Saturday, May 24, 2014

Impressions #5: Transistor

SuperGiant Games has, up until now, only been known for two things: Bastion, and the soundtrack to Bastion. However, that one game on their track record is easily one of the best and most beloved indie games since the initial surge of indies. When the studio announced that they were creating a brand new game, I was completely on board. Fast forward to the present day, and that title has finally been released. Having just completed my first playthrough of this new piece, Transistor, it is still fresh in my mind. As a result, I have much to say about the game. Note: Since the game has only recently come out, this article will be spoiler free for the benefit of those who have yet to play it.

But before that, a brief primer on Transistor. The player of the game assumes the role of Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank. She is attacked during one of her performances, and escapes with her voice stolen and her bodyguard/boyfriend trapped in the mysterious, titular Transistor. Armed with this new weapon, Red goes after the her would-be assassins while being accosted by a mysterious force called “the Process.” Without spoiling anything, the story is a bit hit-and-miss. Personally, I enjoyed the events of the plot. However, some of the people I have talked to found that it simply did not engage them at all, even if they could not point to a specific reason for why that was. With that said, the ending was very beautiful and wrapped up the game quite nicely, so I walked away content.
Despite this, one of things that somewhat disappointed me is that while the game seems to have Computer Science/Programming theme, it does not seem to do much of anything with it. The games finishes the names of all its moves with “()”, like a function in a computer program. As experience is gained, players raise their “User Level” for the Transistor, granting access to new functions and upgrades. The main antagonistic force is referred to as “the Process.” Despite what one might believe, this does not seem to have much overall bearing on the main story. It merely seems like an aesthetic choice. The decision is not an invalid one, but I felt a bit slighted by it as someone studying Computer Science.

Another problem I have with the game is that it leaves too much left unexplained. Details with regards to how the Process, the city of Cloudbank, and the society at large work are left unexplained. This raises an uncomfortable wall between the player and the protagonist. Red and her boyfriend clearly know how this world works, and some of it can be gleamed by their “conversations.” Other details can by gleamed the side content found along the way. The world appears to work in a consistent and cohesive way that makes sense, the problem is I just do not know enough to be sure of that.
(SPOILERS) Speaking of Red's boyfriend, the game seems to go out of its way to obfuscate his personal information for no reason. All we really know about him is that he and Red are in a relationship and he took a mortal blow meant for her, leaving him trapped in the Transistor. Aside from that, everything about him is left unknown. Even his unlockable file in the Transistor does not say much beyond that it is corrupted somehow. Further, all pictures of him leave his face obscured. If there was some grand reveal regarding who he was at the end, that would make sense. However, there no such reveal exists. (/SPOILERS) Like the world, it feels like details were left unexplained. I hesistate to call it an inconsistency or a plot hole, because it seems to be more like a series of omissions. Unfortunately, their gestalt make the overall story difficult to understand. There is a lot going on, and it needs explaining.

The gameplay is the most interesting aspect of the game. SuperGiant's previous work, Bastion, experimented with light RPG elements. Transistor doubles down on them, making it feel a lot more like an action RPG. Players have access to up to four functions, which serve as their move list throughout the game, to use in battle. These functions can be modified by equipped other functions to them as upgrades, granting them new properties. Other functions can be equipped as passive functions, which grant the player extra bonuses depending on which ones are equipped. However, each function, no matter how they are equipped, will take up a certain amount of memory in the Transistor. The total sum of their costs cannot exceed the maximum memory of the weapon. Although, extra memory and upgrade slots can be acquired through gaining experience in battle and upgrading Red's “User Level”.
As for combat itself. Red has to use the Transistor's functions to defeat the Process's forces in real time. Once a Process is defeated, it releases a cell. If the cell is not picked up in the allotted time, the process will respawn and Red will need to kill it again. Aside from her functions, Red also has access to a special technique called Turn(). When in Turn(), time stands still. The player has a bar which can be consumed by queuing up movements and functions. After planning out their moves, they can immediately execute them by exiting Turn(). Afterward, a brief recharge period will be necessary where all functions aside from Jaunt() (or any functions upgraded with Jaunt()) will be disabled and Turn() cannot be used. This inspires the user to think more tactically and consider the options available to them.

One of the major conceits of the story is that the Transistor gains new functions from either coming into contact with people or “integrating” their souls into itself. As a result, every function comes with it a file on the person it came from. Players can unlock these files by using the functions associated with these files in various different capacities. This gives the player a sense of the world and its inhabitants. Further, it is a really interesting way to use lore to encourage players to experiment with different functions and function combinations.
The health system also helps encourage this experimentation. When Red's health reaches zero, it does not necessarily mean she will die. One of two things will happen. If Turn() is fully charged and ready for use, it will automatically be activated before the final blow defeats Red. This gives her a second chance to retaliate and turn around a bad situation. Otherwise, a function equipped to the Transistor will overheat, saving the player from defeat at the cost of needing to find two access points (which are used to customize the function layout and save the game) before the overheated function can be used again. Should all equipped functions overheat, it is Game Over. In this way, players are forced to figure out new loadouts and tactics that do not involve the overheated function(s). Combined with the lore unlocking I mentioned earlier, the game clearly wants the user to continually think about how they can best combine their assets to make powerful combinations.

While the combat and the experimentation definitely held my interest through the entire game, some of the UI elements left a lot to be desired. In particular, the menu where Red can change her equipped functions controls fairly poorly, at least on the PC. What should be a simple click-and-drag interface is marred by a case of having to go through too many menus to complete an otherwise simple task. For example, if I want to change a function's upgrade from one function to another, I have to first go into the menu to remove the originally equipped upgrade. Then, I have to go back to get the upgrade function I want and equip it. The reason for this is that the “remove function” button in the insert menu will remove the function and its upgrade, rather than let the player specify which one they want.
Another UI issue in this menu is that when the player goes to inspect a function's file and back out into the main function menu, the cursor returns to the last function equipped and not the one the player just inspected. This frequently resulted in my removing functions I did not intend to, spending excess time rebinding them to my setup. The menu serves its purpose, but can lead to some unnecessary frustration.

Lastly, it would be criminal to talk about this game without mentioning the soundtrack. As one might expect from the developers of Bastion, the soundtrack is absolutely top notch. The music by Darren Korb and its vocal accompaniment by Ashley Barret is beautiful. There is even a button to make Red hum to the background music. Fans of the Bastion soundtrack should be sure to listen to the music of Transistor, because it is comparable in quality.

Overall, Transistor is an excellent game in its own right, even if it does not reach the level of its predecessor. Though I expect the game to be a bit more divisive than Bastion was, there is no denying that I enjoyed my time with it and plan to play through it again in Recursion Mode, aka New Game+. Anyone who loved Bastion will also enjoy their time with this game. Even if you did not like Bastion, it is still worth checking out because Transistor is a beautiful, powerful game that on its own.

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