review-transistor

Supergiant Games don’t release games very often.  Their last game, the peerlessly brilliant Bastion, came out back in 2011 when Microsoft still had that warm, cuddly love for the indies and where Sony were pretty much the red-headed stepchild of the videogames industry.

Fast-forward three years to present day and a role-reversal is clearly in effect; Microsoft is desperately trying to get back into the good graces of the indie development community while Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the current darling of that very same conclave of talented auteurs.  While the industry might have changed around Supergiant Games, their output marches to the beat of its own drum and so it is that their sophomore effort, Transistor, now proves to be every bit the equal to its heralded predecessor and an essential purchase for anyone with an inclination towards having fun. From the off, it should be clear to anybody with a semi-functional pair of eyes on initial impression that Transistor and Bastion are similar labors of love. transistor-06 Both are isometric action-adventures with a hack and slash slant, both embrace a mixture of gorgeously hand-drawn art interspersed with CG and both have a charismatic narrator who keeps the plot and events chugging along. Yet, dig deeper and the differences soon make themselves vividly apparent.

Far away from the relatively empty shell of a character that ‘The Kid’ represented in Bastion, Transistor’s player protagonist is a far more interesting and personable avatar.  Known only as ‘Red,’ players are given control of a woman, a singer, in a shimmering dress who has lost her voice and has just seen her friend murdered; his prone body slumped against the wall with the ominously glowing Transistor blade embedded deep in his fleshy form. Upon gingerly pulling the titular weapon from her deceased acquaintance, the sword speaks with the voice of her recently passed friend and its here that the familiar narrator role becomes filled, albeit in a much different fashion.

Whereas Bastion’s narrator provided a somewhat detached commentary on the events which unfolded, Transistor’s narrative tones instead hold a real emotional attachment to the character as he wistfully reminisces about familiar places and slowly but surely, reveals the full extent of his relationship to Red herself as its well-told story unfurls. Its an effect which is amplified for PlayStation 4 owners in particular, since going into the settings and changing the narrator voice output to emanate from the controller, rather than a sound system provides additional immersion in the hugely emotive tones of Transistor’s talented voice actor, Logan Cunningham.  Great props indeed should be given to that man for his work in sustaining such a robust emotional connection with Red and also by proxy, the player since without it, Transistor’s attempt to engage the player in Red’s struggle would be arguably diminished as a result.

Oh and the DualShock 4 Light Bar also flashes in sync with the Transistor’s speech too, proving that when done in the right context, gimmicks don’t have to be eye-rolling tedium that they usually end up being. transistor-03

Equipped with the mysterious Transistor blade and primed to embark on her journey across a futuristic city, it soon becomes apparent that Red must take down the villainous faction known as the Camerata, who have enthralled a sprawling robot force known as the ‘Process’ to subjugate its citizens. Speaking of taking things down, its ostensibly in the realms of combat that Transistor marks its biggest evolution from its spiritual predecessor.

Whereas Bastion solely relied on finely tuned, real-time battles, Transistor instead provides player with a choice between a turn-based and real-time offense.  The latter will feel familiar to folk who have sampled the many delights of Bastion’s frenetic encounters, with Red embracing a number of upgradeable powers and abilities to tear through foes and enemies with instant results and almost ballet-like spectacle.  Its an experience which is meaningfully expanded upon by the use of cover too, since the majority of Red’s opponents have ranged attacks and a quick respite in the form of cover, is never far away.

The former, on the other hand, is a fairly glorious amalgamation of Transistor’s real-time robot-murder with the V.A.T.S system seen in Bethesda’s Fallout titles.  A quick click of the R2 button will immediately cause time to freeze and a time bar to appear at the top of the screen whereupon at this point, any action that you take, be it walking, attacking or using special abilities take up a varying amount of time, forcing the player to priortise actions according to the situation at hand.  Its a tremendously empowering system all told and its one which is carefully balanced with the rest of the game since after committing to a turn and seeing all of Red’s actions play out in a split-second before her enemies can respond, the player is unable to do anything except move for five seconds; a sensible penalty to what otherwise could have been a tremendously overpowered feature. Of course, both of these systems sit atop Transistor’s myriad of experience unlockable upgrades and functions.

