Bastion was a gorgeous game. Its masterful blending of themes, music, gameplay, art and dynamic storytelling made it a critical darling, and briefly raised the profile and standing of Microsoft’s “Summer of Arcade” scheme before it shot itself in both feet shortly thereafter. Pre-release information regarding Transistor, Supergiant’s second title, looked equally promising, and showed off a game with a similar dynamic narrative, albeit with more of a focus on engaging mechanics than Bastion. Transistor delivers exactly that, and although some of the game’s narrative suffers slightly from vagueness, it is still one of the most beautiful, touching and ambitious games of the year so far.
Transistor follows Red, a singer and resident of the cyberpunk city known as Cloudbank. After being attacked by mechanical forces called “The Process”, she finds herself in possession of “The Transistor”, a great-sword with the power to absorb the life force of any it kills. Throughout the game’s story, we learn that the Transistor is imbued with the personality of someone close to Red, as well as the sexy, gravelly voice of Logan Cunningham (Rucks in Bastion). Even within the first ten minutes of Transistor, the game throws around lofty concepts, characters and settings without leaving much time for expository information, and although I respect Supergiant’s decision to keep Bastion‘s flowing, narration driven storytelling, things race forward at a pace that can be a little hard to keep up with.
Cloudbank, regardless of how beautiful it looks, also feels strange in comparison to Bastion‘s Caelondia. Whereas Caelondia was mostly deserted because it was a post-apocalyptic setting, Cloudbank is supposed to be a lived-in city, and although it is in the midst of an attack from “The Process”, its emptiness makes it feel weird and hollow. Terminals placed throughout the city do a great job of fleshing out the world and its characters however, and they even add a welcome dose of humour to the otherwise serious proceedings.
Thankfully, Logan Cunningham’s powerful performance as the Transistor, as well as some ambitious and heartfelt writing helps Transistor to overcome its nagging vague references and wishy washy exposition of important details. Despite Red’s inability to speak (don’t worry, there’s a reason this time), one does feel attached to her cause thanks to some really great, non-combat character moments that pop up frequently alongside Jen Zee’s magnificent artwork. These range from Red going to the bathroom or ordering flatbread, but they help to ground her and the Transistor as characters, and make their odd relationship relatable. With two successful and ambitious story driven games under their belt, one cannot question Supergiant’s narrative capabilities.
Some critics have criticized the game’s rather abrupt ending, but I found it equal parts tragic and heart-warming. It takes real guts to end a story this way, but it works extremely well in Transistor.
Supergiant have also upped their game mechanics-wise too, and in doing so they’ve crafted a simple but engaging combat system that combines elements of turn-based strategy and action RPGs. Unlike Bastion‘s fast, reactionary combat system, Transistor allows the player to pause time and plan their movements and attacks accordingly. The player can only carry out a certain number of moves in a “Turn”, which can be easily gauged from the game’s intuitive combat UI. Although combat is still fun in real time, the “Turn” mechanic makes Transistor a game about careful preparation, tactical positioning, and clever combos.
Rather than switching between a plethora of varied weapons like The Kid in Bastion, Red uses the Transistor and its sixteen available attacks. Only four attacks can be equipped at any time, but abilities can be “stacked” onto others as secondary abilities or even as passive abilities. For example: “Load” sends out an explosive into the combat area which can then be detonated by another move being used in close proximity, but if “Load” is equipped as an upgrade ability onto an attack like “Crash”, the default sword attack move, it adds an explosive, area damage effect onto crash.
This simple and creative ability system is actually one of Transistor‘s greatest strengths, because it encourages experimentation without being too complex or difficult to understand. Abilities vary rather significantly and cater to a vast amount of play styles. You could be a stealthy, ranged Red or a speedy, melee Red. There are fast attacks, slow attacks, allegiance switchers and an admittedly life saving dodge move, all of which can be stacked and jumbled in whatever order you fancy. When you run out of health in Transistor, you lose one of your abilities until in recharges at an upgrade station, so even being “killed” offers up a chance to experiment with new abilities you haven’t tried before.
Unsurprisingly, Transistor is beautiful, both visually and audibly. Darren Korb proves once again that he’s one of the best composers and sound designers in the business; every sound effect pops and bangs in synergy with the vibrant colours and neon lights of Cloudbank, and every song accentuates both the game’s story and its combat. Ashley Barrett’s singing voice is put to tremendous use once again as Red, and if you’re hoping for another jaw dropping final song in the vein of “Setting Sail, Coming Home”, you won’t be disappointed.
In spite of its occasional lifelessness, Cloudbank is still a gorgeous thing to behold. Every drawing and animation is striking, and the city’s cyberpunk/renaissance hybrid visuals are refreshing in concept, and impressive in execution. Although enemy designs aren’t initially awe inspiring, their cold, metallic ways soon strike a legitimate sense of dread into your heart, and Red’s character design is one of the best I’ve seen in a game, especially for a female protagonist.
It may not be perfect, but Transistor is unquestionably a triumph of game design, one that wears its heart on its sleeve, and doesn’t hold back in any department. A fitting successor to the excellence that was Bastion.