It’s been four years since Bastion was released. It not only changed the way we look at indie games, it made Supergiant Games a household name in an industry dominated by multimillion dollar publishers and studios. Everything about Bastion was so meticulously well-done, from the gameplay and enigmatic story, to the wondrous art and music; not to mention the dulcet tones of Logan Cunningham. A testament to games as art and the ability of independent developers, Bastion serves a standard that all of Supergiant’s future games will be judged by.
Which as it stands is Transistor’s greatest problem, It’s the follow up act of a fantastic opening number. But like it’s big brother, Red’s adventure in Cloudbank is an equally stellar performance.
When you first load up Transistor, you aren’t given a prologue, you aren’t even given a start screen, you’re thrown right into the world Cloudbank in it’s final moments as the Process, the enemies of the game; start to turn the thriving metropolis from alive and colourful to sterile and monochrome. You play as the singer Red, who after being attacked by the Process and the Camarata, the administrators of Cloudbank, has had her voice taken from her. You wield the transistor, a digital great sword that not only gives Red the ability to fight the Process, but also serves as the games narrator (again by Logan Cunningham) as it contains the Trace (essentially the soul) of someone close to Red, but isn’t initially apparent who.
In fact, apart from the exposition from your speaking sword and some lines spoken by other characters towards the end, Almost all of the big pieces of the story aren’t given to the player, but only told as the player explores and experiments. While some might find this as a confusing and poor narrative, I personally enjoy figuring out what’s going on from virtually nothing. It’s dark, mysterious, and you know that nothing is as it seems. Transistor doesn’t want to tell you a story, it wants you make sense of all the data and build the big picture yourself. There will always be some pieces missing though, no matter how much you explore. This is slightly disappointing, but hardly enough to spoil the atmosphere.
Wait your Turn()
Similar to Bastion’s gameplay, controlling Red is viewed from an angled fixed camera as she travels through Cloudbank’s alleys and streets fighting the various monsters who oppose her. The very first battle introduces the game as a action RPG a la Diablo, but immediately you’re introduced to the game’s twist, the Turn() system. This allows Red to execute a sequence of moves and actions planned in advance and then executed as time is stopped for your enemies. It’s a refreshing take on turn based RPGs and allows for varied and creative gameplay. As you collect more abilities through additional traces, the ability to customize your skill set is simple, yet incredibly robust and satisfying. Using abilities as either offensive, upgrades, or passive abilities allows for a lot of flexibility, even if some abilities really only have a specific use. You also get access to a practice area and bonus levels called tests to truly become versed in the different powers you have and what best suits your play style.
But just because you’re given a lot of power at your disposal, doesn’t mean that your enemies are chumps. They evolve as you progress and the battles become more like puzzles than combat, with the player relying on careful strategic planning that can make or break a battle, especially towards the end. Even the game’s unique way of punishing a player or the ability to make your enemies harder on purpose for more experience allows the player to truly tailor the game to their liking, making Transistor one of the best RPGs in a long time, and we’ve had some crazy good RPGs over the last couple years.
It goes without saying that Transistor is beautiful to look at, but what makes the world truly come alive is the seamless integration of cyberpunk with a modern urban atmosphere. The world and characters are beautifully detailed, as is to be expected of Supergiant Games’ Jen Zee. But because of its blend of the organic and inorganic, Transistor’s world is that much more beautiful and real, which in turn makes it even more sad to watch as it is processed by… well, the Process. Words really can’t do the art of this game justice.
As Red is a singer, you’d think that music would play an important role in Transistor. It certainly does, but not in an obvious way (as is expected). There isn’t any specific gameplay mechanic involving singing or music, but the beautifully composed score and the subtle nuances of both the game’s soundtrack and sound effects make Transistor a truly complete experience. An amazing detail that I can never get enough of is that when you switch from realtime combat to the planning mode of Turn(), the music switches to a hummed version of whatever is playing, hummed by Red herself. We understand this is her planning, the thoughts in her head if you will. That little touch is such a nice feature I just want to take an extra turn just to hear that lovely hummed melody.
There are going to be a lot of you who aren’t going to like Transistor as much as I did, especially when in many ways it isn’t as good as it’s older sibling. The game is rushed in places and feels over all too soon, even for only 20 bucks. But I think that’s what makes this experience such a wonderful one. It’s short and sweet, better to be over too soon than drag on too long. But more importantly, it’s game that once again pushes the limits of what games can be. I can’t wait to see what Supergiant comes out with next, and I’m hoping it’s a hat trick and just as amazing as the last two games have been.