Supergiant Games set the bar for themselves at a high level when they released Bastion in 2011. A mix of storytelling, tight gameplay, and beautiful hand-drawn art wooed fans and critics alike for a universal acclaim. Their second game, Transistor, attempts to recapture that fire by creating world equally beautiful but unique in its art, telling a story that is emotional yet one that doesn’t hang on the standards that Bastion set, and gameplay that is nothing like Supergiant’s first title.
Transistor tells the story of Red, a famous singer who loses her voice, her friend, and her purpose all in one night. Of course, playing a character without a purpose would be pretty boring and Red finds her purpose with haste. Stepping into Transistor is like stepping into a moving painting, the hazy backgrounds of this beautiful, hand-drawn city move with easy as Red transitions from one section of the world to the next. Red, a singer and not a fighter, finds herself in possession of the Transistor, a strange device that resembles a great sword and seems to be quite useful for taking out the endless waves of Process you come across, the game’s enemy.
Combat in Transistor is the standout feature as it’s a great mix of quick action and slow, methodical plotting. When Red’s meter is full you are able to pause the action and plot out your attack, moving from spot to spot takes a bit of your meter so positioning is key. With the right position you can use one move to take out multiple enemies, and doing so is a great thrill. When the combat system works, it works well. Enemies fall at your feet and Red sprints around the screen, enemies move in slow-motion as you take them out one by one or all at once. However, there are times when the combat system felt more like I was waiting for a bar to fill so I could pause the action, run behind an opponent, and use the same move five times to beat them. Those moments, to me, happened at too equal of a ratio for the combat to be a perfect feature. While the system is definitely different and should serve as something more games try to utilize, its mix of amazing moments and boring battles didn’t lend to its obvious strengths.
If there’s one thing Supergiant Games has told the world it’s that they can tell a story within a videogame like few companies can. Bastion had fans wooing about the subtleties of the story and Transistor does a great job of telling an equally compelling story without making it all seem similar. Red’s tale is one of redemption against the ones that took her voice. Transistor tells a story that has been told before but does so with enough changes and subtle moments that it feels refreshing and exciting. To say any more would give away what makes storytelling moments in Transistor special.
Bastion was hailed as a beautiful game and Transistor is its equally beautiful twin. Though the two are alike in appearance, at first, there is much to explore on the inside that separates one from the other. Transistor’s world is dirty yet gorgeous, filled with crime and corruption yet teeming with life and vibrancy that radiates from its main character and her interactions with the Transistor. Games that take place in cities can be boring, grey and dull but Transistor’s city feels like it evolves and grows as you explore new areas and new nooks and crannies. Going around the corner might lead to a kiosk that will give you just a look into the world you want to know more about. Supergiant does a great job of making you want to know about this mysterious world but never giving you an abundance of information, making the world feel compelling and never completely known.
These nooks and crannies can also lead to fights, which by proxy lead to experience and upgrades. Upgrades in Transistor are smartly implemented as upgrading Red typically leads to a new move or an augmentation of a move. Moves can be used on their own or they can be added as a secondary effect to an existing ability, giving that ability a devastating effect. There are other upgrades that can make battles easier and lessening rewards or vice versa, the system is very reminiscent of Bastion's potion system but it’s a welcome feature for people who like to customize their gameplay experience, making it harder or easier as they see fit. Battles never felt overly difficult or too simplistic so having the option to make fights harder or easier is a nice addition, especially when it’s so engrained in the game.
Action filled combat that is both quick and, at times, thoughtfully composed, art that begs to be noticed, and a soundtrack to die for, as is always the case with Darren Korb’s music. So what could possibly be an issue with this gem other than the moments of dull combat? Well, at times two of the game’s main features conflict with one another. Too frequently the visuals, amazing as they are, obscured the combat and made planning my path and perfecting my maneuvers a real hassle. These moments took away considerably from the game as I felt helpless and confused in a world that also made me feel powerful and unbeatable at its best. These ups and downs would be easy to overlook if they weren’t something that happened with a high frequency, during particularly difficult battles I might add.
Transistor isn’t perfect, there are issues with the combat system and sometimes the art gets in the way of the combat itself but that isn’t enough to deter this masterful execution of storytelling. Supergiant Games is quickly becoming a studio that can regularly tell a great story without having to compromise with cheap thrills and predictable plot threads. Subtlety is Transistor’s greatest strength and it uses it well in both its story and its combat at times.