the artistry and psychology of gaming




The Good:
+ Combat expertly fuses an action game’s pace with an RPG’s depth
+ Retains and builds on the best aspects of its predecessor
+ Stunning production values
+ Setting and narrative are totally unique

The Bad:
– Setting and narrative are also too vague for their own good
– A handful of gameplay-related nitpicks

Transistor is the second game by Supergiant Games, the creators of Bastion, to which it is a spiritual successor. If that sentence alone didn’t sell you on it, you…obviously haven’t played Bastion. I’m mentioning this early on because comparisons between the two games are almost inevitable; they’re very clearly siblings. They’re both vortexes of disparate stylistic influences, they both have an action RPG at their base, they both have nebulous narratives that begin in medias res, and they both have procedural narrators voiced by Logan Cunningham. And most importantly, they’re both excellent in almost every way.

Despite these similarities, Transistor still manages to attain its own identity, and it’s a powerful one at that. Aesthetically, it’s a chaotic melding of art deco, neo-noir, cyberpunk and steampunk, but it’s more than that. It’s like Supergiant pored over every inch of an already solid game, then said, “Now we’ll do it again, but with style.” Hence the decidedly un-sword-like manner in which protagonist Red wields the titular sword, the conspicuous computer-themed naming conventions, and the otherwise pointless button that makes Red hum. Why have a button that makes Red hum? Why not? Meanwhile, dry humour frequently pierces the narrative murk, and the plot is supremely nihilistic – a theme that’s extremely difficult to execute well in all but the most mildly interactive games. I was afraid that Transistor would feel inconsequential after Bastion, but that’s absolutely not the case. It merely grounds its new ideas in its predecessor’s flexible framework.

Welcome to Cloudbank. You've never been anywhere like it before.

The most important of these ideas, and the heart of Transistor’s success, is its approach to combat. You’ll amass an arsenal of 16 combat techniques (called “Functions”, complete with parameter brackets at the ends of their names) throughout the game, all with vastly different strengths, speeds, and areas of effect. These are fairly interesting on their own thanks to their variety – there are standard rapid-fire and heavy attacks, as well as support options like cloaking and creating helpers, and some unorthodox ones like shots that pull enemies toward you, or the ability to turn enemies to your side. But the meat of the system is that each Function pulls triple duty as a base ability, an upgrade, and a passive enhancement. So what begins as a short-range stunning attack can be augmented to spread in three directions and drain its target’s health, or a dodge move can be upgraded to drop decoys when used, or, well…you get the idea. There are hundreds of combinations, and balancing your loadout’s power, versatility, and limited slot space is a far more engaging dynamic than periodically swapping your equipment for anything with higher numbers, as in most RPGs.

That said, don’t take too much time making your selections, as the game practically requires that you discover and adopt as many play styles as possible, through a couple of ingenious methods. First, each Function is tied to a particular character, and in order to find out more about that character, you must use that Function in each of its configurations. And second, active Functions form a sort of auxiliary life bar – when your life reaches zero, one of your Functions will “overload”, healing you, but temporarily rendering that Function unusable. Not only does this prevent you from settling on one combination, but it also adds another level of customization to your combat options, since placing a Function on an upgrade slot potentially sacrifices a chunk of your maximum health. Finally, combat is given even more depth via the “Turn()” mechanic, which allows you to stop time and plan a set of actions to be performed instantly once the plan is executed. It’s a lot like VATS from the Bethesda Fallouts, except rooted in skill and gameplay, rather than chance and spectacle.

Not that it doesn't have its share of spectacle, of course.

You might expect a game with a “build your own attacks” system to have a pretty broken challenge level, but Transistor’s combat is as balanced as possible, primarily because, like in Bastion, the difficulty itself is customizable. As you progress, you’ll unlock optional settings called “Limiters”, which increase experience gained while modifying the difficulty in various ways. Think you’ve discovered an overpowered Function combination? Activate a Limiter or two, and that will change pretty quickly. But my favourite aspect of this feature, as it was in Bastion, is that unlike standard difficulty settings, Limiters change more than just your enemies’ health and damage output. By making enemy respawns harder to prevent, and removing mercy features, they change how the game is played, rather than how well it needs to be played. Additionally, the 10 or so enemies you’ll fight also get upgrades throughout the game, creating a surprisingly solid difficulty curve despite the protagonist’s constantly increasing power. Finally, new Limiters and enemy upgrades continue to appear well into New Game Plus (sorry…“Recursion”), making it even more worthwhile than its already well-implemented form in Bastion.

