I was a more than a little bit surprised when I went back and looked at my two year-old Bastion review to discover that, well, I didn’t think it was that great. I thought it was good, sure, with fantastic art and music and some excellent design choices in terms of how it dealt with character customisation and difficulty, but I also thought that its minimalist plot and overreliance on a single narrator telling you everything (while showing you very little) was both confusing and more than a tad overbearing and seriously let the game down in its attempt to tell a meaningful story. This surprised me for two reasons. One was that in the intervening two years of not playing it I’d actually forgotten all about the Bastion’s flaws and had built up a mental picture of the game that was far more generous than what I apparently thought at the time, and this led to me expecting rather more of Supergiant’s next game, Transistor, than was really fair. Transistor never really had a chance of living up to those expectations, and so I’m going to keep that in mind when reviewing it; I might have ended up being disappointed in Transistor, but that’s at least partially my fault and nothing to do with the actual game. The second reason, though, was that I re-read the Bastion review after completing Transistor to see how my view of each game matched up, and I was genuinely shocked to discover that if you strip away the superficial trimmings of each title my opinion of Transistor now is exactly the goddamn same as my opinion of Bastion then: Transistor has fantastic art and music and some excellent design choices in terms of how it deals with character customisation and difficulty, but its minimalist plot and overreliance on a single narrator telling you everything is confusing and overbearing and lets the game down in its attempt to tell a meaningful story.
That Transistor can hit the same highs as Bastion while stumbling into the same pitfalls says several things about it, I think, first and foremost of which is that it’s an iteration on the basic Bastion concept rather than a whole new game in its own right. It has a different combat system and it’s set in a different world, but otherwise it’s the same deal: the protagonist wanders through a ruined isometric landscape periodically fighting beasties while Logan Cunningham monologues at them. It was probably the safe move for Supergiant to stick to what worked for them before, but since I can cut and paste my opinion from the Bastion review into this one they’ve probably stuck to it just a little bit too closely. As it is Transistor comes across as a difficult second album from a band that wasn’t expecting their first to be a hit; it treads the same ground to try to bottle that lightning again, but that’s precisely what it can’t do because part of their initial success was that Bastion was different. Nobody had done a painterly ARPG with awesome music and a grizzled narrator back in 2011. Transistor on the other hand does not do anywhere near enough to differentiate itself from Bastion, in my opinion, and this decision to play it safe greatly diminished Transistor’s impact because the whole time I was playing it I couldn’t get away from the feeling that I’d done this all before.
Let’s try to focus on the points where Transistor is different from Bastion, at least to start with. Transistor is set inside a computer simulation of a city where the colour of the sky and the weather change according to the whims of the population and programming/compsci references abound. Despite being virtual the city is apparently populated by real people (their deaths are certainly treated as being irrevocably final in nature), one of whom – Red – has just been attacked by a band of four 80s yuppies wielding an electronic greatsword, the Transistor. They botch the job, and Red is transported to the other side of the city along with the Transistor and the corpse of a mysterious, unnamed man the Transistor happens to be buried in. Two things quickly become apparent:
1) The Transistor has the ability to capture and integrate the souls of the city’s inhabitants, meaning that Tall, Dark and Deceased lives on inside the sword and just will not shut the hell up. Being dead apparently turned him very chatty.
2) The anonymous man in the sword is scary fucking obsessed with Red.
It’s here that Transistor makes its first misstep; in order to have Logan Cunningham monologue his way through the game again as the Transistor the choice has been made to have Red be yet another silent protagonist. The in-game explanation for this is that Red was a singer, and so what the world viewed as her primary asset – her voice – was integrated into the sword during the attack. However, when so much of the game’s plot is based around the player understanding the relationship between Red and the anonymous man, having the only way the player can pick up on that be through inferring it from the sword’s one-sided conversation is really not good enough. I spent probably the first half hour of Transistor thinking the guy in the sword was a random passerby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, followed by another half hour thinking he was Red’s stalker (the sword’s monologue can get extremely creepy if you don’t have the correct context for it). Red cannot talk back, except when she accesses various computer terminals scattered throughout the city (and thus has access to a keyboard), and so you never get her side of the story; you’re forced to derive it from what the sword says.
This is Transistor’s big problem thematically, then: despite having nominal control of Red and using her to beat up all the bad guys, Transistor ends up being all about the guy in the sword instead. It’s his voice you constantly hear and his reactions that shape how you view the world you’re travelling through, and up until the very end Red’s role in the story is essentially reduced to being his chauffeur. In Bastion it didn’t matter so much that we never knew what the Kid thought about things since it was never necessary for him to be anything more than a cipher, but the player knowing about Red’s relationship to sword man is 100% necessary to understand Transistor’s story, and for the ending to not come completely out of nowhere and leave the player (i.e. me) totally nonplussed. Only ever seeing one side of it just isn’t enough.