These allow players to unleash a formidable array of attacks including (and certainly not limited to), area of effect explosive attacks, penetrative strikes, attacks which temporarily charm the enemy to fight for you, and holographic projections of Red to befuddle your foes.  In short, Transistor offers astounding creative latitude for folks to scrap with the enemy and proves that developer Supergiant Games have meaningfully built on those great foundations lain by Bastion with due aplomb. transistor-04

If there is the slightest chink in Transistor’s otherwise stellar combat, it would be in its education of the player in regards to its nuances.  Simply, it’s not always clear what all the various upgrades and augmentations do and during play the only way you can check on their descriptors is by accessing them at any of the checkpoints dotted throughout the world.Given the ire directed at games like Assassins Creed 3 for their lengthy, eye-rolling tutorials, transistor finds itself leaning toward the opposite extreme a tad; with experimentation proving annoyingly necessary to rejig the old grey matter where persistent descriptors would otherwise aptly suffice.

For those who soon become quickly bullish in regards to their combative acumen though, Transistor proffers a number of trials, accessible through ‘Back doors’ spread throughout the world (again, not unlike those seen in Bastion) to keep egos in check.  These difficult challenges not only help to sharpen the player’s skills but they also offer music tracks as a reward; a grand gesture indeed given the Darren Korb-produced soundtrack. And what an incredible sound track it is.

Composed by the aforementioned Darren Korb and with vocals by Ashley Barrett, Transistor’s soundtrack runs the whole gauntlet of electronic post-rock with a startling synthesis of sounds and atmospheric beats that never fails to immerse the player in Red’s odyssey.  Indeed, hold down the L1 button and a spotlight appears, dousing Red in a hue of golden light as she hums in tune with the music, at once a tragic reminder of her lost voice and also a beautiful embellishment of the game’s stellar soundtrack I’ve literally spent minutes stood around doing just that; such is the brilliance of Transistor’s music.

From a visual standpoint, Red’s odyssey, which takes her across Transistor’s Cloudbank City and beyond, is one which is absolutely steeped in style and futuristic noir.  Gone are Bastion’s painterly worlds and vistas, they are instead supplanted by a gleaming art-nouveau metropolis, with vivid streets, artistic posters and neon-lit buildings representing the merest cross-section of a city bursting with a eye-searing array of colour and shade. Rather than just existing as mere eye-candy, the developers have placed a number of ‘interaction points’ throughout the game.  These vary from terminals dotted throughout that provide insight into the world which came before and indeed Red’s own life on occasion, to posters of previous performances, tranquil views of the city and more besides.  Its a great way to keep players invested in the world while also allowing them to marvel at the extent of Transistor’s visual craft.

transistor-05 It’s not just a change in setting which distances Transistor from its three-year old stablemate either.  Sure enough while the majority of the action in Transistor unfolds from an isometric perspective, the developers aren’t reticent to change the player’s point of view, with the camera on frequent occasion adopting a side-on perspective to better illuminate the detail of their craft during particular scenes and providing a good amount of visual variety to the proceedings. The character models also benefit from this incredible amount of love and attention too, with Red herself standing out as the strongest example with buttery-smooth animation and fine details such as the ruffle of her coat as she stalks down the streets or the electrical current generated by her sword as she drags it along. Transistor then, simply has an abundance of style to spare and the stunning art style coupled with a razor sharp 1080p resolution and smooth frame rate, help to ensure that Transistor’s aesthetic looks both fresh and spellbindingly unique.

Once Transistor’s campaign has been conquered, Supergiant Games have ably catered for high-level play with the New Game Plus-esque ‘Recursion Mode’.  Here, players restart the Transistor experience with all of their upgrades and experience points intact, allowing them to rediscover new styles of play as the enemy types become stronger and additional content (which we won’t spoil here), become available.  It’s a nice way to extend the experience of what is already a fairly meaty single-player experience and like much of Transistor’s design DNA, is indicative of how far Supergiant Games have come since Bastion.

Breathlessly stylish and a true successor to Bastion, Transistor is not just telling of Supergiant Games stepping up their craft and transitioning to a new generation of hardware, it also happens to be one of the truly essential games to own full stop. I really don’t want to wait until 2017 for their next game and after finishing Transistor, you won’t want to either.

review-9 Transistor was developed and published by Supergiant Games and is currently available for PC via Steam and the PlayStation 4 for $19.99. A digital download code for the PlayStation 4 version of this title was provided to Save/Continue by the publisher for review purposes.

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