With Transistor, Supergiant Games have kept their secret incredibly close to their chest; with the exception of a single event demo – and what a demo it was.
However, with the lack of information, there’s also a lack of coverage of the game (at least compared to its triple-A peers). For those not familiar, I’ll run over a bit of the background. Initially available at PAX back in March, the 15-ish minute demo was a modest slice of Transistor‘s basics; which are, on the surface, very similar to Bastion (Supergiant Games’ previous title), an isometric action game with a dynamic narrator, and a gameplay style that rewards technical execution.
You play as ‘Red’ (a title as similarly descriptive as Bastion‘s The Kid), a superstar singer who, thanks to some mysterious assassins, has had her voice stolen and a lot of people around her killed. One of them met his end via a massive sword in translucent turquoise – the Transistor. It gives her the ability to throw bolts of energy around and stop time; which proves to be useful against the hordes of robots covering the city.
Immediately, Transistor’s visual style grabs you. Harsh geometrical shapes of the city give way to the floral motifs and twisting curves of the Art Nouveau movement. Rain-slicked dark monochrome of the streets lies under glowing neon lights and golden street lamps. The character models are 3D, but coloured and shaded just so in a way you’d mistake them for 2D animation.
However, more than anything, it’s the soundtrack that gives me chills. Bastion had an excellent dynamic soundtrack, and the same is true here, employing a mix of electronic beats, break loops and soulful lounge singing. Whenever you stop time, the music drops into low-pass, and the vocals come through – possibly the voice stolen from Red – echoing and sad. It sends shivers down my spine every time.
The game’s style is so beautiful that one of the most popular recordings of the PAX demo is one with the recorder’s commentary track removed, so you can hear the game at its best.
Gameplay-wise, Red’s ability to stop time allows both the breathing room for carefully planned manoeuvres, and a crutch for players who may not have the execution to pull off their intended strategy in real-time. As someone who plays a lot of fighting games, but has dexterity issues, I’m thankful for this function.
To stop players from abusing the time stop, there’s a recharge period which also locks off your basic attacks. This means that poorly planned time stops can leave you worse off than when you started. I predict stages in the game where you’re encouraged to take on enemies without stopping time, only using it in dire straits.
Of course, there are potential issues and things to be wary of. The demo is at its core, a series of kill-rooms – a linear chain of arenas where you can’t proceed until everything’s dead. That could very much be a way to keep the people playing the demo on task, but having the whole game work that way could feel rather claustrophobic.
With a lot of the design sensibilities being born from Bastion, I wonder if Transistor may also take its approach to difficulty and upgrades. In Bastion, there are optional ‘idols’ you can invoke that will place restrictions on you, for an increased monetary reward.
While a cool idea on paper, in practice it meant that the game gave additional resources to the skilled players who wouldn’t need it as much as those who wouldn’t be able to handle those challenges. It was a minor design flaw that barely marred an excellent game, but god only knows if it’s something that Supergiant Games have kept in mind.
Supergiant Games have put in an awful lot of work to put themselves in a position where their debut game is one of the best-selling indie titles to date; and their second project can cause my cold, dead heart to flutter over such a small amount of revealed content.