DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers ahead!
I have a sin that I need to confess.
Nay, scratch that- as a particular, glamorous, fictional lady detective once said- “My sins are too many and varied to mention, and frankly, I intend to continue sinning”. But I digress- I have an admission to make, and one, I am told, that is abhorrent and in need of rectification.
I have never played Supergiant Games’ much-loved first title, Bastion.
That’s not to say that I have had not had ample opportunity to, and I, unlike some who have similarly never experienced the game, have not been put off by a certain exasperating robot who, coincidentally, happens to share the same name. That’s also not to say that I never will, because I am certain that it shall come to pass one day. However, a few years ago, when I first thought these somewhat erroneous thoughts of mine, I considered its aesthetic to be, whilst quite charming, a little garish from a colour perspective (hindsight is a wonderful thing). Then, someone showed me Transistor, Supergiant’s sophomore release.
Ah, Transistor, I thought. Now THAT was an art style that spoke to me. Like dripping paint to Pollock, like blue to Yves Klein, like chipotle mayonnaise to fish tacos. It looked gorgeous.
However, being the typical young lady with transient memory that I am, I managed to forgot all about it until, late last year, I was bequeathed a solitary gift of $30 for the PSN store, and stumbled across it once more. It was a fortuitous moment, and one that would surely not come by again so soon, so I bought it. Come New Year’s Eve, rather than feigning the pretence of a social life, I began the first of many fugacious sessions with the game, and now, over the duration of a woefully inefficient two months, I have, at last, completed it. One gold star to me.
But enough prologue.
In summation, the events of Transistor revolve around Red, a young singer whose hair bears no connection to her name (honest), residing in a nascent, art-deco, cyberpunk, futuristic hub named Cloudbank. The player meets her as a seemingly omniscient male voice speaks to her as she’s pulling a massive USB stick out of a port, except the USB stick is the titular Transistor, and it’s actually a sword, and the USB port is a corpse. Fret not; she’s still safe. Relatively. As far as protagonists go, she’s as safe and inoffensive as a Salada, and without much supplementary material, about as interesting as one, too (But of course, you may enjoy Saladas a lot, even on their own, and in a similar manner, find Red to be just fine). The voice, apparently having belonged to the body of the male USB port, seeks an answer as to why someone tried to turn him into a kebab with such an impractical skewer. Apparently also a victim of the attack that claimed the life of her companion, Red has been rendered mute, allowing her male companion to commentate on the goings-on in his immutable, dulcet tones. However, as he and Red soon find out, the Transistor seems to have absorbed a trace of him in the form of a magical attack power, or a “Function”, and mysterious monsters called “The Process”, resembling various assortments of bathroom implements, have now appeared. Together, Red and her incorporeal companion journey across Cloudbank, encountering more of The Process, gaining more Functions from the deceased residents, musing on abstract notions the player never gains any semblance of insight about, ordering pizza, and generally acting like denizens of Brunswick.
If one was to, rather crudely, condense the combat of Transistor, it would be described as an isometric looking, half real-time, half turn-based RPG mishmash. However, the ‘turn’ element in this instance, is an actual Function that is initiated by the player as dictated by a chargeable meter, and can otherwise be commenced, for the most part, at the player’s leisure. The aforementioned Functions are necessary, to defeat The Process that bar the route and mar the scenery, along the way, and using them spends a little mana- I mean, um, er- of the Turn Function. The player gains 16 Functions in total, but only four Functions may be equipped for active use. This limitation is mitigated by each Function slot having unlockable upgrade slots, meaning that each equipped Function can be enhanced by another, as well as being linked to passive slots that effect all other Functions. However, taking a cue from the majority of rapidly obsolete hardware, the Transistor has limited memory, and the relative power of each Function is in proportion to the damage it can do. This makes for some delightful combinations, as well as an intrinsically motivated challenge in figuring out how to make the most of the limited memory.
Perhaps the narrative is too esoteric for a simpleton such as myself, but I found the characters somewhat indifferent, tonally, at times, and the narrative haphazard and disconnected. Bosses would appear with little to no foreshadowing and disappear the next, giving the player little elbow room to ruminate on the implications of what they’d just done. The villainous faction, the Camerata, lack any threatening presence, and bear a tenuous relationship with the Process encountered throughout the world. Furthermore, considering that utilising the titular USB stick necessitates absorbing power from deceased citizens of Cloudbank, very little poignancy or weight is given to the act itself, as Red remains as supercilious as ever, and the narrator makes the tritest of remarks. The Transistor may as well be absorbing energy from my sweaty armpits after a tumultuous sojourn in public with high anxiety for all the narrative impact it effectively has. Concepts and themes are introduced and abandoned, and many gameplay elements are never adequately explained.
However, whilst narrative is evidently not one of Transistor’s strengths, gameplay most certainly is. My rudimentary explanation of the Functions is but a superficial glimpse at the myriad combinations of attacks that can be initiated. There is a Function on its own that can let the player dash to avoid enemies, but upgraded with any of the other Functions in the game, one can leave a clone in their wake, drop electric orbs, turn enemies against each other or even heal Red. The possibilities are multitudinous, and joyous to execute, for as Red’s attacks increase in power and variety, so, too, does the Process, leading to lengthier and more arduous, yet fulfilling battles. The player gains experience after each encounter, with each new level allowing access to new Functions, upgrade slots, and memory. Later in the game, access to Limiters is granted, which inhibit the power of the Transistor, and increase the strength of the Process, yet bestow more EXP as a boon.
The aesthetic of Transistor is stunning. Supergiant’s art director, Jen Zee, implemented a Klimt-inspired feel to the backgrounds, and a more muted colour palette to the game in comparison to its predecessor, to great effect. There’s a sense of late night moodiness pervading the atmosphere, which enhances the impending danger of the Process, arbitrarily emerging in their stark, angular cocoons, to ambush the player. As the game progresses and the city of Cloudbank is swallowed in the same clinical material the comprises the Process, the backgrounds somehow transcend their sharp geometry and monochrome to become rather ethereal. It takes the skill of a an accomplished artist to master making such a limited palette look compelling, and yet that is exactly what Zee does. Her work in the game is a marvel to behold. Furthermore, whilst the majority of human vocal chord noises interspersed throughout the game are ultimately about as middling as the narrative, the soundtrack, composed by Darren Korb, is mellifluous, with standout tracks accompanied by the accomplished vocals of Ashley Barrett (who also provides the various vocalisations of Red). In spite of how logic-defying it is, there’s a certain charm to Red being able to hum as she cradles the Transistor, lost in the strains of a lullaby.
All in all, Transistor’s manifold combat combinations, art and soundtrack are its saving grace. Even with its glaring narrative flaws, in spite of my pervasive literature sensibilities, I find myself compelled to recommend it, and I tentatively await Supergiant’s next release, Pyre (Release date: TBC 2017).
See you in The Country!
If you enjoyed this, please like and share this post, or follow me on Twitter for more ramblings, at @emm_kt