Seeing Red

With Bastion,Supergiant Games proved it doesn’t just know how to make a game, but how to think about them. Games tell stories with cutscenes and dialogue because “that’s how it’s done.” New Game+ is a trope because “games just have those now.”

Reactive narration, story justifications for design tropes: it was clear Supergiant put a great deal of time into thinking about how to make something different with Bastion on top of what was otherwise a fairly standard action-RPG. Oh, and it had fantastic music.

Transistor doesn’t play to Bastion‘s strengths – that’s one way to put it. You might also say “Transistor doesn’t try to copy past glory and past success.” You’d probably be right.

Transistor

Instead it’s content with being a pretty good cyberpunk-noir-fantasy-mystery-romance-action/turn-based-RPG with great art and zero handholding. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Oh, and it has fantastic music.

Red is a lounge singer of some renown in the democratically-manipulated city of Cloudbank. Somebody throws a sword at her and hits someone else instead. She loses her voice, picks up the sword (now inhabited by the voice of the always-enjoyable Logan Cunningham), and heads off to face her attackers.

Red and the Transistor’s personal narrative is handled exceptionally well. Their relationship to one another feels genuine and natural, even when one of them seldom communicates through speech. The rest of the characters – whose personalities are absorbed into the Transistor and used as combat functions – are less integral, but equally interesting in their own ways.

That said, the way those stories are conveyed is much more traditional than Bastion. I’m honestly not sure what I was expecting, but Transistor‘s biggest surprise is that there… really aren’t any surprises – at least compared to Bastion. The story itself takes some interesting twists and turns, but since Cunningham’s character is physically present through the game there’s no “hook” to the way he tells the story. It’s just a story – an arresting, bizarre story, but a conventionally told one.

But my sole complaint with Transistor‘s story isn’t the way it’s told, directly. It’s that, because the methods are more recognizable, it’s easy to feel entitled to more of it.

As I said, Red, the Transistor, and the characters you “collect” along the way are fascinating. Their backstories hint at the greater nature of Cloudbank, but only just. Its bustling nightlife, fickle architecture, and social structure are mentioned, but never show. Bastion had an excuse for that – there was nothing left to see. There’s a similar, catastrophic event happening in Transistor, but it’s made clear multiple times that the event is still in the process of happening. You’re just never allowed to see it.

Cloudbank is an absolutely gorgeous place to look at, thanks to an art direction that speaks to me in ways Bastion never quite did. But as I ventured through it I couldn’t help but feel that if I could just peel away that surface there was meant to be something much grander underneath.

Perhaps it’s the combat that put such dangerous notions in mind. Much like the city where it occurs, Red’s acrobatic swordplay is incredible to witness. Unlike Cloudbank, however, I was able to discover as much about it as I wanted.

At first it seems to play much like Supergiant’s previous game. Press a face button: something happens. Press another: something else. The sole differentiating factor was the “Turn()” system, which let me pause time to queue up movements and techniques.

Transistor

It’s not until you discover the extra information a Turn() reveals (and I do mean discover, because Transistor does as little to explain its mechanics as its narrative) that the depth reveals itself.

Knowing certain attacks leave enemies vulnerable to more attacks is crucial. So is understanding what can be used when your Turn() power is recovering and what can’t. Then there’s knowing that every attack function can be equipped as an upgrade to another attack, or as a passive ability.

I’m not sure if the information overload was intentional on the developer’s part, but it does make for that wonderful “Aha!” feeling about halfway through the “rather short” story. Right around the time the plot’s meaning reveals itself, so does combat.

The one flaw in the timing/range/positioning-based conflicts is the size of the arenas. They’re artificially restricted into “combat zones” whenever the fighting starts; it’s unnecessarily restrictive in the latter half of the game, where I was chaining together dashes, swipes, and slams every few seconds.

Transistor

Expression is a major theme running throughout Transistor. When it leans into that philosophy in the design and story, it’s some of the most exciting time I’ve spent with a game of this scope. Everything that is there glows with presentation and forethought. It’s only when restriction – restriction from information and restriction from movement – becomes the focus that I feel I’m missing something even better.

It’s hard to fault a game that’s this unique for what it isn’t. While I think Bastion might have been the more daring of the two, I think Transistor is certainly the more interesting, better-written, and fun experience. I just wish it could have been both, so I could stop thinking about what isn’t there.