Transistor: PAX Impressions

In just a week, the groundswell of excitement that has formed around Transistor, the follow-up title to the widely acclaimed Bastion by Supergiant Games, has reached critical mass. I witnessed the stunning speed of anticipation spread at PAX East convention in Boston last weekend, where Supergiant Games was demoing an early build of the game. By the last day of the convention the 15 minute demo was garnering a two hour plus wait time, on par with highly anticipated AAA titles such as The Last of Us. I was fortunate enough to check out the game on Friday, the first day of convention, and after a 45 minute wait was able to play an early demo of the game and talk to Supergiant’s resident engineer, Chris Jurney.

Chris is one of the newer members of the team, and while you think following the success of Bastion that Supergiant Games would go on a massive hiring spree, the team has only added three members to the original seven. Chris explained to me that while development on Transistor started over a year ago, the Bastion port to iOS took around six months during which the project remained on the back burner. The demo was a very early build, and with a target date of ‘early 2014’, it was clear that much was subject to change. What was shown however exuded style and polish. The art direction and attention to audio design were extremely strong even at this early stage, and Transistor is very identifiable as a Supergiant Games joint.

The set-up involved a protagonist named Red. A singer in a mysterious cyberpunk city, she finds herself ambushed by assassins. She manages to escape, but not before they steal her voice. This functions as an interesting narrative solution to the common trope of the silent protagonist. More than a simple gimmick however, Red is seemingly being positioned as the voice of the voiceless, the heroine who will take on the robotic enemy in the game, known as the Process, who have been abducting citizens by the hundreds.

As the playable portion of the demo begins, Red stumbles across a dead body, impaled by a sword. The sword then speaks to her, identifying itself as the titular Transistor and offering assistance. It appears as though in the game world, people’s personalities have a digital aspect, and can be ‘de-rezzed’ or integrated into other technologies. The voice of the Transistor is not actually the sword itself, but that of the recently deceased. The Transistor then serves both as a narrator of the game, providing context when needed, but also the voice of the player, questioning and commenting on Red’s actions.

Gameplay is somewhat similar to Bastion as it is an action RPG featuring an isometric camera angle, however, fundamental differences make Transistor much more than simply Bastion 2. The Transistor gives Red the ability to pause combat, and plot out moves and attacks that deplete a rechargeable gauge, and then execute said plan in a swift flurry. This tactical layer requires the player to take a much more conscious and thoughtful approach to combat, and is incredibly satisfying to use (Chris mused that this type of gameplay was much more in keeping with Greg Kasavin, the lead designer’s style, as he is apparently an ardent lover of turn-based tactical games). My overall impression was that the combat was much more elegant than its predecessor’s.

The ability to stop time might seem to be giving the player an unfair advantage. However, different enemy types, including one that spawns a clone each time it is struck, seem to balance the combat and provide a thrilling challenge. Crowd control also become important, and recently defeated enemies will respawn in a few quick seconds if their robotic cores are not manually collected. These elements helped keep the combat hectic and enjoyable in spite of the power provided by the Transistor.

As the demo progressed, Red was able to interrupt several instances of the robotic Process in the middle of de-rezzing citizens. These partially deconstructed citizens were then absorbed by the Transistor, and each granted a new combat technique for Red to use. The techniques can be leveled up, and I don’t think it’s too bold of a speculation to say that the player will likely be able to swap out the abilities as the game progresses, similar to the tonics, weapons and idols in Bastion.

The game ended in a semi-playable cutscene which served as a strong reminder of the incredible art and audio design at Supergiant Games. With only one title and a demo for another to their name, Supergiant Games is a textbook case of quality over quantity. It’s no surprise then that Transistor has already captured so much mindshare. The excitement around the project was palatable from both the team and convention attendees.

Transistor’s release can’t come soon enough.

gridteam

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  • David Mruz

    While I will have probably finished my series on Silent Protagonists by then, I would be really fond of coming back to do this game. Looks pretty sick, and I can’t say no to something cyberpunk.

    • Nick_Hahneman

      When I read your second piece on Chell today, I had a similar thought. Transistor is the only game I can think of off-hand that justifies the silent protagonist through the narrative. Very interesting take.

      Oh and yeah game looks shiny.