A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
I’ve been putting off writing about Transistor for a number of reason, foremost among which was that last week I was too busy obsessively playing it to actually find any time. I finished it in three consecutive nights of solid play, during which my thoughts barely strayed to anything else.
It’s grip on me is loosening now, but wow. Really wow.
The wow is the other thing that’s put me off trying to share my feelings on it, because really, I want my friends to discover it for themselves. I’d probably go as far as saying don’t even read reviews, just go in blind and let it all hit you.
While I can, and will, paint in sweeping strokes the broad things about it that I enjoyed (and I hope others will enjoy!) what really made it shine for me was the small details, and the obvious attention which had been paid to them. Little things, like the way the voiceless protagonist expresses herself to the world, and the fantastic character that you watch slowly growing before you. Background text, scrolling silently past, but containing surprising depth when noticed and read. The leading man, and his constantly contrasting strength and vulnerability, given an honestly wonderful, desperate, supportive, yet sometimes fearful voice by Logan Cunningham. I was a little worried going in that I’d just be hearing Rucks from Supergiant’s previous game Bastion everywhere, but his performance, and the game within which it is staged, are both so vastly different in tone this time around that it was never a distraction. Darren Korb’s music bears little resemblance to his previous Bastion work either, but like Cunningham’s voice, there’s some inimitable quality to it that remains within this entirely new world. It’s a game to play with headphones firmly on and eyes wide open, with intent to drink in everything to the very last dark, shining drop.
I was going to try and briefly summarise the plot now, but every time I started writing about even the broader details I remembered just how well the game introduced them, and how good it felt when I was discovering them for the first time myself. I had some vague understanding of the basics going in, and of how the gameplay worked, but I had little idea of who Red was. What the Transistor was. Why the city mattered. Slowly learning these things, through the jazzy blur of sumptuous art-deco futurism, was one of the best parts of the experience for me. Everything is presented so beautifully that I’d regret sullying any first impressions. Discovering the identities of the cast and the world they inhabit is important. Like admiring a circuitboard in detail through a narrow lens, you’re introduced to elements piece-by-piece, magnified up-close so that you can see all the glowing tracks, but not quite where they lead to. Then your perspective gradually, very gradually widens, zooming out until the entirety is in view. The tale feels like it is told in a much less conventional way to Bastion, which whilst brilliant as well, mostly follows a clear pattern of alternating between time spent in The Bastion and trips to the wilderness, giving the narrative a somewhat predictable rhythm. In Bastion, Plot happens, you go out to fight some things, you get home to find what’s been going on in your absence, you leave to fight more things, you come back to find more Plot going on, and sometimes it twists. Not so with Transistor, where with the exception of breaks you can take via liberally-placed “Back Doors” to somewhere else (which I won’t spoil the identity of, because the first time you go there is magical), you’re constantly being carried by the narrative flow.
I’m not gonna say a thing about how it starts, progresses or ends, but I will assure you that infused throughout everything there is a sense of humanity which is really quite moving. It’s a story about Red, and the city, and the people that live there, told with remarkable subtlety and depth through Cunningham’s comments (not narration!), snippets of news, character bios and environmental detail. That Supergiant manage to create such a strong emotional experience using only very minimalistic and passive narrative tools is a testament to the quality of their writing and to the game’s design. After finishing the game I still had some lingering questions, things that I felt like I didn’t catch somehow (which is perhaps the flipside to the minimalism), but that has just left me all the more eager to keep playing through a second time to find the answers to them.
In the moment-to-moment gameplay, outside of the short walking-around-experiencing-the-story sections, the ties to Bastion are much more evident, and you can appreciate how Supergiant have been building and iterating on existing gameplay ideas as well as narrative techniques. Transistor shares Bastion’s isometric perspective, with combat that’s still somewhere between Zelda and Diablo, and some light action-RPG elements in the skill selection, but the game’s completely transformed by a couple of additions which I kinda failed to appreciate until I actually started playing.
