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.