I don’t hide the fact that I really respect and enjoy Supergiant Games. Bastion was a game with fairly standard gameplay that I felt was well balanced and cleaned up to feel very tight and responsive. Then they mixed in beautiful art, wonderful narration, and a superb soundtrack around a decent story told very well. In the end, I loved that little gem the first couple times I played it and enjoy playing around in the world periodically since.
That sets a pretty high bar for Transistor, and I have a tendency to be disappointed when the bar is set too high. In the end, though, I was quite happy with Transistor overall, though it is definitely not a flawless game.
Playing an outsider
As I like to focus in on what stuck with me last, that means we have to start with the negative.
Transistor is a game where the characters definitely have lives that existed before you joined. The idea of a rounded backstory and people with actual emotions is a great feature to explore. What becomes a problem is that the game has no real interest in exploring the backstory so much as assuming you will catch on.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t narration. To be completely frank, I felt that there could use to be more times where there wasn’t narration. Looking back, all of the narration did have a feel about it where one friend desperately wants to cling to a past that doesn’t exist while the other cannot respond. The problem is that these friends know things about the world that the player really doesn’t. It turns into not connecting with the story for a large part of it. Logan Cunningham again delivers the dialog in an amazingly emotionally dipped way (not all sad nor happy, but always very appropriate), but he’s bloody always talking.
Some of this is likely a complication to pacing. Of course the intrigue gives you something to look forward to narratively even if I feel it also prevents you from connecting with the characters for quite a while. But the story is told in short segments between intense battles. This contrasts with Bastion where each encounter may not have been especially challenging and it was just the number of them that could wear you down. Here, each can easily set you significantly back by the end, so all the story needs to be expressed when the player isn’t fighting for their life.
Eventually, I feel the story reveals enough to care for the characters in a “it gets better later” way, but that is no excuse for an entertainment medium. I only knew where to go and what to do because the game is very linear (not that it is a flaw ever, but it was needed here because the game doesn’t actually present you with any direction).
Between it are the combat segments. We’ll dive into those more below, but the cost of failures is a bit complicated. In most games, when the character’s life bar goes to zero, the player dies and we re-load our game to try again. That isn’t so in Transistor and I feel it is generally a flaw in the game.
After a fight (one that counts for experience; there are some other encounters that don’t count because you can also just avoid them), the player’s health is fully restored. What can last though is the penalty for letting your life bar hit zero and not having a Turn saved (turns will also be discussed below).
When that happens, one of your actions “overloads” and becomes unusable. Now this could be an interesting mechanic by itself in that you have some hope for success, but with limited abilities. The problem I have is that these overloaded actions and any buffs you applied to them do not become usable until you visit 2 checkpoints after the conclusion to that fight. This means you might have no real consequence (if checkpoints are close by and especially if you are willing to backtrack), or you might walk into an incredibly difficult fight with up to three abilities (with up to 2 buffs each which could themselves be abilities making 9 total) not being usable. The game’s response to this? Tell you good luck. Since you might have hit 1 checkpoint by then, you also overwrote your previous saved game. Without some amazing luck and ability, the game might literally become unbeatable.
I hate the overload mechanic due to the extreme amount it might or might not punish you. Other than some of the challenge missions and boss fights, overloading a function was failure to me and I would manually reload my game. Without knowing what I might face next, I was too concerned about not being able to advance.
Sometimes this came up for really dumb reasons too. Jen Zee is the art director for Supergiant Games and does create some great art. The problem here is that there was a lot of elevation in various parts of the map and shadows and walkable areas aren’t always well defined. This means that, while a building seems like you could retreat behind it, it is not hard to not notice the battlefield ends in such a way that you just tried to retreat down a dead end. Alternatively, what is just a dark spot on the floor or actually a hole was not always obvious sometimes with very bad results.
There was more than once that I just stopped because I felt like the game hated me for usually small reasons that I couldn’t avoid.
Executing on success
But I also kept booting the game right back up sometimes only a few moments later.
Sure, there are some frustrations that Limiters (which function as difficulty settings) can make much worse for the player, but they pale in comparison to the fun that every battle brings.
Combat is a combination of turn based and real time tactical combat (like in Dofus or Fallout Tactics or XCOM). On paper, this sounds terrible to me. I found the VATS aiming system in Fallout 3 to be a strange addition to an action game. Additionally, after playing Bastion which had great smooth and flowing combat, it felt like either it would just be in the way or feel like blatant cheating.
Supergiant showed their amazing ability again to make something that is neither. Both the ability to severely slow down the world to execute actions quickly or to be able to run around and fight in real time come up, are useful and effective, and are fun.
The combat is extremely flexible. The game is set in a Tron-like universe of computers. This means that you will interact with many “functions” which can act as your abilities (like attacking, dodging, and the like), passive boosts to your abilities, or passive boosts to your character. Additionally, each function takes a different amount of “Memory” which is a limited resource assigned to your character. Stronger abilities take more memory but tend to have a greater effect in any place they are slotted.
At any time, you can only have 4 active abilities that you can invoke. This is a great limitation to really consider which abilities you want front and center. What gets really interesting is when you chose which abilities you want to be a boost as well. For instance, do you want an attack that creates a bouncing projectile (Bounce()) that creates little sparks on each bounce (by slotting Spark()) or a projectile that creates sparks once but each spark can bounce? The difference is subtle, but turns out to play very differently. The system really encourages you to try all sorts of different combinations to find things that you might not have even anticipated working for you.
There are a limited amount of enemies, but each plays pretty differently. I do feel it becomes a bit cheap when you are fighting 3 dog-like enemies that all can become invisible while they move toward you, but there are always strategies around that as well. For instance, I slotted an ability where I could summon my own dog creature. As an added bonus, whenever I did summon the creature, I also would regain a good amount of health over time. This allowed my friend to be hunting for enemies normally, and I could summon him if they found me and get back any health I had likely just lost as well.
It took a while for me to really appreciate the fact that the game is all about choices. In particular, going into the super fast Turn() mode results in you not being able to use your abilities during a recharge period. This makes Turn() as much of a benefit as a risk if you do not execute correctly. The balance I feel is a great feeling. Additionally, since this is tactical and positioning is key, dodge roll being a full action felt mean to me. I realized through time that it was simply a different strategy. As a player, do you want to get close and then dash away or do you want to stress keeping your distance at all times? How much is having a backup plan worth versus using the function to power something else up?
The combat isn’t always flawless such as times it feels like you should have hit something but weren’t quite lined up well enough, but those moments are really the minority. In the end, the combat really does feel like it is both a lot more frantic than Bastion as well as being much more calculated for combos and when to use each ability.
Then there are the supplementary wonderful things that make the game a joy. The soundtrack is excellent. Cunningham, as stated above, breathes an amazing amount of emotion into the game. The visuals are well done (though I will admit not perfectly to my taste – I feel like more color would have been very appreciated). And at every turn, you get to feel satisfaction from the excellent combat.
For someone who loves a strong narrative, it was hard for me to get into Transistor at first, but the combat was too excellent for me to leave it alone. It is a game that, for people who like tactics, I cannot recommend enough. It is new in how it does things yet just as satisfying as other tactical games.
Supergiant Games has done it again in a big way. They have further cemented in my mind that it is easy and rewarding to be one of their fans. I again can’t wait to see what more they come out with while I am both excited to try new strategies and scared about every fight I try. And I know that even the frustration will be fun.