Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Bands with successful debut albums have it rough when it comes to repeat performances. Unless the act decides to go in a completely new musical direction, it’s forced to seek the thin line between stagnation and maturation. Landing on the wrong side could mean the difference between cementing a band’s place among critics or fading from the zeitgeist. The team at Supergiant Games, creators of Bastion, find themselves in a similar situation with their second project,Transistor. The demo I played and the conversation I had with the game’s writer, Greg Kasavin, left me feeling that this sophomore effort will land on the side of healthy artistic growth.
Transistor is both an affirmation and growth of the Supergiant style. The hero, a famous singer whom we know only as Red, has had her voice stolen, and to make matters worse, she’s the target of assassins who command a robot army. Cornered by her pursuers, Red zings across the futuristic city of Cloudbank with the help of a mysterious talking sword-like weapon called the Transistor. It calls out for Red to pick it up. Vulnerable and shaken, she obliges. And now the robot army, known as The Process, chases her with renewed vigor. What these forces want isn’t clear. In fact, nothing about the game’s story beyond this basic premise is clear yet—and intentionally so. As with Bastion, the story will unfold deliberately, filling players in on Red, the Transistor, and the state of the city around you.
Bastion is known for its dynamic narration. Your actions are accompanied by a voiceover from a gruff old man who seems to occupy a different time. At first, Transistor appears to be pulling the same trick—the voice of the titular weapon is provided by the same voice actor as Bastion’s narrator—but the storytelling here is more nuanced. It’s clear from the outset that whoever is trapped inside this weapon wants nothing more than for Red to be safe. “I couldn’t stop them before they took your voice,” the blade tells her mournfully.
If it wasn’t clear from the phrase “robot army,” Transistor is very much a science-fiction work, but it’s sprinkled with traces of film noir. You come across advertisements depicting Red in her glory days, hands wrapped around an old-timey microphone. She looks like she was plucked straight from a smoky lounge, her crimson hair and golden gown adding the only splashes of color to a hazy room. The Transistor speaks in poetic bursts that are reminiscent of beat poetry that could have been performed in the same bar. The vocals of the game’s music evoke that same slinky lounge feeling even more, though they’re augmented with the industrial clatter of a drum machine, bringing us back to the game’s slick sci-fi setting.
Action scenes prove to be the biggest divergence from Supergiant’s prior work. You can run around and bash robots wantonly, but you’ll probably get your clock cleaned. Instead, you can pause the action to plot a course around the arena and set up a string of attacks. There’s a meter that fills up with each step you take and each action you lock in. Once it’s topped off, you’re out of moves and it’s time to unleash your plan. The fun comes once you start chaining the Transistor’s various abilities together. A single turn might involve teleporting behind an enemy, hitting it with a short-range attack, and lining up a long-range shot that finishes off your foe—and starts chipping away at the next distant bot.
Transistor isn’t just more of the same. Sure, the bits that I saw had a lot in common with Bastion, but those commonalities struck me as superficial. The demo left me with a sense of Supergiant’s growth as a creative team with a distinct approach to building games. It’s a style that is all about tonal cohesion: a harmonious synthesis of writing, visual art, music, and game design that results in compelling worlds. I’m already eager to know more about Red’s journey. It’s going to be a long wait for this sophomore effort to drop.