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.
Alright, boys, girls, ladies, and gentlemen, I think we need to set some ground rules here. Normally, I wouldn’t say I entirely adhere to the traditional review format, but with my “Eyes on” pieces, I like to take things as objectively as I can when looking at an inherently subjective medium. But try as I might, I can’t really do that today. Not with this piece. I absolutely love Bastion. And I love it for reasons that are a bit hard to articulate, and definitely aren’t universal. It connects with me in a particular way. A way others share, absolutely, so it’s not perfectly unique to me, but it’s a way that not everyone is going to connect with. But maybe some of you reading this would! So, in order to bring some light to it, I’m going to talk about Bastion today. But keep in mind, this is going to be less a review, and more me just gushing about one of my favorite games.
The game begins with your hero, the Kid, waking up after the Calamity, an apocalyptic event that blew his home city to pieces and turned most of the people therein into statues of ash. In third-person isometric action gameplay style, the Kid then makes his way to the titular Bastion, which was supposed to be the safe haven gathering spot for the city in the event of disaster, accompanied only by the ongoing narration of Rucks. Upon reaching the Bastion, the Kid learns that it has a function that can maybe do something about all of this, but it’s incomplete, so he needs to venture off to the various parts of the territory that had been sent sky high to regain the pieces it needs to work.
One of the most striking things about Bastion is how much it leverages its unique character. This most notably presents itself in the aforementioned ongoing narration. Rucks is, for the most part, the only character in the game to get any lines and personality, but he’s showing it to you constantly. As long as you’re continually moving forward and you’re outside of fights, he’s usually commenting on whatever’s going on. Your actions, the surrounding area, the backstory of the city and the calamity, the motivations of the enemies you’re facing, everything. All of your interactions with the world and people around you that go beyond hitting them with a hammer are relayed to you by the narrator rather than you seeing them directly, which in most instances would be absolutely frustrating to get through, but Rucks has such flavor to him that the game makes it work. The voice-acting, direction, and writing of the narrator is so beautifully on point, and it adds so much life to the game.
It helps that Rucks has a lot of good material to work with. The setting is a very interesting and unique one. It strikes me as being the type of place you’d see more often if the standard fantasy tropes were influenced by early American culture more so than Western European. The city of Caelondia was founded by pioneers from outside the area, and grew into a major economic and technological center in the world. They originally bought land from the natives to it, then ended up having a lot of friction with them. The city grew large, but it still had a lot of wild, untamed areas, of which many people were set to explore and master. Judging by Rucks, the people of Caelondia have a southwestern twang to their voice, and you see railways, revolvers and muskets, and other standard from the Wild Western genres. The major god of the parts is stylized as a ranch-style bull. One of the locations is called a Melting Pot, another is a straight up bayou, you take barges down big rivers, etc. If you mixed the classic western with fantasy, you might get what you see here. That, and the interesting applications and hints of a guild structure, the variety of items and descriptions you find, and the way Rucks adds so much character to even the simplest of things ends up making the game world so interesting.
The story’s really solid as well. It’s a lesson in minimalist storytelling, you only have four real characters, and everything is filtered through the viewpoint of a single one of them, but it ends up having a real impact in its execution. You get hope, guilt, betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, salvation, all flowing into each other really well. In optional challenges, you can explore everyone’s backstory as well, which proves itself to be really well thought-out and rounds them out as characters while also tying them into their role in the current plot really well. It makes them all, and their actions, seem very relatable, whatever they end up doing. Without spoilers, the endgame in particular makes me want to chef kiss at how it plays out. It really uses the imagination well, leaving just enough gaps for you to fill things in and bring things more to life in your head, without underexplaining anything or avoiding conclusions. It also has some capital letter THEMES, and it hits those beautifully. It really doesn’t feel like the freshman effort it is by Supergiant Games; the game moves its pieces around that central theme so adeptly I’d swear the team was all old hands at this. It really works best because it’s a somewhat short game, and has so few moving parts, as I feel like if they made it more complex than it was it’d all start to fall apart. As is, the basic elements of the plot may be things you’d see in many other places, but the way it’s handled here really sets this game apart in terms of storytelling.
Beyond that, the music of this game is absolutely stellar. This game has one of my absolute favorite soundtracks, and it’s probably the one I’ve returned to most often over the last decade. The southwestern instrumentation lends a lot of the songs a classic western feel overtop the modern and industrial foundation while all maintaining a pulse-pounding energetic feel. They evoke emotions and a sense of action very well, and truly add a lot to the piece. The songs with vocal tracks also provide a bit of a glimpse into the characters behind them, and really gain a lot of emotional grounding in context as well. So yes. Music. Marvellous. Dig it.
And I’ve been talking about the presentation a lot. You’re probably wondering about the gameplay. And you know, it’s good. Not quite as overwhelmingly stellar as the narration and music, but it’s still very solid. Walking around and bashing things feels very good, and you’ve got a great degree of control over your character. The Kid is pretty slow in ground speed, but that seems deliberate, and puts a greater emphasis on using your other tools for defense than just walking around attacks. There’s a really big variety of enemies for how long of a game this is, so you’re constantly changing up and adjusting your combat operations. You get a huge amount of options in setting up your character’s loadout, making the Kid incredibly versatile. It seems like every other level you get a new weapon, all of which play completely differently from each other, and you can mix and match upgrades to significantly alter their functionality. You’ve also got a number of buffs you can apply between levels that, again, significantly change the way you play, and, if you’re so inclined, a number of debuffs you can apply to yourself as well. If you’re interested in a combat systems that gives you a lot of control and is constantly introducing new things, Bastion scratches that itch well. Navigation is a bit of another story, however. Between the Kid’s slow movement and the fact that the world is remaking itself around you, it’s not too much fun to be walking around the parts in between when you’re crushing baddies, and it can be pretty confusing to get to where you’re going. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time slowly hugging the walls, expect to leave a lot of goodies behind. You can buy them later, but that takes resources you can probably put to better uses. It’s a lot better experience when you have the opportunity to just flow from one fight to the next.
The visuals of the piece are kind of ok. They’re colorful, and characters, creatures, and sprites are very distinct, making things really pleasant to look at and really easy to navigate in the midst of really complicated sequences. I do kind of get tired of nearly everything being made of tiles, but that’s kind of a necessity with the way they set things up here. Artistic design is a little mixed, most of the characters and some of the monsters do look really nice, others are kind of bland or visually confusing. It hits right when it matters most, at the very least.
But yeah. Less of a review. More of me raving about a thing I really like. But I REALLY like it. And now you know. So there.