After the unexpected hit that Bastion became back in 2011, there has been a good deal of buzz surrounding their newest outing, which made a stylish splash at Sony's E3 last year. Proudly contrasting other games shown, which were coated in realism and Hollywood orchestral bombast. Transistor instead oozed vibrant, illustrated visuals, which beautifully meshed with Ashley Barrett's voice, alongside Darren Korb's composition, in this new genre aptly named "Old-World Electronic Post-Rock". A new adventure for players, Transistor transports you to a wondrously unique science-fantasy world, with heavy emphasis being places on 'science' , as technology is so utterly entwined within every facet of this networked society.
It's easy to gush about the soundtrack and visuals, lord knows the internet has, but does the game have substance to back it up? Does it possess the novelty of its predecessor?
A Cold and Warm Tale
Delving into the world of Cloudbank, you're greeted with civilization bathed in warm light and color, but cold in how idealized it is. So much of this world is it man-made, that even the color of the sky can be voted on by its citizens, rather than be a thing of nature; the planet losing its very identity in the pursuit of mankind's futile quest toward what's perceived as perfection. After adjusting my graphic resolution, I was expecting some exposition or cutscene to setup the beginning of the game…but within literally seconds I'm asked to pull out the weapon, Transistor, and am off to playing as my singer-turned-swordswoman, Red. (Other games take note).
It's been a long time since I played a game with a talking weapon, and the first time where it was essential to the story. Discarding the interactive narrator of Bastion, this sword behaves more akin to a companion character. A person trapped inside the blade, yet seems to know you, and talks to you throughout. Red on the other hand is rather similar to Disney's Ariel, a singer whose voice was stolen, and communicates only through terminals that let her type text. Part of me wants to say it's a clever take on the silent protagonist, another a limitation of that team only having one mainstay actor. The plot itself is also more linear than the last game, providing little in terms of branching choice, yet still making your interaction with it matter.
Similar to Dark Souls or Bioshock, much of the story and lore is told through collectibles you find through exploration, both in written and audio form to flavor the world. The player is, however, free to ignore them if they want the basic narrative, but if you care about story I highly recommend you don't skip over the lore. Artificial intelligence, artistic freedom, man vs. technology, and even love are themes this game manages to touch upon during its tale. The ending even managed to hit me in the heart.
Combat with Depth
While I enjoyed what Supergiant did with gameplay in Bastion, the combat wasn't the interactive aspect that made the game so distinct, it was the narration. What you got was a fairly well done, isometric action/RPG in the vein of Diablo, if a bit more rolling involved. It was merely good, but Transistor is a very different and powerful beast. Playing through the game once, I knew I hadn't squeezed out all the possible options and play-styles possible within this title, even after doing all the challenge rooms. Having heard the new game + "recursion" mode involves whole new skills being doted out, I'm starting to see why this game came 3 years after Bastion.
As some of you may already know, the game's core stratagem is a hybrid of real-time action combat, and a planning phase called Turn(). When entering Turn(), a bar appears at the top of the screen where the player can queue up a set of abilities, each of which takes up a portion of the total space, as well as any movement you make. Thankfully, the game lets you cancel every action in the queue until you have the ideal setup, at which point Red will then execute those commands with a satisfying flourish.
After Red executes what you planned, you then enter a cooldown phase, and must wait for the bar to recharge. At first I thought this was going to be a weakness in the game, because who wants to wait while being vulnerable? Thankfully, the game allows the ability Jaunt(), a short range dash, to be used to dodge enemies while the bar recharges. Even better later on, I found abilities that let me fight well in real-time without needing to use Turn() at all. Towards the end of the game I ended up utilizing a mix of both, and at each save point eagerly changing my setup to try different combinations. So much so that I'd argue it's the strongest aspect of the game itself.
RPG Progression Done Right
Despite RPGs being one of my favorite genres, the aspect I've grown less enthused by as I age, is the use of progression. Too often it boils down to a false sense of depth and accomplishment through stat numbers ticking up, and abilities that do rote condition effects with some elemental rock, paper, scissors thrown in (glares at Child of Light). Transistor on the other hand provides the alternative, pushing back numbers in favor of diverse abilities, and allowing players to express creativity in how they arrange them.
Instead of that traditional MMO hotbar of skills that repeat the same effects, Transistor never goes beyond 4 at once. At first glance, that seems limiting, but really it's setup in what I like to call Ability Legos™. See, most RPGs present abilities that have their own dedicated use, and can maybe be strung into others for a light combo. Instead, Transistor goes the Deus Ex path, preferring to augment existing ones. Within the 4 slots, any ability can be injected, and below each slot two more can augment how it's used. Like how Jaunt() lets you evade, but wish you could explode for damage like Load()? Well attach Load() below Jaunt() to augment, and dash past an enemy leaving an explosion behind. Do you want more than your one Help() summoned dog? Attach Charm() to him, and he'll bark enemies onto your side for a time. If you need even more than one enemy on your side, then just attach Bounce() as well, and multiple enemies will join the good fight for a smaller time. The game brings whole new meaning to the concept of loadout, and offers far more variety than most RPGs I've played in general.
Art and Music Are Incredible
If you have vision and working ears, this is obvious. Also, listen to the humming.
See, this is a middle of the road feature for me, because while I love how Supergiant handles difficulty in their games, it does put a lot of responsibility on the player. At every level up in the game, not only is the player choosing new abilities as rewards, but they're choosing optional punishment as well in the form of Limiters(). Similar to Bastion's own Relics, they act as augments to the game's difficulty, letting you choose ways to make the game more challenging for you.
My take on the system is that Transistor is letting me make my own challenge, either balancing it to what I think my skill level is, or seeing how far I can push myself forward. Other players though might prefer the developer be the one turning the dials, or are worried they'll choose that one difficulty variable that makes their next hour a worse experience. Still, I say suck it up, and give it a try.
While I am in deep love with the combat in this game, there are moments that do frustrate. Planning out that perfect set of strikes that the game says will kill off your enemy, only when executed to leave a huge boss with 17 health can be bothersome. Certain skills have the habit of launching enemies back, and you have to somewhat guess the distance during Turn(), or risk having strikes after that miss completely. If you manage to lose all your health, the game will let you fight on…but will take away 1 of your 4 abilities from use until you reach 2 access points ahead. Also, attacking during real-time doesn't have the useful line or AoE indicators for attacks like in Turn() mode, so aiming with a gamepad can be a bit problematic vs. the handy mouse reticle.
Slow Burn Story
The story takes a while to get going, and lacks that immediate gimmick of Bastion's charismatic interactive narrator. Early in, the game uses that time to establish its world, while leaving you guessing about how you got where you were with Red, and who this sword really is. If you choose to ignore the terminals and other viewpoints in the city, the narrative will feel even vaguer than it really is. Still, when it comes down to it, Transistor's story has more to say than Bastion ever did.
Looking back, Bastion felt a lot like Klei Entertainment's earlier Shank, a game whose strongest aspect was its production values, and the gameplay was merely just good. On the release of Mark of the Ninja though, I was surprised to see their game design rise above everything else, and Transistor is no less different.
The game is stylish, the music evocative, the story thoughtful and touching — all things I spent money for expecting. And yet, I came away wanting to dive back into its combat, mess around more with its nuances and difficulty. In Supergiant's second game, they've done the ideal of a veteran studio: make something that is great in every major area. Transistor may lack that immediate grab of an interactive narrator, but it digs its claws in deeper, and is easily the best experience I've had this year.