But there’s more to the Transistor experience than just dense, imaginative gameplay…there’s also dense, imaginative aesthetics, and a dense, imaginative story. The game is an absolute feast for the senses that it reaches; if it had a taste, it would be that of Kobe steak. The wonderful art style looks like the settings of BioShock and TRON smashing into each other, and then being painted and coming to life in mid-collision. The mix of 2D and 3D is nearly seamless, and the world is so overflowing with details that I just want to watch it as much as I want to play it. Furthermore, Darren Korb continues to prove that he is the most important name in video game music today, with a soundtrack that excels at everything, from haunting vocal parts to infectious beats to extensive layering and alternate renditions, all while bending as many genres as possible into its orbit. Finally, Logan Cunningham returns as a narrator and secondary protagonist, adding humour and heart to his legendarily smooth delivery thanks to a pair of scenes where his character is seemingly drunk.

Now, the narrative is a little more complicated. Red begins as a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank, until a traumatic event leaves her mute and with a dead companion whose consciousness now resides within his own murder weapon, the enigmatic Transistor (the least sword-like sword since the Keyblade), which Red claims before leaving to track down the assailants. Meanwhile, a robotic outbreak called the Process is spreading, and attacking not just Red, but the city itself. Though the setup is relatively straightforward, the plot is incredibly ambitious and unconventional. For starters, the plot is born from the flaws of democracy, a core theme that hasn’t been touched on in games since…ever. The plot also never progresses in the ways you’d expect; some built-up boss battles never happen, and those that do are always different from anything you could have predicted, your accomplishments are frequently rendered irrelevant, and the ending is predicated on a final decision by Red that will make her either one of the best or worst female game characters, depending on what school of feminism you subscribe to.

Oh yeah, this also happens.

What makes this progression especially strange is that it’s not focused on twists. In fact, there are very few twists in Transistor with any significance. Most of the mysteries remain only half-solved by the end, and it’s this ambiguity that is the story’s undoing. While I appreciate the dedication to beginning in medias res, and the lack of “as you know” dialog, the use of horror-style revelation denial is completely inappropriate. The stakes and scope of the game’s events are never elaborated, and we have no sense of what’s been gained or lost by the end. As a result, Red’s all-important final decision has its gravity replaced with confusion, because we don’t have enough information to decide whether we agree with her choice. Bastion played the ambiguity card too, but it was mostly in backstory – character actions and relationships were concrete, and you always knew what you were fighting for. That’s not the case with Transistor. Most egregiously, the final boss fight, while awesome from a gameplay perspective, makes zero sense in the context of the story.

Aside from that, my only faults with the game are minor nitpicks, most of which were present in Bastion. The art design may be a little too extravagant for gameplay, so the visible difference between what is and isn’t a path is negligible, and the level design suffers accordingly. Additionally, while voice acting is a highlight of the experience, Red’s in-battle grunts and cries can become extremely repetitive after a couple of encounters. The controls are quite smooth and streamlined, and the interface is relatively uncluttered, though the isometric perspective can make hit detection a little spotty. Finally, there’s a moment early on where you’re required to use Turn() to activate two switches at once. It was an interesting little puzzle element, but neither it nor anything like it is ever used again, which was rather disappointing.

So yes, the last nine paragraphs have been building to a conclusion of, “If you like Bastion, you’ll like this.” But to open with that would be selling Transistor short. It’s a lot like Bastion because it grew from Bastion, not because it reiterates it. A time may come when Supergiant needs to seek new territory, but that time has not come yet. Transistor’s mix of the fresh and the familiar is simultaneously interesting, exciting, and approachable. It’s a beautiful, mature, and well-built game that solidifies Supergiant’s position as a top-tier indie developer.

Score: 8/10


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