'Hey Red, you awake?'
Supergiant Games, Logan Cunningham, Bastion... these are all things that have something in common, they're all part of one huge fantastic indie development team that constantly strives to prove that aesthetics and near-flawless art direction, sound design, can make a rich and compelling game even if some elements of the gameplay are slightly off. Supergiant Games are mad geniuses, we're pretty convinced of that, ditching the traditional element of a gameplay map for Bastion and proving a game that built the map as you played could be a success...was a pretty ballsy move.
They're at it again with Transistor, another game from their stable that marries interesting (though somewhat repetitious combat) battle tactics with a top-notch aesthetic and visual style that has to be seen to be believed. If anything, Transistors major strength is that the art design and creation of Cloudbank City (where the game takes place) is something really quite amazing. It's art deco, with cobbled streets, faded moments of glory where old Internet terminals gleam against neon lights and a decidedly up market futuristic design.
Design is key here and it's gorgeous looking, from the art to the lighting to the little details that crop up everywhere in the background. Then you have Red, the game's main character and proof you can design interesting female characters in video games, give them a back-story that's not phoned in and then spend ages on nuanced details such as animation and character which convey far more about her than any handful of text can.
Then you have the way that Transistor brings you into the game, opening with Red and the mysterious (Logan Cunningham) Transistor (a talking tech-sword that evolves in character as the game's excellent writing progresses).
Red loses her voice at the start of the story, you as the player are just as clueless as she is as well. But you quickly learn that if you experiment by grabbing the pad's buttons and especially (L1) you can make Red hum, she might not be able to sing, but she can hum still. It's here that you really get a sense of character too, as you can hum at any time, it serves no purpose at all rather like tipping John Marton's hat in Red Dead Redemption - it's a pure aesthetic element.
The game is show, don't tell, it doesn't give you a clear pathway or idea of what you're supposed to be doing and whilst some might look upon this as a fault, we look upon it as Supergiant Games trying to expand gaming by challenging our preconceptions of what makes a game. It's never frustrating and you soon get the hang of navigation, watching Red move dragging that huge sword behind her leaving a trail of individually detailed sparks.
There's numerous terminals to interact with, some powers to discover (by absorbing the souls of NPCs who have passed on) and like Supergiant we're not going to explain everything in this review - we like the feel of being lost at the onset, it connects us to Red. You'll get a good sense of Red's personality from the crisp writing, especially since she can interact with message boards, leaving messages that show off how she thinks and how she's evolving over the course of the game.
Eventually (pretty early on) you're going to get into combat in Transistor and there's two flavours, one where the abilities are mapped onto the face buttons of your controller, square, circle, triangle, x and it plays like an action game. You'll have to wait a little bit for an ability to ready up again before you use it.
Then there's a tactical pause-time combat mode that's far more interesting and certainly offers the greater scope for planning your encounters with your foes. Each move you make as Red will cost you some energy, each action you take is recorded and that too uses energy, empty the bar and you'll see the payoff to your plan. Or you can trigger the end of your turn and see how your tactics play out.
It's simple, and effective. It works quite well and although it's never truly hard, it all comes down to your grasp of the powers and how they work. You also need to remember that once you're out of energy, you can really only run away whilst that bar recharges. You can Jaunt (teleport) and looking at the word: Jaunt makes me wonder if Supergiant are fans of the old Tomorrow People TV show way back when.
I think if we were to level any kind of criticism at the combat it would be that it does begin to become somewhat repetitious later on. If you're a fan of pause-based tactical combat though, it's fun and fresh enough.
The PS4 version also employs some neat pad-trickery by letting you set an option to allow the Transistor's voice to come through your pad speaker. It's a nice little bit of immersion and it worked quite well in inFAMOUS: Second Son for some of the various comm chatter and other elements.
Transistor is worth a shot and the game is great just from the aesthetics alone. The music is the icing on the cake, proving that Supergiant knows how to hang a great tune into a game as well as make some compelling gameplay.