Supergiant Games' first effort Bastion is the quintessential indie: a relatively niche game that won over hearts and minds with its good looks and slick shooting. Now along comes Transistor, the studio's sophomore effort, and a game that, upon first glance, seems remarkably similar to its popular progenitor. However, this cyberpunk odyssey does a lot to differentiate itself from its forebear. But does it manage to live up to its impressive pedigree, or should it be relegated to the trash heap?
The city of Cloudbank may be beautiful, but it’s definitely not a place that you’d actually want to live. Polls and surveys dominate every decision that takes place in this futuristic utopia, with everything from the colour of the sky to the weather being determined by popular consensus. That is until the Camerata, a group of stalwart revolutionaries, decide to take a jackbooted approach to bringing about change.
Red, a famous singer, steals this violent organisation’s secret weapon, a mysterious blade known as the Transistor. Obviously, the Camerata don’t take too kindly to her actions, and swiftly thwart her plans. What’s more, the insurgents steal her voice and murder her accomplice, sealing him for eternity in the nebulous weapon. This leaves her with but one option: confront this deadly group of social subversives and find a way to save her enigmatic companion.
All the while, the city around her is literally and ideologically crumbling, as its perfectly pedicured streets begin to buckle under the pressure of their populist pretence. However, amid the rambling histrionics and destructive bluster lies a truly poignant love story. And it’s this delicate thread that will remain with you long after you complete the game.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the way in which this narrative is delivered; Supergiant opts for a subtle approach that favours ambiguity and world-building over needless exposition. Information is drip-fed to you through civilian computers, scant audio logs, and the developer’s signature style of narration.
From a gameplay perspective, this cyberpunk outing initially looks an awful lot like a standard isometric brawler. You’re faced with increasingly volatile hordes of enemies which you must conquer using a progressively stronger set of powers. Each of these abilities can either be used in an active, upgrade, or passive slot. Active abilities allow you to perform attacks and buffs during battle, upgrades enhance your active abilities, and passives give you permanent stat increases.
Crucially, though, you can only have access to four active powers at once, forcing you to prudently select your loadout for each scenario. Furthermore, if you find that the title isn’t challenging enough, it features a neat little mechanic that allows you to ramp up the difficulty in exchange for experience bonuses and extra flavour text.
However, layered atop these classic tropes is the game’s most interesting and important mechanic: the titular blade’s time stopping capabilities. Among other things, your trusty weapon allows you to pause the action indefinitely, in order to plan out a series of commands. These orders will then quickly play out in rapid succession, hopefully waylaying your opponents and giving you enough time to survive the ensuing cool-down.
This unique system gives the combat a satisfying ebb and flow. It also means that battles play out in a manner more comparable to a puzzle game than a brawler. Quick reflexes and a steady hand are definitely important, but a carefully calculated strategy will always be more successful.
Despite this, the title never feels needlessly complex or obtuse. Each individual concept is relatively simple, but the depth of gameplay comes from the clever ways in which they interact. You might use an attack that pulls an enemy towards you, and then take advantage of their new position to line up a long range blow that destroys several other foes at the same time. Or, you might distract your enemies, allowing a summoned companion to quickly dart round and backstab them. The possibilities may not actually be endless, but they certainly feel like it.
Perhaps the only complaint here is that the game doesn’t always give you enough feedback when you’re taking damage, which can get a little confusing in the more cluttered battles. It’s a minor gripe, but something that stands out in an otherwise well polished experience.
Nowhere is this polish more evident than in the game’s visuals, which demonstrate a staggering attention to detail. Every stark city vista, every lavishly furnished penthouse, and every majestic and mechanical street is filled to bursting point with exquisite colour and life. This is a truly beautiful game, with a hand drawn aesthetic that is at turns spellbinding and utterly chilling.
And as if the title’s painterly and picturesque panoramas weren’t enough, they’re also backed by an absolutely astonishing score. Deftly switching between heart wrenching electronic ballads and disconcerting elevator muzak, the soundtrack strikes a flawless balance between melancholy and moving, and works in perfect harmony with the onscreen action. What’s more, at the press of a button, you can have Red hum along to the music, providing even more texture to the haunting melodies.
Transistor is an absolute triumph: a stunning sensory experience that buoys its lofty ambitions on a rock solid strategic core. It spins a tale of love, technology, and political and social unrest that speeds confidently towards a magnificent crescendo. What’s more, the razor sharp combat remains thrilling throughout, and the visuals and music display an almost superhuman level of polish. While niggling complaints can certainly be levelled at the gorgeous indie, a trip to Cloudbank comes highly recommended.