The promise has been made.
I don’t know what it says about the current gaming climate that the PS4’s best exclusive is a $20 indie game, but that’s where things are. After the indie darling that was Bastion, all eyes have been on Supergiant Games in the hopes that the perfect storm of quality and media attention will hit the same island twice. Although Transistor isn’t quite the exceptionally pleasant dark horse that Bastion was, it’s still better than most of the games released this year.
Transistor opens about as vaguely as you can get. There’s a dead body, impaled by a talking, sizable cyberpunk sword, and a red-haired opera singer without a voice. From there, half the fun of Transistor’s story comes from slowly peeling away the mystery. It’s an elegant way to avoid a frontloaded story; by placing faith in the player’s deductive abilities, there’s no real need for out of character expository dialogue. Nobody utters the phrase “as you know.”
I genuinely enjoyed piecing together both the game’s past and the events that were unfolding around me. Transistor’s story is one of immediacy; the characters reminisce about certain aspects of the past, which helps fill in some gaps, but for the most part, there isn’t time for the same level of world-building seen in Bastion. That game was about picking up the pieces from the apocalypse — the characters in Transistor are literally watching it happen. As a result, there isn’t as much debris to sift through.
The game’s secret weapon is one Logan Cunningham (the narrator from Bastion), playing the titular saber. You’ll immediately recognize his voice, but Cunningham is no longer narrating the events with a collected, bluesy tone. As a character experiencing the events of the story, he’s allowed a greater range of emotions than in Bastion. It’s Cunningham’s vocal performance that really sells the relationship between Red and the Transistor; a crucial point as the game nears its bittersweet conclusion.
Unfortunately, the game’s final moments don’t hold up quite as well. You’ll spend your final hour or so meandering about an unpopulated area whilst the game’s antagonist just natters at you. The final boss is a welcome challenge, and Transistor’s last moments have a startling (but not unwelcome) level of poignancy to them. This is not an upbeat game, by any means.
As is now the standard for a game from Supergiant, the art direction and music also stand out. Cloudbank is a fully realized techno-artsy-utopia; think Blade Runner done up in bright watercolors, run by hipsters. It’s always nice to see a future that isn’t dominated by glossy white surfaces. Transistor makes full use of the color spectrum, but it doesn’t overstimulate the player. Its pallet is varied, not blinding. Returning composer Darren Korb succeeds yet again, combining his talents with returning vocalist Ashley Barrett to great effect. His score feels operatic, intimate, and dour; a perfect companion to Transistor’s overall tone.
From a distance, Transistor’s combat system may seem a little dense. It’s a set of mechanics that work better in practice than on the page, but the important thing is that they work. Through the Transistor, Red has access to Functions: attacks you can trigger via one of the four face buttons. Each function can be placed in three spots: active (triggered by a face button), upgrade (attached to a specific function with the express purpose of providing a boost), or passive (sort of like a perk). For example, there’s a blast attack called Crash() that I was particularly fond of. I mapped Crash() to the left face button, and put a function in the upgrade slot that would increase Crash()’s rate of fire. A third function in the passive slot upped the damage, quickly making the left face button my go-to.
Since your first three deaths in any given combat scenario essentially “break” a function, you’ll have plenty of (forced) opportunities to mess around with different combinations. You’ll eventually find something you like, but you might not be able to carry that particular combination with you for the entire game. The game also provides written content as a reward for experimenting. Cycle each function through active, upgrade, and passive, and you’ll receive three separate text logs, fleshing out the citizens of Cloudbank.
When it comes time to actually do some fighting, Transistor’s main hook is a pause button called Turn(). Press the right trigger and everything on the battlefield stops. The beautiful scenery and gorgeously designed enemies are replaced with a minimalistic, neon grid-like system. There’s a bar at the top that dictates how many actions you can perform, and everything takes up a certain amount of that bar; even moving will cost you. While Turn() is active, enemies don’t move, so you’ve got all the time in the world to plan. Also, nothing is set in stone until you decide to end Turn(). Once you have a set of attacks or moves that feel like the right call, hit the right trigger again, and Red will execute your plan.
It’s a far cry from Bastion’s real-time combat, but Transistor can feel equally as powerful, if not more so. Executing the perfect Turn() made me feel like a cross between Einstein and a superhero.
Look, as much as I enjoyed Transistor, I don’t know if Supergiant can make another game that feels like this. Having a distinct style is never an inherently bad thing, but relying on a particular aesthetic too heavily could be problematic. Transistor feels like a companion piece to Bastion — a compliment, to be sure, but a word of caution nonetheless. I’ve had my fill of isometric apocalyptic games with an emphasis on world-building. My need for this one really specific genre has been satiated, and I want to see the folks at Supergiant Games branch out.
Future Supergiant projects aside, we have Transistor right now, and it’s fantastic. The high bar set by Bastion may remain intact, but only because of how surprisingly awesome Bastion was. I expected gorgeous visuals, a killer soundtrack, and some fine writing. Transistor delivered on all of that, with a rewarding, adaptive combat system as a bonus.