The biggest is the Turn system, which is usable during fights to stop time and queue up chains of actions. I figured this would function like a big nuke which you’d drop maybe once-per-fight to wipe out loads of small enemies or unleash a skill combo against a big guy, and I got it half right. That is how you use it, but you’re not limited to once per fight or so. You can do it all the freaking time. It leaves you really vulnerable during the short cooldown period, incapable of using any attacks which haven’t been specifically upgraded to allow them to function cold, but playing the game without it feels somehow wrong. Fallout 3 was an RPG first and an FPS second, using the VATS aiming system to bridge the gap. If you tried to play it as a pure FPS it felt clunky because the aiming and the damage and the hit detection was those of an RPG, not a dedicated shooter. Transistor feels similar for me. Without Turn the fighting feels a bit clumsy, but with it you see that Supergiant have achieved exactly what they were aiming for. Sometimes the action feels a little staccato, like you’re just dashing from enemy to enemy, hitting them repeatedly with the same basic attack queued up four times until they die, but when I realised I wasn’t really enjoying the inelegance of that approach, it just drove me to shift gears and try another one.
This is the second thing I didn’t really appreciate about Transistor. Unlike Bastion where you simply picked two customised weapons and a special power to wield and then went off to kill things with them, in Transistor you have four slots for different attacks. Each attack can also be used as an upgrade for the other attacks, or placed in character slots to give you passive bonuses across the board. The flexibility this affords is huge, and makes tinkering with different combinations an absolute treat. Forgo being able to cloak as an active skill and you can attach it to the dash skill, so that whenever you dash, you briefly flicker out of enemy visibility. Then you could add the skill which, when used alone acts as a sort of weak, rapid-fire machinegun, and then you’ll be able to dash more frequently, zipping around and preventing the enemies from getting a lock on you. Or maybe you don’t want to sacrifice the ability to cloak and would rather keep that as an active skill. How about using it with the big, slow, high-damage explosion, so that when you turn invisible there’s a blast of damage. Then you can put a skill which amplifies all damage on the basic slow, heavy attack, so you can take advantage of the damaging cloak you’ve just invented to perform backstab super-bursts, as you cloak whilst behind the enemy, dealing one load of backstab damage from the explosion, before using the amplified heavy attack to hit with additional bonus de-cloak damage and backstab damage all combined into one. Then do that after using the dash skill combined with the damage-over-time skill to rush through the enemy first. Or a couple of enemies even, if you’ve lined them up well.
It just builds and builds and builds, with no penalties for re-specifying, and no choices having to be made permanently. The process of building and trying new things is even actively rewarded, though I’ll let you find out how exactly for yourself. Again, I wouldn’t want to take away the moment of discovery.
It’s such a rich game, there’s little about it which I haven’t enjoyed. Some of the enemy types have powers that make them feel a little obnoxious to fight, particularly given that there are relatively few, and challenge is added to encounters primarily by giving enemies more HP. Between the Turn system and the skills, though, it’s not too hard to find reliable, winning combinations that make blunt, bulldozer progress relatively easy. There’s so much fun to be had from just experimenting and playing around, though, that I really only felt the need to resort to that when the pace of the story was picking up and I couldn’t bear to get stuck.
I might return to Transistor once I finish my repeat playthrough to write some more things (which won’t be as cautious about spoiling stuff), because I realise that I’ve said less here about specifics than most of the reviews have, and if you’ve read some reviews then you’ll already know a lot of things I’m being cagey about! In the meantime, I’m just gonna play more. There’s one or two more new things I’ve picked up recently which are vying for my attention right now (Teleglitch, yet moar Terraria), but I feel like there’s still a few more layers to Transistor which I’ve yet to see, and I’m absolutely eager to find.
