A couple of years back, the newly formed Supergiant Games released a game called Bastion. Stunningly beautiful and with expertly crafted combat, it set itself apart with a mysteries tone, a twisty plot and a constant, self-aware narration that was by turns humorous and haunting. To say that I was looking forward to their next game is an understatement.
Transistor is the story of Red. When we first meet her, she’s kneeling over a corpse which has been bisected by a giant sword. Then a voice whispers out of the weapon, calling to her, begging her to take up arms and flee the city as quickly as possible.
That’s the entire set up to the game, with the rest of the story revealed in brief, gorgeously animated cutscenes and through various interactions with the world. Details are sparse but a tale of revenge and remorse slowly builds up, sending the player on a violent course against a series of enemies and a new threat in the form of the robotic Process.
Transistor is an invariably strange game. The sparse story elements and constant chatter from your sword (intoned by Bastion’s Logan Cunningham) rarely serve to clarify things and they’re matched by a gorgeous looking, hand-drawn world that has little logic in the way it’s laid out or designed.
When you add in the haunting soundtrack and other touches, like the curious terminals where you can vote on what colour the sky will be tomorrow, it’s all quite bewildering. But it’s also entirely intentional as it allows Supergiant Games to craft a world that’s unfailingly unique. There’s a sense of pervading mystery around the city of Cloudbank, of unknown dangers and conspiracies that informs everything you do as a player. And it makes the slow reveal of your own character all the more effective and effecting.
You’ll spend some of your time in Transistor wandering around the levels, investigating areas, reading terminals (and posting comments!) but every other moment will be spent in breathless combat. The action is presented through the power of Turn() – a mode that freezes time and allows you to plan your movements.
Press R2 (on PS4) and the combat area will become a grid. Every attack, and even movement, takes a chunk off your action bar so you’ll have to plan wisely. Striking from behind deals more damage but is it worth the extra steps? And ranged attacks are weaker but can harm multiple enemies – if you get your angle right.
As someone who never quite got the hang of turn-based combat, this system works brilliantly. It has the immediacy of being constantly in control with the addition of a deep strategic system that rewards thoughtful play. And it doesn’t hurt that it looks incredible and plays just as well.
There’s a great sense of urgency to every moment in combat – especially as you actually can’t use your weapons while you’re waiting for your action bar to replenish. You’ll instantly switch from extreme offense to desperate defence, using different powers to change the allegiance of enemies to help you heal and hoping to get one more strike in before you perish.
You’ll earn new abilities from fallen NPC’s you meet on your travels and you’ll be able to decide which are active. Only four can be selected at once but in some cases you can equip a power to have a passive or active effect on one of your attacks. Levelling up gives you more slots to play with, and it all adds another level of strategy to the game, though I have to admit I found the menu structure sometimes confusing.
That’s partly because the game is almost totally lacking in tutorials. A brief suggestion during your first use of Turn() is about all you’ll get in terms of learning its mechanics. Otherwise, it’s up to you to improvise, adapt and survive. Supergiant Games has faith in the ability of its players to get absorbed in the experience and it’s a testament to their development work that it never managed to frustrate.
There are still more little touches that make the game incredibly memorable – like the ability to stand and hum a tune while looking out over the city. It would seem pretentious in another title but here these entirely optional moments give you an insight into the voice that Red has lost and let you bask in the awe-inspiring art. You can also retire to a beach and a towering tree under a star-filled sky and lie in a hammock while your sword contemplates eternity – and also try a time trial or two.
Transistor is a supremely confident second game from Supergiant Games, giving players a spare narrative and unusual mechanics and assuming that they’ll just get on board. And somehow the self-aware tone and bizarre elements in the world all come together to create a game that’s more than the sum of its parts and destined to be one of the best action-packed indies of the year.