Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jazz, Computers and Combat to Love

Quick Note: Transistor is so good, despite being oddly mis-marketed. For fans looking for action based combat similar to Bastion, you may be disappointed. But the turn based battle system is addictive and upgrade functions are incredibly well thought out. Add in the fantastic music and a $20 price point, you can not go wrong with this incredible game.

Games, like many creative mediums, are inspired by many different influences. Some of these influences are human fantasies, such as having super powers or using gigantic guns to save the world. Some of these influences are story driven, taking movie and book tropes to a new level by adding interactivity. If I had to sum up the influences of Transistor, it would be computer programming and jazz, a combination most would not put together, but one that fits together so perfectly.

Transistor is the latest from Supergiant Games, the creators behind Bastion, and, similar to Bastion, Transistor strikes a chord with it's beautiful world and interesting characters. The game takes place in one night, when jazz singer Red is attacked by a group of people with a bright blue sword. However, instead of taking Red, the sword impales her beloved, absorbing his soul into it and leaving Red speechless, literally. After relinquishing the blade from her lover's body, Red and the sword are off to reclaim his life and her voice.

The story continues from there, getting more and more introspective and strange, but in a good way. In a lot of respects, it defies the norms of story telling, creating a unique, yet open ended plot line. This may leave some players confused or even upset (especially the ending), but I think this style worked really well for the game, helping making it feel even more unique than it's game play.

And boy is that game play unique. While on her journey, Red comes across functions, which are typically picked up from dead citizens of the city or by leveling up. Each function takes up a certain amount of memory to use, and since Red only has so much memory, she can only equip so many. Equipping functions to use as attacks sets them to one of the four face buttons. In combat, tapping these corresponding buttons will unleash the attack. However, each attack has a speed, distance and damage factor, and may also be blocked by the barriers that are strewn across each battle field.

Though Red can attack in real time, her greatest asset is to stop and take a turn. Turn() allows Red to assess the battlefield without being attacked. Red can then attack enemies, move around the field to pick up Cells or simply run away. Once Red has a full turn setup, she can hit play to watch the turn act out. Mastering when and when not to use Turn() is the single most important skill in the game. Some enemies are quick, and using a whole Turn() can be a detriment rather than help. Other enemies have large attack radii and it's easier to dispatch them as quickly as possible. The balance is very well done here, requiring the player to think rather than just spamming Turn() during each battle.

Aside from being used as attacks, each function can also be used as a modifier for an attack or a modifier for Red herself, granting a passive ability when in combat. This gives the game great depth and assures that no ability is useless, as the three different uses each add another wrinkle of strategy into combat.  It sounds complicated on paper, but the system is very fluid, giving the player lots of different ways to customize Red to how he/she sees fit while also offering options when in combat.

Red also earns experience and levels up in combat, allowing the player to earn more functions and sometimes unlock more slots for passive skills or more memory. To increase this experience earned after each battle, players can equipped Limiters. Limiters are earned after each level up and give the enemies an advantage while also increasing the experience earned for defeating them. Limiters can be stacked and the more dangerous the Limiter, the more experience bonus Red gets. It's a great way to add challenge to the game without incorporating difficulty levels, allowing more seasoned players to customize the difficulty to their liking.

When not in combat on the field, Red can take on Tests to prove her prowess in battle. Each set of test has specific parameters to them, creating some interesting and challenging scenarios. For instance, the Speed test gives Red a specific set of functions and a time limit in which all enemies must be defeated, forcing the player to use abilities he/she might not have tried or even earned at that point. All of these tests unlock music tracks that can be played in the challenge area, known as the Backdoor.

All of the above is executed with great finesse, but what makes Transistor an amazing game are all of the little touches. Little things like Red humming in her mind when Turn() is being used, which emulates her thinking in her own head. And when the sword is narrating, the light on the controller flashes with his voice to go with his body flashing onscreen. And in case you couldn't tell already, the game is centered around the theme of how coding works with computers. Functions, memory, cache, all of it has to do with programming. Hell, even the new game + is named after a programming technique (Recursing, which is calling the same function over and over again).  So nerdy, but so brilliant. All of these little things come together with an excellent sound track that will have you humming for days and this game is just about perfect.

I loved my time with Transistor. I'd love to revisit the world, in some other way, and dive right back into the addictive combat and listen to the amazing soundtrack once more. Clocking in at roughly eight hours, it's perfectly paced and just the right length for pretty much anyone to play. If you enjoy the more tactical combat systems, I highly recommend this game. You'll come for the combat and stay for the music, which isn't a bad thing.

9.5 out of 10

Here Are a Few Links
Game Site
Wiki Page
IGN Review
Metacritic Page

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