No one likes to be pigeonholed. Developers, and indies especially, seem to go out of their way to avoid accusations of forever making the same thing. Yet less than a minute into Transistor, you know you’re playing a Supergiant game. This, like Bastion, is an isometric action-RPG. It, too, is easy on the eye, albeit with its predecessor’s gorgeous fantasy frontier replaced with a beautiful retro-futuristic city. But what really unites these games, and defines the Supergiant house style, is voice actor Logan Cunningham. Once again, he’s part guide, part storyteller, but while he was a narrator in Bastion – a detached observer – he’s an integral part of the story here.
He voices a man trapped inside the eponymous Transistor, a sword of such heft that protagonist Red, a renowned singer, drags it along behind her, a trail of sparks in her wake as it scrapes the ground. The game begins with her coming to against a wall, slumped next to a corpse into which the Transistor is firmly embedded, the weapon apparently having stolen his voice and soul. Red, meanwhile, has lost the use of her vocal cords, so after freeing the sword, the two set out into the world in search of what they’re missing.
And what a world. Transistor’s city of Cloudbank is ambiguously futuristic, a place where hazy neon sci-fi meets vintage fashion and which is entirely controlled, perhaps even created, by technology. Street-side terminals ballot citizens on tomorrow’s weather, the colour of the sky and proposed building works. It’s through a mix of terminals, the Transistor’s clipped commentary and the game’s take on text logs that we learn Cloudbank is controlled not by computers, but by the Illuminati-esque Camerata. Founded by scientists with big ideas, the Camerata’s ranks have swollen with the recruitment of Cloudbank’s great and good – a roll call of architects, fashion designers and athletes brought in to put a palatable face on questionable intentions. Red’s on their list too, naturally, but she’s different to the rest, and not only because of her gigantic talking sword: she’s the only one that’s still alive.
Cloudbank, you see, is a ghost town. Its inhabitants are gone, replaced by the Process – a hostile computer program that’s taken physical, and highly aggressive, form. It’s in combat against its robotic bestiary that Transistor takes its biggest step forward from Bastion. As before, you have a suite of attacks, here mapped to DualShock 4’s face buttons, but a squeeze of R2 turns reaction-based realtime combat into something altogether more tactical. Activate Turn mode and the screen darkens, the electro-classical soundtrack becomes muffled and filtered, and time is frozen still, along with your opponents. A meter at the top of the screen depletes as you move and set up a string of ranged and melee attacks, then another press of R2 sees Red enact the plan in realtime. The gentle pace of Turn mode is fractured by the subsequent cooldown timer, during which you’re at the mercy of your aggressors and must hunker down behind blocks of cover that disintegrate under fire. You’ll soon learn to end your Turns with an evasive move to start the cooldown in a position of relative safety.
It’s a deceptively simple system, and you’re rapidly made to feel worryingly powerful, with those four face buttons quickly filled with attacks. Yet there is so much more to Transistor’s combat than early glimpses reveal. You find more moves, dubbed Functions, lying on the corpses of the Camerata’s ex-members. As you level up, you’ll unlock more, and more ways in which to use them. A Function can be Active and triggered with a face button; an Upgrade, changing the way an Active move operates; or Passive, giving Red a permanent buff. You’re encouraged to mix up your approach – the first time you assign a skill to an empty slot, you’re given a little backstory about the member of the glitterati on whose corpse you first discovered it, and you’ll need to put it in all three slots to learn their whole story. But you’ll be forced to switch things up, too: take too much damage and the most powerful skill in your arsenal will Overload and be unavailable for a while. And should you play things too safely, the Transistor will readily point it out. When we spend an entire Turn bar on the Crash melee move, we’re chided with a dry mutter of, “Subtle.”
There are other little balancing acts. When levelling up, you’re faced with a series of choices: picking one of two new moves, unlocking new Passive or Upgrade slots, or increasing the Memory pool that restricts how many skills you can use at once. Limiters buff the enemy threat level in exchange for faster levelling. And downed foes spawn clusters of cells, which must be collected within a time limit or they’ll respawn, adding a frantic risk to the cooldown between Turns. It’s a smart, remarkably intricate system that invites experimentation long after the credits have rolled and you’re into New Game Plus, where your skillset carries over and the enemy threat ramps up.
Yet Transistor’s greatest asset is confidence. This is a remarkably assured game for such a young studio, the work of a small team that knows exactly what it wants to do and executes it almost without error. Its art style is divine, its soundtrack is remarkable, its combat is intricate, and the story of its odd-couple protagonists is both smartly written and deftly told. It is a game made, literally, with a Flourish: tap R1 and Red flings the sword out in front of her, the blade spinning in midair as she jumps out to catch it. It’s a move that serves no purpose beyond letting players traverse Cloudbank with the same easy style with which Transistor has been made. Supergiant may work to a template, but when it’s as irresistible as this, it’s easy to see why.