As a result Transistor’s story fell rather flat with me. It falls into the same traps as Bastion without any of the good excuses – at the start of the game, at least, the city is supposed to be a bustling metropolis, and yet you never see anyone who isn’t a corpse and the only exposure you get to the life of the city is through news reports and character dossiers. Again, the game relies on the narrator to tell you all about how awesome the city is/used to be instead of showing you and letting you make up your own mind, and so I found it very difficult to care that shortly after Transistor begins, the city comes under attack by a group of electronic beasties called the Process who begin wiping out the population. Red fights her way through the Process as she tracks down the yuppies who tried to stuff her inside the Transistor, but to me that’s all they ever were: generic baddies to be defeated in Transistor’s combat system, not a pervasive virus-like entity gradually wiping the city clean and resetting it to its default state, and killing everyone who lives there in the process (ha). That’s pretty dark by any definition, and Transistor did manage to strike a couple of decent beats where the stark reality of what the Process is doing hits home, but in the end I just wasn’t given enough information to figure out what was going on. I had to go and look it up on a forum afterwards. That’s never something I should have to do after finishing a game.
About that combat. Transistor eschews Bastion’s ARPG stylings for a quasi-turn-based system. A large part of Transistor’s combat consists of Red running around trying to dodge baddies in real-time by hiding behind conveniently-appearing walls, but all the time you’re doing this there’s a bar at the top of the screen that’s gradually filling up. Once it’s full you can enter Turn() mode, which pauses the game and lets you issue a series of orders to move and attack enemies. You have total freedom to plan when Turn() is active — each move/attack you make depletes the Turn() bar so there’s only so much you can do in a single Turn(), but your moves are not executed until you manually exit Turn() mode and you can undo moves at any time – and once you exit Turn() your orders are carried out in the real-time equivalent of a fraction of a second. Then it’s back to running round trying to dodge the bad guys until your Turn() bar is full again.
What strength the combat system has derives from the way it deals with combat abilities; every ability (called a Function in the game’s compsci lingo) can not only be slotted as one of your four active abilities, but they can also be sub-slotted to an active ability to upgrade and change it. Take the Breach ability, for example. Breach is a slow, powerful attack that penetrates and hits all enemies in a line. Then there’s Bounce, which is an attack that’ll hit one enemy and then bounce to other nearby enemies. You can slot these as separate active abilities and use them to attack separately, but another option you have is to slot Breach as your active and then slot Bounce into Breach as an upgrade. Breach will retain its basic attack ability, but it’ll also then bounce to other nearby enemies, effectively combining the two into a new ability. There’s twenty-odd functions in the game and they can all be slotted as either actives or passives, allowing for a staggering amount of customisation and experimentation; I’m not doing the maths but there’s hundreds of different combinations possible. This flexibility goes well with the freedom of positioning Turn() gives you to line up your attacks just right to create something that’s genuinely quite thoughtful; you’re constantly chopping and changing your functions in between fights to look for a more effective combo.
Unfortunately the freedom and flexibility you have in Turn() mode stands in stark contrast to the frequent periods you spend running around waiting for your Turn() meter to recharge; because you can’t attack or use most abilities outside of Turn() mode there’s practically nothing to do there but dodge enemies who are all slightly faster than you are. This quickly becomes tedious; Red is dragging this huge sword behind her and is understandably quite sluggish when controlled in real-time, and it’s also quite easy to get trapped on an enemy or a piece of scenery and take half your health bar in damage before you’re able to get away. My issue with this isn’t so much that you’re vulnerable when you’re out of Turn() mode, but that there’s little that you can do to ameliorate this vulnerability. There’s a couple of abilities that you can use outside of Turn(), and one of them can be slotted to others to make them usable outside of Turn(), but your range of action nevertheless remains extremely limited and there isn’t even that much tension as you evade the baddies, just a sense of dull impatience as you wait for your Turn() meter to refill.
Given Transistor’s predictable structure – run along, a magic wall suddenly blocks off your retreat, fight some baddies, run along a bit further, a magic wall suddenly blocks off your retreat, fight some more baddies – I think it was absolutely critical that the combat system be engaging in every single respect, and I unfortunately also think Supergiant missed the mark by a not-insignificant margin. There are interesting design decisions that have been made around it – the functions, optional limiters that make combat harder similar to the shrines(?) in Bastion – but the thing itself ends up being rather lopsided and it can’t carry the game on its own. Which is a shame, because as we’ve already established the story can’t do that either. What does Transistor have left to fall back on, then? Well, it’s got some fantastic art and a great visual aesthetic, and its got a soundtrack to die for (that in Turn() mode is accompanied by Red humming along it in apparent contravention of the “lost her voice” plot point), but these things can’t make up a game on their own, they can only support an already-existing concept. And given that I’ve ended up in the same place with Transistor as I did with Bastion, I can’t help but wonder if it’s an innate objection I have to that basic Supergiant concept of a single narrator. Transistor would have been a hell of a lot better if they hadn’t felt the need to play it safe, if Red had been capable of having a genuine conversation with the man in the sword that meant I wasn’t in the dark for most of the game’s (short) length. I’d probably have forgiven the combat system if I’d been invested in the story, and I’d probably have forgiven the story if I’d been enjoying the combat system, but to have both arguably fail and to not have the excuse that this is an untried concept… well, I guess that explains why I’m less inclined to cut Transistor’s flaws the same break I did Bastion’s despite coming to much the same conclusion about both, and it explains why I ended up being so disappointed in the final product.