It was no contest. The line around the Supergiant Games booth dwarfed the indie side of PAX East. It looked as if everyone and their cosplaying mother wanted to get their hands on Transistor, the spiritual successor to Bastion. Supergiant’s first big hit made a lot of fans back in 2011 for its superb soundtrack, painterly visuals, and inclusion of a gruff narrator who told your tale in real-time as you played it. The deep-if-not-exactly challenging gameplay helped, yes, but it was Bastion‘s lush presentation that set itself apart and captivated so many. Though it shares the same isometric view and a similar emphasis on sound and art style, Transistor takes the formula established by Bastion even further.
First thing I noticed in the PAX demo: the music and narration play more immediate roles in Transistor. The main character, Red, sings the game’s intro song, the same lovely tune we heard in the reveal trailer. (If the rest of the soundtrack dazzles as much as that one song, we’re in for a treat.) After her voice gets stolen (a redhead loses her voice, where have I seen that before…?), she comes across the titular Transistor, a sword-shaped weapon with the voice of Bastion‘s narrator. He/it warns Red of the “Process,” a mysterious force she needs to escape from. Rather, Red hops on a motorcycle and heads right for it, presumably to retrieve her crooning power. Like in Bastion, these moments play out in illustrated and wonderfully acted little scenes. The Transistor also narrates as you play, but now he’s more of an active sidekick than a disembodied observer. He’s a character you interact with all the time since he’s also your weapon.
Making the silent protagonist’s silence a part of the narrative also strikes me as a a little brilliant. I can foresee a situation similar to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where the player can fill in the blanks in the hero’s personality to become that character. That is, until Red gains her voice/personality back and becomes more distinct. I don’t know, I’m just musing — we’ll just have to see. But I already like Transistor‘s set-up a lot.
Transistor also introduces more interesting combat than its predecessor. Robotic-yet-feminine enemies float around and attack in real-time, but Red can stop time and decide what actions to take from there. In this time-stopping regard, I found Transistor similar to Parasite Eve or Vagrant Story, but you also get an action bar similar to the one in Valkyria Chronicles. Moving and attack drains it, but you can line up multiple attacks that will trigger one after another before enemies can move. After completing your actions, your attacks are temporarily disabled and the action bar has to recharge. It recharges quickly, so I’m hoping its speed was for the demo. If it’s this speedy normally, then I can’t think of any reason not to just stop time and trigger actions that way since I’m also able to activate Red’s actions in real-time just by pressing the Xbox 360 controller’s face buttons. Enemies will probably move faster and fiercer, and more complex level layouts will probably necessitate the use of both attack methods, stop-time and real-time, in the final release.
I am a little disappointed that Red has a huge Cloud Strife-like sword, but her basic attack is to jam it into the ground. I suppose that’s because it isn’t actually a sword — it talks and has a personality — but the ground stab action is less than impressive. I was a little taken aback that I couldn’t swing the sword… y’know, use it as a sword. That’s a small nitpick however.
I had a great time trying out the new, far more engaging combat and the presentation is leagues better than many AAA titles. Barring some great calamity, Supergiant looks to have another crowd-pleaser on hand. We’ll have to wait a while though. Transistor won’t touch down until 2014.