Hey, Supergiant Games has been getting a lot of attention with their latest release. Apparently, Hades is a good game. So I thought today, we’d take a look at… something completely different.
A while back, we took a look at Supergiant Games’ first published effort, Bastion. I like the game, a lot. And I wrote a lot about it, once! Today, we’re going to follow up on that, by taking a look at their follow up, Transistor.
Transistor is a pretty obvious spiritual successor to Bastion, working off of the same DNA while really doing its own thing. In Transistor, you play as a woman without a voice using a sword that is also her lover in a world that’s cyberpunk as all hell and maybe is inside a computer or is a virtual reality thing or something to fight beasties that are probably computer programs gone wrong. Uhh… it gets a little weird when you phrase it all out like that. Let’s start over.
In Transistor, you find yourself in the city of Cloudbank, a city where absolutely everything, down to the weather is democratically determined, and as a result, has a bit of a problem with constant meaningless change and mediocrity. Whatever’s the lowest common denominator catches on the most, and never sticks around to make an impact. Nearly everyone is registered and set towards two determined goals, and individuals rise and fall all the time with barely anyone caring. You play as Red, a popular singer and maybe something of an activist who’s become ‘the voice of the people’. The local illuminati, the Camerata, who want to break Cloudbank out of that democratic quagmire it’s in, attack you, trying to stab you with the titular Transistor. Your romantic partner, a mysterious man who’s somehow entered Cloudbank without anything about him being registered, takes the hit for you, and his soul is absorbed into the Transistor. And then the Camerata take your voice somehow. You escape, get your hands on the Transistor, through which your boyfriend is still able to speak with you, and then you get attacked by computerized beasties as a result of something called the Process running amok. So, there’s the background of the game. In much more accurate and describing wordy-things this time around.
It’s never especially clear what exactly Cloudbank’s nature is, what’s outside of the city, etc. The game’s short on details in general. We’ll get into that later. Anyways, programming themes abound, which does lead to the impression that it’s all software. Most of the potential interaction points are highlighted using what looks like code, all your moves are code terms, your enemies and so much about the setting are computer terminology, Red, at least, seems rather adept with programming language, etc. It overall gives the piece a somewhat surreal tone. Visually and auditorily, the world hear is very somber. Colors are high contrast, but very muted, and the music, although nearly as good as we heard in Bastion last, are much less solely listenable, serving more to set the mood in combination with the story and the game, rather than standing on their own as great listens. Between that, the game feels a lot more lonely and oppressive than even Bastion’s post-apocalyptic romp with less characters than this game did. The music, they do some really interesting play with that I have to commend them for. Red, your character, is a singer, and you can unlock some of her songs. Moreover, even though she lost her voice, she can still hum, and will do so along with the background track at the press of a button. So you get your lead pretty heavily involved in the game’s soundtrack, hearing her voice where you can’t hear her otherwise. It makes for a really interesting tour through the game’s soundtrack.
Gameplay is where you can see the game’s parentage the most. Bastion’s DNA is pretty clear in how you work with Transistor, from the top down action combat system to general navigation to the ways you can customize your character. They did learn some clear lessons here though. Basic level design’s much improved, it’s easy to find where you need to go and there’s little risk of running past a point of no return and losing access to stuff you could have checked out earlier in the level. That’s helped by the fact that your progression is no longer tied to finding items, so if you’re wanting to speed through, all you’re missing. Rather, you pretty much develop your character through straight leveling up, unlocking new abilities, challenges, and upgrade slots.
Character customization is an incredibly unique thing in Transistor, and if you’re into experimentation, it can keep you going for quite a while. There’s a ton of abilities, or Functions, in Transistor you can unlock through level ups, 16 I believe, and you can pick a set of four of them to choose what you can do any given combat. All your attacks, defenses, etc., comes through there. And then you can go deeper. Each of your Functions can also be used to upgrade your other Functions, adding its effects onto them. So, you’ve got a reflective shot? You can plug it into any of your other abilities to make that bounce between enemies. Your big old thing that smacks people into the air? Stick it on another Function, then that’ll send enemies flying each time they’re hit. You can use up to two other Functions to upgrade each of your active Functions, and every single Functions has an effect on every other. Even the ones you’d think wouldn’t mesh together naturally, like damage dealing abilities plugged into the one that turns you invisible, they always have something semi-unique to add. And then, on top of that, you can unlock up to four passive upgrade slots that any of your Functions can be plugged into to give you a passive buff associated with it. Not all of those are intuitive, like your long range shot instead giving you more moves in the game’s time freeze mechanic, but usually they’re at least somewhat tied the Function’s normal active state. Between all of this, there’s tons of ways to build out Red, and she can be rather drastically different depending on your whim and desired playstyle. Each Function has a bit of lore attached to it, too, and you unlock more of it by using the Function in each of the three various ways, so if you’re into that, it really encourages experimentation and constant shifting of styles. I do wish there was some more variety in your active function options, however. It feels like at their base, your Function choices are overwhelmingly aggressive and mostly direct damage dealing options, and usually firing projectiles at that. I would have liked to see more creative and workable defensive options as well, and perhaps something more of melee, too. The game is pretty quick, so the lack of variety doesn’t burn that much, but it’d have been nice to see more.
