.
And the joy of the indie gaming sector at the moment is simply that you don't get experiences like Bastion anywhere else.