Transistor: My Game Of The Year

A singer who’s lost her voice.  A giant, powerful sword that, ironically, can talk.  A beautiful art-deco city stranded somewhere between William Gibson and Philip K. Dick.  A haunting, rousing, foot-tappingly good soundtrack. Oh yeah– it’s a great video game, too.

I’m talking about Transistor, and it’s my game of the year.

This year, I enjoyed riding elephants in Far Cry 4. I enjoyed the first truly good South Park game.  I also sunk a sad amount of time into Destiny, but none of those titles made it to the coveted top spot of my list.

Transistor is the game that stuck with me after I turned my Playstation off. Transistor is the game whose soundtrack is still on my Spotify playlist. Even now, I daydream about different combinations in the endlessly customizable skill system alongside the lean, brisk storytelling.

The art style is Blade Runner meets 1920’s Art-Deco. Darren Korb one-ups his impressive Bastion soundtrack with a dark, atmospheric, noir-ish sound.  It’s an eclectic mix of reverbed guitars, electronic drums, and salsa-tinged jaunts through digital beaches. The songs that feature Bastion veteran Ashley Barrett on vocals are the standout tracks.  Exhibit A in my opening argument of “video games are art” is this song:

Transistor is so special because all of the formal elements converge into one of the most coherent and unified artistic visions of the year. The themes of music, voice, and identity flow throughout. There’s a personality, an edge, a style that’s missing from every other game I played in 2014.

A title like Destiny that’s “too big to fail” would never take the artistic and technical risks that Transistor did. I’m attracted to gaming’s independent scene for the same reason I love the motion picture industry’s analogue: developers like Supergiant and Jasper Byrne are making challenging, progressive games that go way beyond “hold X to pay respects.”

This is all thanks to the fact that the folks over at Supergiant really know how to tell a story. There’s a subtlety and ambiguity to the plot of Transistor that’s lost in the AAA noise.  Every environment is crammed with tiny, seemingly innocuous details (be sure to try the flatbread at Junction Jan’s.  I like the Sea Monster, myself).

The eponymous talking sword, the Transistor, stands in for Bastion’s gravel-voiced dynamic narrator.  The two operate similarly as storytelling devices. The Transistor, however, gives a more subjective, limited type of narration that keeps us grounded in Red’s story.

What’s more, the narration extends into the world itself. Every interactive object in the game world has an on-screen tooltip attached to it.  Approach a staircase, and, naturally, a line of text appears telling us the number of steps down.  Early on, you come across a trashed robe left in the street, a shell of Red’s former life:

“Status?”  We ask.

“Torn, discarded…” the game tells us.

Supergiant fills the world this way– these little pieces work together to create a real place with tactile details.

The characters that populate this city of Cloudbank are ambivalent creatures, thankfully.  Red, by design, only has a few lines in the game.  The story is told with a similar amount of restraint. The game begins directly in the aftermath of some terrible event. Nothing is explained outright. Why do you have a talking sword? Why is there a horde of murderous robots after you? I appreciate how Supergiant resisted the expository urge and makes us wait for these answers.

The game’s “villains” belong to a shadowy group called the Camerata. I hesitate to call them villains so absolutely.  Their motivations are nebulous, painted in grey, and the game offers no easy answers.  Unfortunately, the narrative can end up being a bit obtuse as a result.  Multiple playthroughs are encouraged by myself and Supergiant.  The developers put in a new game+ mode integrated into the narrative itself.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the game knows that Transistor looks and sounds beautiful. At the end of the day, though, a game has to be fun or satisfying at the very least.  Transistor takes the core gameplay of Bastion and slows the combat down by a 25%, while adding in a complex tactical RPG system.

The key difference between the two games is Red’s ability to pause time in battle and stack commands to be executed.  This mechanic has been done to death, but the skill system’s flexibility turns it into a wondrous tool for destruction.

You see, any (yes, any) of the Transistor’s functions (skills) can be equipped as either active or passive. Additionally, you can use any function to upgrade an equipped active function.  After you wrap your head around the nuances, you can create wildly unique builds for Red.

Did you like the Necromancer from Diablo 2?  Make a pet build where Red fights alongside two canine companions and even a shadow version of herself.  Want to play an assassin-type?  Spec for backstab damage, cloaking, and teleportation– you’ve got yourself a rogue.

The deep combat is polished, slick, and satisfying. The animations for the functions are decidedly cyberpunk, all rigid binary lines and showers of sparks. Pausing time with the Turn() ability and then watching Red act out your orders in hyper-speed remains satisfying throughout the entire game.

The enemies are constantly upgrading, receiving new attacks and perks. This keeps the game’s pacing brisk, forcing you to constantly readjust your skills. The experience is linear, with the level progression little more than hallways in between fighting spaces. Transistor is a hyper-concentrated dose of science fiction, action RPG thriller. A short adventure– for the right reasons.

For these reasons, Transistor is the best game I played in 2014.

I hope this little rant has convinced you to check the game out.  Maybe use that 10% discount coupon Sony is giving us loyal customers, too.

As far as Supergiant is concerned, they’re laying low for a while.  I’ll keep religiously checking their blog, waiting for them to tell us what’s next.

In the meantime, you can find me playing Bastion again when it comes to the Playstation 4.