Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review - Transistor

I hesitate to label what Supergiant Games does with their work as a “formula.” Both of their releases (Bastion a few years ago and now Transistor) share the same “groove.” The ingredients that form the experiences of both games are relatively identical. Whereas Bastion had a narrator to describe the onscreen action, Transistor has a commentator to provide more emotional weight.
The core gameplay loop of both games revolves around combining weapons to suit dynamic combat situations, but the potential loadouts in Transistor exponentially eclipse the simplistic style of Bastion. Silent protagonists, end-and-rebirth themes, practice arenas… I could go on forever.

But this isn’t a compare contrast essay. You’re here because you want to know if Transistor is worth playing.

The game doesn’t tell you very much about itself. It plays hard to get. Some of the basic questions the average story-driven game answers within the first hour of play are simply not posed in the beginning of Transistor. Who is Red? Where is she? What happened? Who is she fighting? And most importantly: Why should I care about this? Transistor doesn’t force itself to be likeable right off the bat. I admit, my first impressions of the story were negative because I felt utterly lost. But then, after I found Transistor’s groove, and by the time I reached the absolutely breathtaking conclusion, I understood that the experience was designed this way on purpose.

The incredible story (which does answer all of those questions) is told in a few different ways. The more immediate action is punctuated by comments from the Transistor itself as well as from reading short articles at various news-stand kiosks throughout the city of Cloudbank. Every time Red and the transistor encounter a fallen comrade, the transistor acquires a new power, called a function, accompanied by a chunk of that person’s biography. More sections of his or her story unlock as Red levels up that function. The amount of reading over the course of the short experience was overwhelming, however. Pausing the flow of the action to access them after every unlock distracted from what made playing the game fun.

Similarly, with 16 different functions that can be combined into potentially 256 different loadouts (or more, considering I’m bad at math), I was also distracted by the constant desire to stop and tinker with the possibilities. Battles occur within specific zones that lock Red inside after she passes into them. There is a good variety of enemy types, known as the Process, and like the functions at Red’s disposal they can lend one another a hand in unique and challenging ways, ensuring that the same battle will rarely play out the same way twice. The transistor allows Red to pause time and plan a string of moves, limited by her current loadout. Seeing a well-laid plan – with functions that compliment each other – unfold on the battlefield is extremely rewarding.

So why did I start to lose interest mid-way through the game? Everything sounds good so far, right? Transistor puts the real burden of discovering its story on the player, and if you’re not careful it can become a tedious task that disrupts the flow of the action. After I figured out the basics – that Red survived an attempt on her life by a revolutionary group called The Cameratta and acquired the control mechanism created by the Cameratta (the Transistor) to control the Process that were dismantling the city of Cloudbank – I outright began ignoring the character profiles and combat options and just played. The game instantly became more fun and satisfying as I worked to its conclusion.

I enjoyed Transistor so much that I decided it would be worth a second playthrough. The game’s artistic visuals and rhythmic soundtrack make it easy to get lost in the experience. So long as you don’t get trapped in the quicksand of function swapping and character biographies and just let the story unfold, Transistor is an amazing game.