Transistor, Supergiant Games’ follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Bastion, can be seen as a refinement of its predecessor; it is a similar isometric action-RPG, with similar mechanics, challenge rooms, modular upgrades and difficulty mods. It even has a similar aesthetic/narrative design, with an omnipresent narrator making up for a mute protagonist. Yet calling it a simple science-fiction themed refinement of Bastion’s theme is underselling it significantly; it is a more ambitious, more tactical and much more challenging title.
Rather than being a straightforward twin-stick shooter, Transistor is more of an RPG, with an action-point based pseudo-turn-based combat system at its core like that of the original Fallout games, or Knights of the Old Republic. The player is given a variety of weapons, each of which use a different number of action points, and pauses the game to issue a sequence of orders which play out unpaused, a little like Frozen Synapse. While paused, the player is told how much damage and in what radius an attack will inflict, and can plan and re-plan their moves as many times as they like. Behind this is a highly in-depth library of weapons and upgrades; each weapon can be equipped in one of three ways, as an active ability, an upgrade to another equipped weapon or as a passive stat increasing item, and thus the game offers significant replay value and incentive to explore the available options. Furthermore, the narrative ties into these mechanics with its own rewards; each ability must be equipped in all three functions to complete the narrative arc of a character and make the game’s story – abstractly told, for the most part – make sense. What is more, although some combinations of items are powerful, the constant upgrading of the enemies and expansion of the range of foes to fight means that the player must master the use of a wide range of weapons and upgrades – enemies’ defensive skills make some usually-powerful items less useful compared to more finesse-based ones, while their attacks becoming more powerful necessitate mastery of the player’s own defensive abilities.
Transistor is a very linear game; even though there is a challenge room which can be accessed to unlock a sound test, it is only accessible at certain times. There is no hub world or capacity to revisit levels, and essentially no exploration beyond occasional side-rooms containing information-granting terminals or challenging optional fights. The challenges themselves are linear and confined; most give the player a fixed library of moves and a fixed objective – yet they serve as an effective advanced tutorial for understanding unusual combinations of moves. This balance – between a very linear game and a very open-ended combat mechanic – is probably the best way to design an RPG; the player’s play style can be customised but in ways that do not interfere with the telling of a story, and crucially it does not offer an illusion of narrative choice. In an age where games increasingly offer unconvincing illusions of narrative choice – purely cosmetic decisions which are built up as being more significant than they are – a straightforward story – in fact one, subtly, about agency and power, is refreshing. The more fixed nature of the story – evocative, in fact, of Bastion’s own approach also permits the protagonist to be given if not a voice (for she is mute) but a personality through little full-screen image interludes, body language and gestures. It is this level of visual detail – the mannerisms which the protagonist is given – which gives the game its character. Similarly this is also the aspect in which it most clearly refines Bastion‘s sense of personality – The Kid was a mute cipher, while Transistor‘s Red feels much more like a character with a story that is learned throughout the game.
Sadly it is the story – or more accurately how it is told – which is perhaps Transistor’s weakest aspect. It is perhaps too subtle, skirting a line closely between a mystery to work out and contextless obtuseness – and the way in which the mechanics tie into this is the main reason. The idea of having to equip different items to learn about characters’ actions is a way of incentivising the use of all available weapons, but at the same time provides a disjointed way of meting out the narrative. Yet when it does work, it is hugely effective; the story is learned only through skewed, biased perspectives which must be reconciled with what is seen (an almost Souls like level of visual inference needed at times). Thematically it is also strong; its future is an augmented-reality obsessed cyberpunk world that most strongly evokes Remember Me (a similarly subtle and fascinating game thematically, although one marred by workmanlike gameplay that never quite lived up to the potential of the setting and design) where everything is gamified and measured quantitatively. Similarly, in its exploration aspects (exploration not in an open-world sense but in the continued interest of entering new locales) the game has elements of Bioshock‘s faded, alien world. Possibly my favourite detail is the news-stands, where the player can “leave comments” on newspaper articles – the only way in which the protagonist can speak. If this had been expanded a little more, if the game had perhaps offered a little more depth more quickly (rather than a chapter of story in three parts every experience level or two), it would have been very good indeed. Even so, Transistor remains one of the strongest games of 2014 to date; from a mechanical perspective alone its combat system is pleasingly in-depth, and for all the issues one can pick with its storytelling it is a game rich in personality and detail.