Transistor Preview: Stunning, Haunting, and Atmospheric

Lowell Bell spends some hands-on time with Transistor.

transistor concept art

“Hey Red. Don't let me go.” 

This single, powerful line was spoken at the end of the Supergiant Games' Transistor demo. It's the same line I heard when I played the game at PAX East last March. Logan Cunningham, the man behind Bastion's gravelly narrator, returns as the voice of the Transistor, a sword the young singer Red obtains and uses to fight the Process. Because Red has lost her voice, the Transistor speaks these lines at the end of the demo. Both times I heard those six words I felt chills. It hints at a developing connection between Red and the Transistor, something I believe will form a central crux in Transistor's narrative. 

 As the follow-up to 2011's critically acclaimed Bastion, Transistor has a lot in common with its predecessor. Both games feature the same tone-setting narrator, a soundtrack by Darren Korb, and a  gorgeous art style by Jen Zee, although Transistor trades Bastion's rough frontier aesthetic for a science fiction city called Cloudbank. That's where the similarities end as far as I've seen. Supergiant Games has taken Transistor in a turn-based strategy direction instead of continuing with Bastion's action role-playing style.

transistor process battle

The demo began much the same way as the PAX East demo I played back in March. Red pulls the Transistor out of the body of a presumed friend now embodied within the sword. It's hinted something or someone is after Red and they've got to keep moving. Shortly after, the Process, best described as different sized robots akin to Portal's turrets, attacked me. Greg Kasavin, the creative director behind Transistor, told me combat in the game is divided between two play styles: straight action and tactical pause-and-plan. I had the ability to kill the Process by simply attacking with the four abilities I gained during the demo, or I could freeze time, move Red around the battlefield, and queue attacks. Once time began again, Red would automatically complete these attacks at a quicker speed. Kasavin promises plenty of abilities which will allow players to customize their own play style. 

I was worried the pause mechanic might make the game too easy, but later in the demo certain Process would move before Red could complete my planned attacks. Kasavin emphasized that players can use the pause-and-plan mechanic as much or as little as they want, and I was indeed able to defeat most enemies with either method, although I found planning attacks much more rewarding. That might be simply because a haunted humming, presumably Red's, plays when combat is frozen and I loved hearing it whenever possible. Transistor balances both modes of combat with a power gauge at the top of the screen as well. As you'd expect, certain abilities use up the bar quicker than others. Once the bar is empty, I found myself running around and avoiding enemies, so bar management is a key to success.

transistor executed attack

While the PAX Prime demo is much the same as the PAX East demo, a few notable additions were made for the new build. After every battle experience points were awarded, which is a small but significant change from the last build of the game. Upon level up, I was able to select a plug-in to add to the Transistor. The one I chose allowed me to equip extra damage to one of my four abilities when I attacked from behind. It's clear with this new build Transistor will have a significant amount of customization for abilities to gain through experience, and the idea that unlocked abilities can be equipped to most skills hints at promising depth and accessibility. 

The demo climaxed with a fight with a giant Process cutely labelled JERK. I had to make liberal use of my Sprint ability, which allowed me to flash across the map away from JERK's pounding fists. After the JERK went down, I was treated to Red riding a motorbike along a highway towards Cloudbank. The Transistor tells Red to flee away from the city, but instead she drives towards trouble. As the demo ends, a mural of the Process comes into view, and behind the red-and-white robots silhouettes of some shadowy people appear—a tantalizing hint of the narrative to come, no doubt. Here, the Transistor asks Red not to let go. 

transistor bridge

Between the narration, stunning art direction, haunting soundtrack, Transistor is shaping up to be an atmospheric masterpiece. It has to be seen and heard. Only significant time with the game will tell whether or not the combat and customization options go as deep as the aesthetics, but from what I saw at PAX Prime I can give Supergiant Games my vote of confidence in that regard. Transistor launches sometime in 2014 on PC and PS4, and I for one cannot wait.