- Street Date:
- May 20th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- May 27th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Sony Computer Entertainment
PS4 version reviewed.
Supergiant Games, back after a triumphant debut with 'Bastion,' has a thing about remixing the old and the expected. After twisting some RPG tropes into a delightful little tale in 'Bastion,' it now falls on 'Transistor' to evaluate those twists and emerge even newer, even fresher. Again a third-person, isometric RPG, now in the shoes of beloved singer and performer Red, players are tasked with overcoming the Process, an infection overtaking her future-punk town called Cloudbank.
It starts with the death of her soul mate, his own soul transferred into the fateful Transistor, a sword that turns the essence of the dead into powerful weaponry. Is this an allegorical masterpiece or an overzealous attempt at transcendence?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
From both of their games, I have an immediate respect for Supergiant Games. The young developer is bored with the way games are, it's bored with the behemoth RPGs and the undeniable redundancy of their mechanics, no matter how many incarnations of 'Final Fantasy' we get. Supergiant takes that boredom and turns it into a game, subtly and overtly, that seeks to divert into new territory in as many ways as it can.
Visually, mechanically, audibly, 'Transistor' is a diversion of the kind of undersold ambition indie developers are known for, simultaneously similar and separate from 'Bastion,' simultaneously successful at being different yet only fleeting in its success. I enjoyed the varying bits of 'Transistor,' the heart and soul of the narrative, the hidden complexities of the combat system, and yet each of those varied bits are flawed in the name of something Supergiant so clearly desires to achieve: mystery.
It starts with the narrative. You're Red, a rising star vocalist in the cyberpunk city of Cloudbank. Something horrible has happened, you're faceless lover slouched, stabbed through the chest by the Transistor. In Red and the story's stead, he speaks through the sword, his body left behind, and the details of the plot are slowly, sort-of, filled in as you combat enemies called processes. There's an obvious technologic theme that fills out this little universe. The Transistor, your enemies, the pragmatic details that accompany environmental objects are all a part of this electronic city, almost as if an operating system is running Cloudbank, and that city is somehow dying. A virus, maybe.
In my quest to first find out what the hell I was doing, and then resolve the diabolical plot behind it all, I completely lost focus with the jargon and, frankly, utter nonsense masquerading as a fleshed out mythology. I have no doubt that anyone seeking the minor complexities as puzzle pieces to a bigger picture will find it, but for me, the bottom line is none of it felt like it mattered, except one important thing. Red and her lover, desperate to survive this traumatic separation, communicate their love in a number of ways, from the dramatic to the mundane, that mark an incredibly emotive center to an otherwise droll collection of plot fillers. So there's that.
The gameplay side of things, while far more intriguing and engaging, suffered a similar pointlessness in the end. The primary conceit, after a 'Diablo'-like setup of four-interchangeable abilities, is this: the vast majority of your attacks are performed after you sequentially and spatially plan them out during a time-freeze. Any attack and all movement is tallied by an energy bar at the top of the screen, so what you're doing is freezing time, moving around and attacking with your various abilities as efficiently as you possibly can, and pressing the play button to watch it (hopefully) play out as you planned. Enemies can still move extremely slowly during the execution phase, and some attacks move objects and enemies in ways that may be detrimental to the rest of the plan. As you wait for your energy bar to charge back up in real-time, you're evading enemy strikes through the utilization of barriers present in almost every battlefield.
This is exactly how every single battle plays out, you freezing time and optioning your attacks effectively, then dashing between cover as you await your next available strike. Rarely do enemies disrupt this gameplay loop, as many can be tackled in much the same way, attacking and running away. Where the variety arises, which, if initially intriguing, ends up being a fault, is in mixing and matching your various attacks through the ability system.
I was, for the better part of the campaign, delighted to navigate this intentionally obfuscated and intertwined system, an ongoing mystery, if you will. Here's the trick: every single Function, as they're called, can act as a main ability (of which you can equip four at a time), an upgrade to one of those abilities (of which up to two can be equipped per ability) or a passive augmentation (of which four can be equipped).
Let's say you've got Bounce, a long-range projectile that bounces from one enemy to another, Crash, a short-range punch-like attack, Purge, a slow-moving blob that sucks the life out of the foe it touches and Breach, another long-range attack that pierces through enemies and barriers. You can set Bounce as a primary attack, augment it with Breach, to give it a longer range, and Purge, to allow it more damage over time, meanwhile using Crash as a passive ability to give Red more defense. You might be able to fit three Bounce attacks in during the time freeze, splitting damage among your enemies.
On the other hand, if you want to go short-range, you can use Crash as your primary ability, augment it with Breach for longer range and Bounce to hit more foes with one attack, using Purge for whatever passive it earns you, or even put Purge in its own primary attack slot, which is also quite effective at short range. With this combination you're likely to use the less-costly Crash attack more often, though sacrificing much of your energy bar to move from enemy to enemy. These are the kinds of choices you make.
