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In my eyes, Supergiant can do no wrong. Everything they release is a banger, they have some of the most talented developers working in all of the games industry, and by all accounts they have really good labor practices. Hades has continued to get the love that it so rightfully deserves, and while its massive success has introduced a score of new players to the studio’s work, that also means that there are tons of fans out there who haven’t yet checked out the rest of their catalog, which needs to be remedied immediately. That’s why I’m dedicating this week’s column to Supergiant’s 2014 action RPG Transistor.
I recently played through it with a friend, and was immediately blown away. Its story follows a woman named Red, who wakes at the start of the game to see the aftermath of an attack that was unleashed with a giant sword known as the Transistor. Formerly a singer, Red’s voice becomes trapped in the weapon, along with the soul of an unnamed man who was killed in the attack. I don’t want to give too much more away, because figuring out the plot of the game is half the fun. Do yourself a favor and don’t look up anything about the game before diving in yourself.
What I will say, though, is that Transistor is easily one of the most stylish games I’ve ever played. The word that comes to mind when I think about it is sexy, but not in a horny way, in like a “wow, that car is sexy,” kind of way, you know what I mean? Everything is themed around coding and feels very cyberpunk-y, and the story is told out of order in really small, subtle ways.
That’s something I appreciate most about Transistor — how restrained it is in its storytelling. I’m not usually one to enjoy a game where I have to seek out the lore too much, but Transistor gives you enough bits and pieces that putting it all together makes you feel like the coolest detective in town. It’s a refreshingly unique take on interactive storytelling, and one I hadn’t seen prior.
Because most of its story takes place in the aftermath of the inciting incident, its themes are explored in small moments, but when you put them all together, you’re left with a big, beautiful tapestry that interweaves the world and its characters.
I honestly missed out on most of it my first time through because I was focusing so hard on trying to get the mechanics down, because they are complex in their own right. Transistor is certainly harder to wrap your head around than something like Hades, which I believe is part of the reason why it didn’t take off as much as its successor, and you have to play through the game a few times to really get the full effect.
That may sound daunting at first, but Transistor is meant to be played multiple times — it’s designed that way. The run time only comes in at around six hours, plus it has modular difficulty settings (something Supergiant has always done spectacularly well), so you can challenge yourself on subsequent playthroughs.
The gameplay system is also one of the coolest I’ve seen. The combat is a hybrid of real-time and a frozen time mode called Turn(), which allows you to plan your moves and unleash them all at once. Your power-ups are called Functions, and each one has its own unique properties when used in one of four active ability slots, as well as passive abilities and upgrade slots. I’ve heard that there are over 900 different permutations of builds you can run with all of the Functions in different slots, which easily makes it one of the most complex gameplay systems I’ve ever seen. It was overwhelming to dive into, but once you get the hang of it, it feels so good to play.
And the performances. Oh my god, the performances. Logan Cunningham, who also voices Hades, Poseidon, Achilles, Charon, Asterius, and The Storyteller in Hades, is a particular standout. He just won a BAFTA for his work, and rightfully so. He’s always great, but the voice he uses for Transistor, man, I could listen to him read the phonebook. Twice.
If Hades is a stylish but approachable sedan, Transistor is a sports car. It may be harder to drive, but man, does it have some punch. I don’t know to whom Supergiant sold their souls to be such talented devs, but they never miss the mark, and with all of the rightful love Hades got, I just want to encourage people to give their other projects some attention. Long story short: if you haven’t already, go play Transistor. If you already have, go and play it again.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.