At E3 earlier this year, Transistor won one of our “Best of E3” awards. It was not an honor bestowed lightly as there were plenty of amazing games shown off during E3. However, none of the footage or hands-on time left nearly as much an impression as playing Transistor did. From the moment that demo started and Darren Korb’s score poured out of the headphones, it was clear that Supergiant had something special on their hands.
Knowing that Supergiant Games would show off Transistor once again at PAX was exciting. Mainly because it is another opportunity for more of the public to try out a game that produces such a bewildering effect on the player. After playing the demo at E3, clearly, the question became how much could the team get done in a few short months to change the E3 build. The main mission for us at PAX was to get Chance a moment to give the demo a spin. Luckily, Greg Kasavin and the SuperGiant team had a little bit of time during their hectic PAX to squeeze him in on the Press demo booth. Yet as I stood there waiting for him to finish, something gnawed at me, telling me to go play the PAX demo. Thankfully, after Chance finished, the kind Supergiant team let me give the new build a play through. It was a reasonable concern about what the developer could accomplish in a little over two months. Upon picking up the controller that concern seemed silly because the answer was that they could change things dramatically.
Cloudbank is a city full of voices, or it used to be. All of the influential voices are disappearing. Person by person, their voices are stolen turning them into Traces. The city turns its attention to Red now. It is her turn to be hunted. The city is after her.
Red finds him slumped against a fence with a weird sword pierced through his chest. As she leans in closer, the sword speaks and tells her to take him. The sword is the Transistor, and he tells her if she wants to make it out of the city to take him with her. The two know each other, or did when he was alive. “Hey Red, that’s not me. Not anymore. I’m safe now… in here. Safer than you. So please, let’s go,” he says when she takes him. They both need to escape Cloudbank because things are not going too well in the city.
After taking the Transistor, Red runs through the alleyways of the city only to find them empty. It seems the only voice remaining in Cloudbank resides in Red’s sword; he speaks to her as they wander the abandoned cityscape. One feature that was difficult to notice at E3 was the fact that the PS4 controller’s light bar pulsates as the Transistor talks. So when Logan Cunningham’s smooth voice seeps out of Red’s sword, the light bar reacts to the tones.
Well, Cloudbank seems empty except for malicious robots poised to attack Red. Tooling around the city will put Red in contact with the Process (robots) eager to detain her and the Transistor. While combat in the PAX demo is not radically different from the E3 build, there have been some major tweaks to make the experience seem smoother. As in the E3 demo, combat starts out with active time combat, where mashing a button will result in an action, but quickly the game introduces the “time out”/turn feature.
This function allows Red to plan out her moves strategically. In each “time out”, Red can only perform a certain number of actions, each action has a cost and each turn has a cost total. Additionally, each attack does a certain amount of damage; less powerful attacks cost less, etc. So, Red can perform any combination of moves so long as the cost does not exceed the turn amount. During each turn, Red can only move a certain amount before she is forced to stop. Thus, when planning out a turn, players can plot out what enemies to attack in what order and utilize how attacks work keeping in mind how much Red can move per turn. For instance, an attack that allows Red to pierce through an enemy will propel her past that enemy, so the player could plan that action to place her next to another enemy allowing her to attack it without moving. This adds a huge layer of strategy to combat, but without making combat seem stagnant. Plotting turns is fast and easy, putting it into motion is a huge rush.
During combat, Red has access to a number of varied attacks. A crash of her sword, a rushing attack to breach, and a heavy attack called spark that spouts electric debris at enemies in an area effect. To help Red stay away from enemies while waiting for a chance to use a turn again, she has the Jaunt ability. Jaunt acts as a dodge move that keeps Red quickly moving across the environment and out of harm’s way and helps Red to use the various bits of cover effectively as well. It worked much more effectively in the PAX build which speaks to how much things had been tightened up since E3. While there is a world of difference between this and Bastion, there is something spiritually similar between the two in how Supergiant approaches combat.
The PAX build introduces elements that will appear in the final product of Transistor. What the E3 demo lacked was the upgrade system (which the PAX build gives players a taste of) that adds heavily to the RPG feel of the game. Red still gains new moves/powers for the Transistor by finding Traces (dead citizens) around the city and absorbing them into the Transistor. Now the power from the Traces can be upgraded as Red levels up in the game. Once Red reaches a new level, players can allocate skill points to improve the potency of their attacks. As with most RPGs, this has its own strategic benefits as buffing up various attacks can either make Red a powerhouse, more defensive or more balanced.
Combat is exceptionally smart with an emphasis on fast paced yet strategically minded battles. The various enemies that appear in the short fifteen minute demo show a huge amount of variety to their tactics, move sets and temperament. It will be interesting to see how or if similar units of the Process reoccur throughout the game and what variations there might be on them like how the enemies in Bastion came from families/evolutions.
Transistor creates a sense of place and atmosphere instantly. The demo starts with a still of the breathtaking art of Jen Zee featuring Red sadly overlooking the Transistor then moves into Darren Korb’s score that nails the oppressive and tense cyberpunk feel of Cloudbank to Logan Cunningham’s dulcet tones as the Transistor begging Red to leave the city. Cloudbank is a city actualized in mere moments, it is claustrophobic yet abandoned. A haunting ghost town that is startlingly gorgeous while bleakly desolate. It is a flourishing ruin, empty except for Red and the Transistor and the Process bent on capturing them.
Much like Bastion, the narration is highly engrossing. Unlike Bastion, Transistor’s narrator has no idea what will happen. He will find out as the story unfolds. Gone is the unreliable narrator with a sense of omnipotence. Now the Transistor is a passenger and he may know Red, but he has no idea what her plans may be. When they find an exit and she decides to head deeper into the city, he is surprised.
Since Red and the Transistor’s consciousness had a relationship evinced by the fact that when they find her wanted poster, he tells her, “Red, I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop them before they took your voice.” As he speaks to Red, the dialogue is loaded with subtext and regret. Even though he is no longer with her, he can make up for his failure by being her voice and instrument for protection and revenge. What is their relationship?
Transistor was the Best of E3 for me. Playing it again at PAX and looking at the extra work Supergiant Games managed to pack into the new build only reconfirms that fact. It is rare for a game to stick with you after playing it, but that is what happens with Transistor. It is a profoundly affecting game that is sublimely beautiful even amidst its desolation and isolation.
Supergiant packed an emotionally resonate punch into a fifteen minute demo, it will be exciting to see what the full game will offer in early 2014.