"It's an exercise in narrative style over substance, but at least it's a pretty fun one."
With the release of Transistor on PC and PlayStation 4, Supergiant Games has made a name for itself with gorgeous, stylistically unique adventures. Much like its predecessor, Transistor is a sight to behold at all turns, with detailed and attractive fullscreen artwork, lush backgrounds, and artistic flair to boot. Other holdovers from Bastion include musical maestro Darren Korb and gravelly narrator Logan Cunningham, so if you found yourself absorbed in the sights and sounds of Supergiant's previous game, you'll be right at home with their new one.
It's perhaps appropriate to pay a great deal of attention to Transistor's looks, because this is a game for which everything revolves around style. Cutscenes rely almost wholly on attractive artwork and Cunningham's narration for exposition, interface and gameplay elements are thematically consistent with the game's tech-noir aesthetic, and every bit of writing and dialogue is laced with Supergiant's particular tongue-in-cheek wit, situating it very wholly in a modern aesthetic. For better and for worse, everything in Transistor is in service to style, which leads to a game which is cohesive in its vision, singular in its experience, and occasionally a little bit frustrating to play.
For the most part, gameplay takes the form of protagonist Red and her chatty sword/sidekick/exposition machine Transistor traveling around the city of Cloudbank, attempting to piece together the mystery surrounding a group of bad folks called Camerata and the strange, computerlike Process (who also make up the bulk of your foes). The city, already very high-tech in many ways, is seemingly being overtaken by the Process and their sterile aesthetic, so Red and Transistor make it a point to smash them whenever they can. The storyline is more experience than traditional narrative, and I'm torn between loving the subtle way in which bits and pieces of the tales of Cloudbank's citizens, Camerata, and the Process are slowly revealed and being infuriated by the relative opacity of the whole affair.
Part of this comes down to Logan Cunningham's narration. Unlike Bastion's all-seeing narrator, the Transistor has a physical presence in the game, though his exposition is clearly designed as a throwback to that most beloved aspect of the first game. The narration here often veers into heavy-handed territory, with Transistor talking far too long and delivering far too much neatly-packaged exposition. Conceptually, the narration is a great idea that worked well in Bastion, but too often here it feels like an excuse to explain things that either couldn't or shouldn't be, and it works against the subtlety of other narrative elements. Cunningham's delivery is most definitely not at fault, though, as the voice acting is well-delivered and fits the style like a glove.
As you explore the city, you'll inevitably end up tussling with the Process. Red has access to up to four combat abilities — or Functions — at once, and each of these is gathered by leveling up, defeating bosses, or encountering fallen citizens of Cloudbank. Not only does each Function have its own application in combat (sword strikes, area of effect attacks, summoning companions like an adorable technodoggie), but each one is also tied to a character in the world. Winning battles with a particular set of Functions slowly decrypts the backstory of that character, one of the most compelling reasons to swap your Functions around. Each one also has a secondary effect when equipped to a passive ability slot, as well as still another effect when attached to another Function. For example, your standard Crash() attack can be augmented with the ability to charm foes on hit with the right combination. The number of options is staggering in its breadth, and a good chunk of my playtime was spent mixing and matching functions to find a set that suited my play style.
Typically, battles play out in a real-time, action RPG format. Red can move around the battlefield, taking advantage of cover and enemy positioning to minimize injury and maximize her own damage via backstabs. The game's main wrinkle, though, is the ability to stop time and plan out a series of actions to be executed sequentially, based on a limited but infinitely regenerating time resource. This is handy when trying to get the drop on the enemy or when you need to quickly take out a few foes before returning to the safety of cover. Combined with the heavy customization options on offer, the turn mechanic makes finding the most efficient way to victory an entertaining prospect — which is good, because the game rarely veers away from its "enter an area, walk down the hallway, fight all the battles, leave through a back door" flow.
Combat isn't difficult, but this is mitigated through specialized Functions called Limiters. Each one makes combat more challenging in some way while offering a passive bonus to experience. You're free to attach as many of these as you like, and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I spent much of my time under the influence of several Limiters, and the high sense of risk made the game that much more exciting. The controls, though, occasionally make movement and fighting difficult in the wrong way. Red is locked to eight-way motion, so it can at times be difficult to tell if your hits are lining up or to aim an attack in the turn mode. (Editor's note 5/21/2014: I've been informed that holding the respective ability button down while moving the analog stick unlocks the movement!) This is compounded if you're playing on Vita via Remote Play, thanks to the tighter space restrictions and the lack of buttons as compared to the Dual Shock 4. Caveats aside, Remote Play is still a great feature and one I took frequent advantage of when playing Transistor.
Transistor is tough to pin down. On the one hand, the subtle and uncompromising way it presents its story along with the enjoyable combat demand attention, but the opacity and occasional incomprehensibility of the overarching plot, overly verbose narrator, and repetitive nature of play pull the player out of the experience. It's an exercise in narrative style over substance, but at least it's a pretty fun one.