If you played and enjoyed Bastion, or you enjoy tactical RPGs, or you enjoy games for their art and music or you just want to be taken for a ride through something immersive and moving, then I’d say that Transistor’s one you don’t wanna miss.
Not gonna lie, the only reason I bought Dynasty Warriors 8 X-Treme Legends was because I had 3000 yen burning a hole in my pocket on my last day in Kyoto and couldn’t work out which Blazblue subtitle would give me the most playable characters. It was a massive impulse buy, which I justified to myself mainly because I figured it’d be easy to just sit and play without engaging too hard, but that there’d also be tons of semi-familiar 3 Kingdoms history to translate if I wanted to dig deeper. I didn’t even realise I was buying the X-Treme Legends addon without the core game included. I just thought Koei had finally stopped being coy about their obsession with Lu Bu and fully embraced his pigtails of carnage.
I expected I’d have a bit of fun with it, because all Musou games are at least a bit of fun for the first couple of hours, but I really didn’t expect to still be playing. Or to be considering importing the Japanese base game as well. Or to be seriously considering buying the full English package on Steam.
Dynasty Warriors 3 was the game that sold me on the PS2. After playing a friend’s copy at another friend’s house, I just knew it was a game I had to own, along with whatever hardware was required to play it. If you’re not familiar with the series, the games place you in a heavily, heavily stylised version of the ancient Chinese epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” as a general in one of the eponymous empires fighting for the unification of China. You are a superpowered monster of a warrior, capable of toppling entire armies of the generic footsoldiers who fill the game’s colossal battlefield, but who can still be overwhelmed by sheer numbers if the tide turns against you and your army’s morale falls too far. The basic gameplay is simplistic, just following orders and fighting your way around the battlefield with button-mashy combos before defeating the enemy general, but following the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms stories, the battles have a life of their own, with events often happening entirely independently to your character. While most can be won simply by blindly eliminating every enemy general on the map, there’s greater reward to be found by reading the battle synopses and following the “historic” course of events as they unfold.
Tekken Tag Tournament, Dead or Alive 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2 had all caught my eye, but it was the long afternoons spent running around massive battlefields in co-op with friends that I was so desperate to play host to myself. And to get away from, I guess. Behind the immediate hook of hack-and-slashing through entire armies and collecting loot, I was drawn by the deeper game of triggering the plot cutscenes, managing battlefield morale, and following FAQs to find each character’s ultimate weapon. The stuff that required you to actually know what you were doing, that you couldn’t really do whilst just dicking around with friends and competing for the most KOs. The stuff you only really knew about if you owned the game.
I played Dynasty Warriors 4, I played Dynasty Warriors 5, I played Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires, and I played the portable Dynasty Warriors on PSP, but none of them ever quite grabbed me the same way. That’s the nature of the zeitgeist, I guess, but the later games still somehow felt like they lacked something. While some things weren’t changing enough to keep the gameplay feeling fresh or interesting, other things were changing too much to keep it feeling familiar. I guess I was changing too.
Long preamble short, Dynasty Warriors 8 has been recapturing enough of Dynasty Warriors 3 for me that I’ve been considering spending another £80 on it so that I have both complete English and Japanese versions. Why did that just feel like some sort of confession?
I think the reasons why are pretty simple. First, it’s been a long time since I last properly played a Musou game. I mean, it was 2007-2008 kinda time that I got DW5, and I’ve probably only revisited other games in the series maybe once or twice since then. I got Dynasty Warriors 4 not too long after interest in 3 had finally waned, it was never gonna last. Second, after so many spinoffs, expansions and tie-ins, the series has actually ended up in a pretty good state. I don’t know when exactly they added the Jin empire, or ditched the weapon XP system in favour of a return to randomised drops, or made character progression linear instead of tied to stat-boosting items, but I doubt any of those individual changes would have impressed me on their own. All together, however, and at the end of two console-generations worth of iterative development, they make a huge difference.