While you begin the game with four active ability slots, you earn more passive slots and more augmentation slots for each primary attack as you level up, all in addition to a more basic abilities. Eventually, your repertoire becomes quite large, and so becomes your potential for different strategies.
As long as I was experimenting with different combinations, I was enjoying the game. 'Transistor' smartly introduces the player to different combinations through intermittent challenge rooms. Eventually, though, it felt like a chore sifting through all those possibilities to finally get to an effective version of the strategy I liked. The uncovering of new abilities and new augmentations often fell victim to its own mystery – the payoff was either disappointing, ineffective or too familiar, especially when I had dropped the curiosity bit and settled on finding the most effective strategy as I possibly could.
Mind you, this feeling crept in after quite a bit of playing, so it's not a matter of whether the combat works. It was just boredom with a repeated idea and a narrative going virtually nowhere that allowed my discontent with the system to overtake me.
Alongside that discontent is another altogether uncomfortable feeling that plagues the entire campaign. The world of 'Transistor,' the story within it, suffers from a complete disconnect, a weird sense that the game's creators were more concerned with appearing unique than bringing the vision together as a whole. Unlike 'Bastion,' there are no moments throughout the campaign, gameplay or narratively driven, that feel like climaxes. It just goes on, and then it ends, and a lot of this has to do with the overall structure.
Without levels, without an overworld – you just run through the story – without connective structure, 'Transistor' is a game without a sense of place or climactic purpose. I never really knew why I was playing it other than to write this very review.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
If 'Transistor' proved anything, it's that a game can be unique and repetitive at the same time. The overall style is like nothing you've ever seen before, opting for cool blues and greens, spliced against the jarring white of your foes and red of your hair, the city of Cloudbank seems to exist in its own dimension. The problem is, Cloudbank is also a quilt with every patch exactly the same, with no sense of place at all, much like the game's overarching structure. Those two issues play hand-in-hand.
Were it not for the narration, I could rarely tell if had stepped forward or back from door to door, whether I was progressing or running in circles. From a gameplay standpoint it didn't matter, but in service to the narrative the repetition brought the game down. The impact of my defeating a boss, or coming across some important plot detail, was sullied by the fact that I felt like I had gone nowhere, seen nothing and, effectively, achieved very little. Never have I been more aware of the need for visual variety as in this game, when it didn't exist at all.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The soundtrack's effectiveness the polar opposite of the visuals', 'Bastion's' musician Darren Korb strikes again with an absolutely stunning score, bolstered by an absolutely stunning vocal performance from Ashley Lynn Barell, who also voices Red. Korb, who spun together a jankety western vibe in 'Bastion,' approached the 'Transistor' sound with the same desire for the new and bizarre as Supergiant did with the game as a whole. Expectedly, it was Korb who found more success with a subdued, tactile vibe that passes through you like the hum of an electric current. Barell's voice is the serene jolt of life, offered just infrequently enough to have you desperate for more. You can press a button to have Red hum at any time throughout the campaign. I found myself doing it far, far too often.
Logan Cunningham, previously the 'Bastion' narrator, grits his way through 'Transistor' in a similar role. He's the sword itself, Red's love and, of course, our narrator, and he plays each part perfectly. On the other hand, the two semi-villains are more clinically-depressed than existentially-wise, as I assume the team was going for, but it's a minor caveat amongst an otherwise perfect audio assortment.
Having been relieved for a number of reasons come the conclusion of the campaign, I felt no urge to continue into the new game plus secondary campaign, wherein you maintain all of your progression and earned abilities, but go against tougher enemies. I was utterly fulfilled by the game in all the ways it meant to fulfill, and had no desire to dig into the combat system anymore. That said, with a combat system as customizable as this, anyone looking to do more with it will find that an easy task.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Each Function comes with tidbits about the characters of Cloudbank, and the more you use that function in different ways, the more you learn about that character. It's an interesting system that encourages experimentation, which is an odd thing to say about a plot-based mechanic. Other than that, 'Transistor' is a pretty straightforward package.
Of Supergiant's two games, 'Transistor' is second-best. I'll always commend a studio for opting to be different, and in some ways it pays off for Supergiant, while in others it doesn't. The combat system is compelling at first, but generally not balanced enough to compel me to keep going in a second playthrough. The story is at first mysterious but eventually underwhelming, despite a strong emotional core in its two lead characters, and the city of Cloudbank shines brightly in just one way, and so feels dull after about an hour.
This is a young studio experimenting with experimentation. 'Transistor' isn't an experiment gone wrong, but it isn't an experiment worth replicating for further study either.
- 7.1 LPCM
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