Also On: PC
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Developer: Supergiant Games
Supergiant Games' sophomore effort has finally arrived in the form of Transistor, a PC and PS4 exclusive follow-up to 2011's Bastion. While set in a familiar isometric perspective, Transistor abandons Bastion's disembodied narrator and gains a more tactical combat system. What it maintains, however, is a striking combination of aesthetics and audio.
Set in a futuristic city, players take the mold of Red, a female protagonist with a chatty sword sidekick, as they venture on to figure out what happened the night before. Transistor's gameplay is both deeper and less transparent than Bastion's, featuring abilities that can be stacked upon each other in order of an attack power, upgrade components, or equipped to the character for passive use. Mapped to the face buttons, combat centers around these combined abilities in locked off arenas, in which all enemies must be dispatched in order to progress.
Transistor finds difficulty in justifying its the abilities system at play, as the aforementioned depth generally obscures the benefit of using one power over any other in a given instance. Players will occasionally encounter an offsite island where challenge rooms will test their skill with a specific set of abilities matched against a specific type of enemy, a la Bastion's weapon-specific challenges. These enemy/attack match-ups are appointed in a way that make sense to the developer, but quickly wash away when returning to the main game, due to the wide variety of enemy types that appear throughout; whereas the player may only assess their equipment at specific checkpoints.
Since anything can be stacked on top of another power, there's the potential to create wasteful or ineffective combinations, which gives the sense of experimentation that can reward or penalize. Unfortunately, players lose powers in battle, which must be recollected at equipment checkpoints.
This is an interesting system at first, slowly crippling characters before an outright death, but ultimately defies any carefully crafted abilities that may be keepers. By the time a powerful enemy shows up, useful combinations are sooner a liability than strong asset. In this way, the game almost seems to suggest that a lack of commitment to its systems is an ideal way of approaching gameplay.
The other half of combat is focuses on the "Turn" system, a power which freezes gameplay for tactical planning. Movement included, orders will accommodate sections of the timeline (think Frozen Synapse), and are executed when committed to the player. Again, an interesting idea, but one which is followed by a brief cooldown period in combat, asking players to make an either/or choice to whether realtime action was preferable. I found myself seeing the Turn system mostly when the game called an emergency mode which happens when the player health reaches zero.
Usually there's not much reason to pit a game against another, but with Supergiant's claim to fame staked in their only other release of Bastion, they're faced with the difficult second album. Transistor mirrors many elements of bastion, as well, in its obtuse story, the isometric view, familiar art style, strong music, use of challenge rooms (which unlock music instead of weapons), and even the use of limiters to increase the game's difficulty. It's hard not to compare the two alone just based on similar gameplay models, which is why Transistor eventually finds itself in the shadow of Bastion, a game that defined a new experience for many.
My personal take on Bastion was that it's a fine game. It's nothing special, maybe above average, and houses some neat ideas. It certainly had a firm story to tell, and in Transistor, it's hard to tell what about the story is important. Not that we need a strong narrator in every Supergiant game, but the plot came through in Bastion.
In my experience, the story is learned mostly through computer terminals, which some may find to be preferable to mandatory cutscenes, but for me lost their appeal after reading a few backstories. Transistor's trade-off of an omnipotent narrator is that Supergiant's desire for a layered story must be fulfilled elsewhere, and reading a wall of onscreen text isn't as fitting as having someone telling players during world traversal and combat. That said, you do have a sword that fills in the gaps with occasionally relevant dialog, and there are other characters who will contribute to plot development at times. Usually this happens around a boss fight.
I'm under the impression that an ideal experience is for players to be invested enough that they read every line of dialog. When I'm playing a game, I'm paying more attention to spoken dialog and animated actions.
Aesthetically, Transistor is a showcase for PS4 and PC. The game's animation and use of particle effects are especially noteworthy, although I was left cold with the general approach to environments. Bastion's world felt alive and fell into place piece-by-piece, but Transistor sits there flatly like a bored hi-res desktop. The plain white barriers that grow and disappear give a layer of dynamics to the environment, but the feeling of discovery is lost. For a while, I actually liked the idea that the magical city of Cloudbank was so tired of itself, but eventually I came to relate with that sentiment.
Red's animation is a joy to look at, however. Whatever they're doing to make it look so fluid gives a Disney quality to her and a few other pieces of enemy and effects work throughout the game.
I felt the same about music, where a few standout tracks were played, but mostly fell into the background for the rest of the game. Identifying a sense of place with any piece would be difficult for me, which is disappointing to realize as Supergiant cares so much about the music of Transistor that it's a bullet point for the game's features, and they have a cool visualizer in-game where players can listen to tracks at their leisure. Doubly so when considering there's a button to have Red sing at any point, accompanying the current audio. I never found a good reason to use that feature, either.
Supergiant has discussed their method to game development before, detailing that gameplay and art are developed independently of each other for a time, to remain free of either half influencing the other too much. That seems to be the case with Transistor, as any inspiration that its art or music would have given to the gameplay may have helped support it as a more cohesive product. Bastion seemed to have a strong grip on keeping the flow of story and combat in compliment to each other, while Transistor delivers them usually one at a time.
In comparison to Bastion, Transistor feels rigid. As its own game, it tells a tightly controlled story with an experimental battle system. While the combat works, it contradicts the idea of thoughtful approach with gameplay that threatens to undermine anything over basic combinations. That said, fans of Bastion are at the front of the line for Transistor, and they may find themselves more or less conflicted with the aforementioned differences between the two. For me, Supergiant seems to always be scratching the surface of something great, but never sure where to start drilling.