Somehow I keep coming back to the feel of Dynasty Warriors 3, though. Maybe it’s just because 8 happens to be more like it than the last Musou game I played, but at a core kinda level it somehow feels like 8 is built on 3’s foundation. Like they took that old mould out from storage and filled it with over a decade’s worth of ideas, finding that it was a bit deeper than they remembered, and that they could fit a little more in than they thought, but that some excess would still just naturally have to be left to overflow.
It feels like there’s more of everything I liked about Dynasty Warriors 3. The narrative of the battles is far more important, and far less forgiving if you choose to abandon your post and just go wandering around. The objectives and events feel more involved, and offer branching outcomes depending on whether strategies succeed or fail. There’s more randomised weapons, including unique Legendary ones, and tools for crafting and combining stats on them so that you can tailor your character’s strengths. Any character can use any weapon, but there are over 80 of each now, and every one has a unique pair of super attacks which only they can use with their “canon” weapon of choice, so they all maintain an identity of their own. You can even carry two weapons switch between them, so you never have to pick between wielding something strong and something fun or new. Even the character designs themselves have gotten more extreme and outlandish, though not always for the best when the female cast are concerned. Lots of ridiculous outfits on show to keep the otaku happy, and very few voices that don’t sound like fawning schoolgirls when they congratulate you on your battlefield prowess.
My Japanese isn’t perfect, so I’ve only understood maybe some 75% of what’s been going on, and without the base game I’ve only had skeletal campaigns to play through, but I still have been having an amazing time. Good enough to seriously consider paying the ridiculous £40 for the Steam version. I won’t, because what I already have is doing far too good a job of keeping me entertained to justify it, but when the sales roll around I can almost guarantee I’ll end up buying a copy and starting all over again.
Well, I knew at some point I’d have to start actively looking for things to write about, rather than simply putting shape to existing ideas. And I guess I kinda knew I’d struggle with it, particularly whilst changing jobs. I’ve been at my new office for two weeks now, one which was busy because I was learning tons of stuff very quickly, and the other because the office had six visitors staying all at once. Now I’m ill, so that’s an excuse as well, I guess, but not a bad one as they go.
Once I’m better I’ve got a few things to write about, mostly about what I have (and haven’t, in fact) been playing lately. Hearthstone, Sir You Are Being Hunted, Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma, Divinity: Dragon Commander, Lego Marvel Superheroes, Dynasty Warriors 8 Xtreme Legends (真三国無双７：猛将伝, rather), Metal Gear Solid 2, more Wildstar..
It’s felt like I’ve not really been playing anything lately, and I’d probably have told you as much before I stopped to think about it, but then, I guess it never really does when I flit around between stuff. Lego Marvel’s definitely grabbed my attention, though, and Dynasty Warriors is still holding, it against all odds. So much so that I might end up spending money to import the base game as well, and then buying it in English on Steam. I think Wildstar’s also slowly winning me over too, so I’ll have words about all three once I settle back into a writing routine. Which I shall do! I found previously that writing between 9 and 11pm worked out nicely, so hopefully when I’m not quite so exhausted at the end of each day I will be able to try that again.
So yeah, this is a brief pause I guess, but hopefully it’ll be over soon.
There’s a base and probably rather reptilian part of my brain which is telling me that I need to preorder Wildstar. Soon, so I can get into the “headstart” early-access period. It’s the part that covets shiny things. Switches off when there’s too much talking. Wants to see arbitrary numbers on the screen get bigger. Doesn’t mind grinding fetch or kill-5 quests. Part of me enjoys, or at least derives satisfaction, from even the worst and most played-out tropes of massively-multiplayer online games, and it can be rather hard to ignore. Am I really enjoying the game, or am I just feeding a habit?
As I kinda rambled about in the last post, Wildstar is built on a foundation which more or less conforms to familiar MMO conventions, and it carries all the baggage that comes with it.
This time I’m gonna talk about all the rest, though. And there is quite a lot.