Combat feels pretty similar to Bastion in its basic form. Red moves pretty slow, just like the Kid did, and you have pretty minimal options to dodge and defend yourself from attack. You’ll be set upon by mixed groups of enemies, with the specific configurations of them drastically changing how the battle plays out and how you need to react. The enemies are pretty stridently different, I can’t think of a single one that played quite like another, and outside of the bosses, each enemy only does one thing, so it’s pretty simple to evaluate the lay of the land as soon as you know what you’re facing. In combat, you have each of your four moves, most of which are pretty slow to execute to match how slow Red is, so you’ve got to be pretty thoughtful in how you operate to avoid taking unnecessary damage. In the middle of it all, you always have access to Turn(), which freezes time and allows you a certain amount of capacity to move and attack without enemies being able to do anything about it, at the cost of preventing you from using most of your functions for a couple of seconds afterwards. To counteract how difficult it is to handle yourself defensively, the game is pretty generous as far as consequences for failure goes. Emptying your health automatically activates Turn() (except for in the random cases it doesn’t and I don’t know why but it’s really frustrating when you’re strategically planning to take advantage of that) and if you can make it until your Turn() recharges after that without getting hit again, then no harm, no foul. If you do get hit in Turn() recovery, rather than getting killed, you instead lose access to one of your active Functions until you pass through a couple of save points, and then your health refills. It’s only if you lose all your active Functions, requiring you to run through four full health bars without touching one of the generously placed save points, that you actually lose. It’s interesting to me how even the failure states for the game play into the gameplay themes they’re trying to push here, with the temporary loss of Functions encouraging you to further customize your character and try out new things. As a result of all that, combat in the game is slow paced and thoughtful, and if you choose to take advantage of this, can have a lot of variety to it.
Overall, it’s a good bit of introspective and mentally demanding fun. The story is intriguing, as well. There’s two big negatives I do have to bring up for this to be an honest review however, and they do overshadow the rest of it to a degree. The first is that the game really doesn’t explain anything about the backstory, lore, and plot, and there’s a lot that really needs to be explained. Now, there’s a lot of value for games being opaque. Dark Souls famously made itself so interesting for that, and Transistor’s predecessor Bastion did just the same thing. Offering hints that indicate a greater, more full world than is immediately presented, and letting the player’s mind fill in the gaps with something that’s far more satisfying to them than something the creator would be able to come up with. I’ve tried implementing something like that in my D&D game, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch in those moments that it works, so I definitely don’t blame Supergiant for going back to that well here. The problem here is that there are things that definitely need to be explained that aren’t. It goes too opaque, the hints aren’t prominent enough or connected enough to make them feel like they’re explaining a whole, and there’s important bits of plot that feel like they’re missing. In this case, it ends up making the game world feel a lot smaller and less involved, the unique things less interesting, and the plot, well, the plot as a result just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This is a good example for the downside of that type of world building. It creates a really intriguing, interesting setting and plot when it works well, but when it doesn’t, it falls flat on its face so hard.
The other negative I have is the end game. Just… all of it. I’ll have to go into some mild spoilers here, so feel free to skip this paragraph and go right down to the summary if you’d like. The last half hour-45 minutes of the game are just banal. The scenery, for story reasons, goes bland, and you end up fighting the same, annoying, hit and run enemy over and over and over and over and over again. First you fight one of him. Then two of him. Then two of him again. Then two of him again. Then three of him. Then two of him. And so on. For so long. And plot is being dumped on you, but due to the earlier mentioned lack of explaining, there’s still a lot of important bits missing, and it doesn’t all come together. And then you get to the boss fight. And it’s a boss fight that feels like it should be amazing. They have a really interesting concept for it, that feels like it should have a huge, exciting impact. The final boss can use Turn() just like you. And the first time he pulls it out, it feels huge. But then the second time, you realize what it means. The final boss, at will, can freeze you in place for 15 seconds or so while he thinks and plans and then spams actions on you. And he does that, over and over and over. You spend a huge chunk of the final boss fight completely immobilized, which drains any momentum from it. And then the ending. No spoilers here, but I will say the ending was very bold. I’m sure some will love it. There’s a few bits of important information that are either missing or unclear that could have made me love it if they were better established. But they weren’t. And the ending ended up making me furious. Like, not just hating it, but actively angry at the game for making me go through that. All of that endgame, altogether, really soured me on a lot of the good vibes I had on the game up until now.
I said in the previous paragraph I was going to do a summary, so I guess I have to do that here. But yeah, Transistor is a great game with a few bad game parts attached to it. It does demonstrate what’s so great in indie gaming that creativity matched with a really careful and thoughtful execution that really makes something go through so well. It has trouble bringing that all home, but it could give you a great ride on the way there, depending on how your tolerances are.