Every word a defiance
I can hear, oh, I can hear,
Moving out to the country
With everyone, oh, everyone,Before we all become one”
These are the meaningful words of “We All Become,” the title song of Supergiant Games’ newest release Transistor, an isometric action-RPG set in the sprawling city of Cloudbank. As the spiritual successor to Supergiant Games’ previous hit Bastion, Transistor had a lot of living-up to do, and I was certainly not disappointed. Supergiant’s wonderfully gravely narrator Logan Cunningham from Bastion returns, the art direction and music are immaculate, and the combat system is engaging, encouraging you to take down enemies as efficiently as possible using a vast array of attack configurations. While I did feel like they stayed a little too close to Bastion’s overall mood and that the game was a bit too short, I had a real blast playing through it, kicking butt and learning about the mysterious world I was thrown in to.
The scenario Supergiant has spun is larger than life and rife with secrecy. Red, the game’s protagonist diva who lost her voice, carries around the Transistor, a tool of mysterious origin that is voiced by Cunningham after it is used in a murder. People are disappearing, and all you know is that a secret society known as the Camerata are to blame. Like in Bastion, the story is developed primarily through the narration of Cunningham, who makes practical and cheeky comments as you progress through the levels, adding life to a world that is otherwise depopulated – except for the Process. These buggers are your main force of opposition that are ripping the world apart, and you need to use the Transistor to stop them. The story is quite cryptic at times, and you need to piece together what is happening through the commentary from the Transistor, news reports, and various files you unlock. I rather like this type of storytelling as it assumes you have the smarts to piece things together.
The art style of the game, like Bastion’s, is colourful and memorable. Cloudbank feels like a cross between a jazzy noir metropolis from the 50s and a futuristic prismatic cyberpunk wonderland. Influences are drawn from many sources including Art Nouveau and Art Deco motifs, with a touch of Gustav Klimt in the gold-trimmed patterning of Red’s clothes and a dash of Alphonse Mucha in the posters of Red strewn around the sprawling city. The Process are sleek enemies that look like the cousins of EVA from Wall-E or a Portal turret, and just as deadly (remember when EVA blew all that stuff up in the junkyard?). Visually the game is an absolute treat, and I couldn’t even play it on the highest resolution (old rigs, take note). The music, composed by Darren Korb with songs sung by Ashley Barret, is unique and memorable, and adds flavour and clarity to the story (you can read my separate review of Transistor’s music here).
The attack system is an art of its own. The amount of options you have to create attacks is staggering. There are sixteen base attack functions that you unlock as you level up throughout the game, and each function has an active, support, and passive mode. Active mode sets that function as one of your four primary attacks, Support mode lets you attach that function to any primary attack you have equipped adding secondary effects, and Passive mode gives Red passive abilities. The secondary abilities can drastically change the functionality of the primary attack, giving you quite the arsenal at your disposal with all the possible combinations. You are limited in the amount of functions you can equip at a time by the amount of memory you have, which also gets upgraded as you level up. Combinations can be absolutely devastating, particularly late game. Functions also work in conjunction with your health; when your health drops to zero, you lose the ability to use one of your equipped primary functions until you visit two new save stations. Your health goes back up after you lose a function, but if you lose all four of your primary functions then you die. The function system is smart; I was constantly experimenting with new combinations to see which attacks would work better against certain enemies, or simply how much crazy damage I could do. The game really lets you tailor your attacks to your own preferences, and rewards experimentation as you unlock files with backstory on Cloudbanks’ citizens by equipping your functions in different slots. You will get hurt and lose functions, which feels almost as painful as dying as each function is useful and found I was always using a combination of all four in battle, so I felt powerful when getting through battles unscathed. While Red can attack in real time, more often you will be taking advantage of the games’s Turn() system, which allows you to freeze time to queue up attacks to unleash in quick succession.
When Turn() is activated the battlefield turns into a dotted grid on a black plane. A blue bar at the top of the screen shows you how much potential movement / attack credit you have. You use up credit by walking as well as attacking. The amount of credit you lose per attack depends on the strength of that attack, and the amount of damage you will do to each enemy is displayed as you stack up each attack. Any move you make before you finalize your decision can be undone, therefore you have the delicious freedom to try out any number of combinations of attacks to see which is the most effective before you unleash the fury. Watching Red then execute those moves, ripping enemies to pieces with Matrix-like speed, is oh so satisfying. Once you use Turn() you only have to wait a short period before you can use it again, but enemies can be particularly ruthless during that time, particularly in the late game. Sometimes the battles felt a bit easy with effective use of Turn(), but for those who want more of a challenge, the game has a “Limiter” system which, like the god system in Bastion, allows you to beef up certain aspects of your enemies creating tougher fights and higher experience gain. This ensures that gamers of all stripes are able to enjoy the game, whether they prefer casual encounters or hardcore slugfests.
Like Bastion, there are challenges you can perform to put your skills to the test (and gain more experience), which you access through the Sandbox, a beach bum’s paradise you can visit from time to time (complete with beach ball). Tests challenge you to use Turn() to kill all enemies in one turn using prescribed functions, survive for a certain amount of time, kill all enemy waves, or kill all enemies in a set amount of time. These were initially fun, but the rewards were meager amounts of experience and as the tests got frustratingly more difficult I found that I simply wanted to leap back into the main story rather than rinse, wash, and repeat these tests every time I (shamefully) lost.
There are definitely a few things I hope to see changed with Supergiant’s next outing. While Transistor does feel different than Bastion artistically, I can’t help but draw a certain parallel that I wish Transistor had been able to avoid to feel truly unique: both games take place in worlds that are essentially devoid of other characters to interact with. Cunningham does an excellent job with his narration, bringing the world to life, but it would have been nice to see Supergiant tackle a world that is a little more lively with other characters to meet and flesh out the story. With Bastion this tack felt truly original, but in Transistor it feels a bit repetitive. Transistor makes an effort by adding files you unlock with character backstories, but it falls a bit flat without the possibility of actual interaction. While Transistor does have some fun secrets to find, the game feels a bit linear as those secrets are never far off the beaten track. The world is beautiful, though, and the combat is amazing, which is why it’s a shame that the game clocks in at less than seven hours for the first playthrough. A New Game+ mode unlocks when you complete the game which allows you to continue leveling and unlocking duplicate functions for double usage, but what I crave is more time with those unique moments when a game is completely new and fresh and you’re reveling in its awesomeitude.
Small quibbles aside, Transistor is still one of the most memorable games I’ve played in the past long while. It’s one of those rare works where you feel like you’re playing with a piece of art rather than playing a game. The world and its story are authentically crafted, the music is amazing, and the combat makes you feel like a valkyrie of pain on the battlefield. I definitely recommend this one to all fans of action and tactical rpgs, and generally anyone who likes a story that requires a bit of thought. Kudos Supergiant!