Sunday, May 25, 2014

REVIEW - Transistor.

Transistor is an isometric action-RPG set in an ethereal, consistent-yet-inexplicable city of retro-noire style and total connectivity called Cloudbank.  Cloudbank runs on technology no one fully understands, yet which has become mundane to its citizens.

The population of the city participates in colossal votes on changes to the weather or the color of the sky.  Imagine if reality itself were dictated by an internet poll.

Dictated by the people, and made real by... what?  Transistor stubbornly refuses to answer any of its really interesting questions, but that's part of what makes it such a compelling parable.

The game's beautifully-drawn but evasive world and narrative (gorgeous music!), its clever and sturdy wealth of interlocking mechanics and its merciless brevity make it a pure spiritual sequel to Supergiant's excellent 2011 title Bastion.  Together, the two games feel decidedly distinct from any other RPG or action-RPG on the market, and make one want to proclaim them as some sort of sub-genre.

inFamous isn't a sandbox game, it's an open-world platformer.

Darksiders isn't merely an action-RPG, it's a Metroidvania.

Transistor is... supergiant.  Let's do that - I enjoy the irony of the term.

supergiant    adjective   \sü-pər-jī-ənt\ 
1  : of high quality and small size
2  a : a short and well-crafted video game
    b : a small and delicious meal 
Examples of SUPERGIANT
  • "Is that what a forty dollar steak looks like?  This thing better be supergiant."
  • Guacamelee  
  •  Portal
Okay, so that's not really a genre - but it's apt.

Beginning with absolutely no explanations, Transistor drops you on to a city street as the mute Red, with nothing to do but pull a glowing green, sword-like object from the corpse of a man.  The object lights up as a voice speaks from it - a man's voice - a man that seems to know her, and wants to keep her alive as strange computer-organisms erupt from the ground and begin white-washing the entire city.

Fans of Supergiant will squee at the return of Logan Cunningham's seductive gravel, as the Transistor serves an identical function here as The Narrator did in Bastion - feeling oddly alive and observant of your actions as you attend to or ignore its direction or meet a foe for the first time.

Things stay as mysterious as Transistor can possibly allow.  The city and everything in it feel warm and distant and dreamlike - and part of the titular weapon's nature becomes quickly apparent as you come across other bodies in the street and it absorbs their energy as "Functions," which expand the device's arsenal of abilities.  Gaining levels, as well, grants Functions, and soon you have a compact but dizzying array of options at your disposal - because every Function has many, many functions.

Let's use Crash and Breach as examples - the first two you get.

The Functions.

Crash has a medium-low range and medium-low damage - an energy blast in front of you - which stuns enemies briefly, and increases the damage they take while crashed.

Breach has a long startup, but fires a high-damage long-range beam which penetrates multiple enemies.

Instead of having two functions, you could add Crash as a support to Breach.  Now Breach will stun enemies.  Or you could add Breach to Crash - Crash now has longer range and hits harder - but each and every function can interact with every other function, often in differing ways.  There is an insane degree of customization here, if one's willing to experiment, and you're never locked in to one build as you can always mix-and-match your Functions at will.

Or you could use either in your passive slots - Crash increases your defense when use passively, and Breach gives you more planning time in Turn mode.  What is Turn mode?

It's beautiful, is what it is.

Tap R2, and time will freeze as a flood of glowing blue dots erupt from the Transistor, arranging into a grid pattern on the floor.  It switches Transistor from Bastion's purely action-RPG standard to a more-traditional turn-based tactical-RPG, in which you plan out your turn in the stillness.  Every step you take and action you execute eats up a portion of your Turn bar - you can only do so much - but combos built and executed in Turn are the key to blitzing your enemies and surviving the day.

Once executed (the dots zip back into the Transistor as Red dashes about the screen, laying waste to her foes), you must wait for Turn to recharge before you can use it again - and none of your functions are available while it recharges - unless you've mapped the Jaunt function as a support to one of them...

As in Bastion, Transistor allows the player to manually make the game far, far harder as they progress through it via "Limiters," which make your foes stronger or you weaker.  The game is a playground, then, for folks who find the idea of fighting through Cloudbank again and again, testing out countless set-ups, a winning proposition.

And you may.  Upon defeating it and enjoying the (very moving) finale, Transistor immediately transitions into a New Game+ mode with all of your Functions and unlocks, and harder enemies to fight.

True to its heritage, this is a vastly playable, endlessly-customizable game with nary a missed step.

Its production values - lush, warmly hand-drawn environments and characters, an absolutely stellar soundtrack (again) from Derren Korb and another absorbing performance from Cunningham - serve as a sumptuous gold standard all other indies should rightfully envy.  Its six or seven-hour play time ensures the game never gets stale, its mysterious, untouchable plot asks curious questions about the age we live in while refusing to blandly explain the nature of the seductive city of Cloudbank, which may or may not be a charicature of the entire internet - or a flash drive - or a literal sci-fi city full of literal people who are literally being wiped out by the calamity that floods through its towers and alleys.

It's involving, tactical, challenging fun all the way through - and cheerfully prepared to get harder at the precise the moment you ask it to.  Intellectually stimulating, emotionally gripping, aesthetically exciting, utterly mysterious and open to interpretation, Transistor leaves the true nature of its story and Cloudbank up to you - and that, I delcare, is good art.

That's supergiant.

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