On paper, Supergiant Games new game Transistor sounds like your average run-of-the-mill videogame, full of classic videogame tropes and not something you’d really want to put time in. It features a talking super-powered sword, hundreds of robot enemies that you’re pitted against over and over, turn based elements, and a fantasy world to hold it all together. But in practice, Transistor actually becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. For inside Supergiant’s Transistor is a surprisingly deep combat system combined with a beautiful painted art style and an interesting narrative, definitely making it one of my favorite games of 2014 to date.
Transistor stars a mute woman named Red and her talking sword, the eponymous Transistor, and together they travel across the city of Cloudbank and try to figure out who’s responsible for the disappearances of many prominent members of Cloudbank’s artistic elite, including Red’s voice, and stopping the leagues of robots called “The Process” within Cloudbank that those mysterious people unleashed. The juxtaposition of a person with a body but without a voice with the sword who’s a person with a voice but without a body creates a very interesting story dynamic across the six-hour experience; the sword is constantly talking so you have to judge Red’s thoughts and emotional state by his constant talking and through her actions. And since Red had been a pretty prominent singer within Cloudbank, losing her voice must be particularly hard. It’s also really refreshing to be playing as someone who isn’t a hopeless/sexualized woman or a really strong guy. One thing I really like about the game is that there is very little cut scenes, at least none in the traditional sense, and that a lot of important story events happen in the game in the same style and perspective as the rest of the game.
The city of Cloudbank is also really interesting and is really effective at environmental storytelling. The whole game is presented in an isometric, painted art-style that really is more beautiful in person than any screenshot can give justice. There’s no people in the city, showing the destructive power of the Process, and the city’s aesthetic really changes throughout the game, some parts of which are pretty mind-bending and really play with the isometric perspective. The soundtrack that plays throughout Red’s journey through Cloudbank is especially amazing, and has some genuinely amazing songs even in contemporary standards (see “We All Become” and “Paper Boats“). Additionally, the game gives story information through the use of OVC terminals scattered throughout the game, basically computer terminals, that give you news updates and play recordings left by other characters. “Comments” that Red can leave to these articles are effectively the only way to directly get Red’s opinion on matters. Also, there are 16 full written bios for the biggest members of the artistic scene to go missing, which are somewhat interesting but ultimately forgettable.
The gameplay, however, takes center stage within Transistor. Supergiant focused on the one core gameplay mechanic in their latest outing and really refined it to near perfection. All the combat technically takes place in real-time, but you can enter a turn-based screen if your meter’s charged and plan out a long series of moves against all the enemies. In the several second period it takes to charge back up, you can’t make any moves or use the turn-based ability again, so you better make all your moves count. There are 16 total powers that you can make with the Transistor, and each one can either be placed in an action slot that’s mapped to one of the face buttons, an upgrade slot that is applied to one of the chosen upgrades, or into a passive slot that makes more general bonuses in the background such as letting you move further within a turn. This allows for hundreds of combinations of moves you can try out in each arena, and it’s really fun trying them all out and finding out what suits you and your play style. It’s especially impressive from a gameplay-programming standpoint because a separate script had to written for each move configuration, so that’s like hundreds of separate scripts they had to write for this. Actually each of the 16 moves is tied to one of the 16 previously mentioned bios for characters, so experimentation is encouraged to help learn more about the world. Figuring out the system for configuring powers can be a bit confusing at first, but once you get it it’s really easy. It’s really nice that they don’t you’re your hand for a lot of the game’s mechanics.
Red then uses those moves to fight against wave after wave of the Process. Also the Process takes on increasingly difficult and more humanoid forms as the story progresses. Each form has different abilities and encourages even different configurations to help combat different situations. The repetitive nature of the combat is actually one of the few shortcomings I found with Transistor; most of the time the combat was really fun but sometimes it did feel a bit much. Thankfully the game does a good job of giving non-combat breaks in between combat sections. But if the Process becomes too much for you and you run out of health, the game removes one of your four action moves and gives you another chance. (If you lose four times, then you really do die and have to start over from a checkpoint not too far back). You can’t put those moves back for several encounters so this is yet another way the game encourages you to try different power configurations. Additionally, you can use Limiters that make the game a little bit harder but give you more experience at the end of each encounter. Altogether, the combat mechanics really make for something special, and really made me want to jump into when I wasn’t playing. Recursion Mode, Transistor’s take on New Game+, was an obvious choice for me.
Supergiant’s Transistor really is something special. It has a really beautiful art style and does a great job at telling an interesting story in an interesting way. They’ve managed to make a really simple yet surprisingly deep and engaging combat system that is actually really fun and is something you really want to go back too. There’s plenty of side missions that test your abilities in configurations you might not be comfortable with, which is yet another way it encourages you to use their system in new ways. The gameplay, the story and the art style just work amazingly well together overall. Transistor’s an example of really great game design, and is definitely one of the best games of 2014 to date.