I already wrote a review for this game, that is much lengthier, at VGU.TV. I loved it. I loved it so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Any sophomore release for a studio must be daunting. Even in other mediums, the same feelings must apply. If you release two games in a row with a similar style, certain expectations are railed against you. Many developers spend years of their life perfecting one game, and it is completely possible they are not comfortable with other genres. But get stuck in that cycle of releasing the same type of game over and over, and you receive two different fanbases: those that find the studio dependable for a certain type of game, and those who have become alienated because of redundancy.
It is why, when I went into Transistor, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the game looked good. That was apparent in the gorgeous screenshots leading up to release. Supergiant Games had released Bastion in 2011, and one of its main draws were the breathtaking aesthetics. The combat for Transistor alluded me, however, and I never saw a piece of the gameplay until I finally delved into the game. It is when I got my hands on Transistor that I realized what Supergiant Games had done. They managed to solidify an identity, while also distancing themselves as far away as possible from Bastion without tarnishing that created identity. That is why I admire Transistor, as an example of balancing expectations with innovation.
Bastion was an action game. It had depth to its upgrades, but the combat was still blocking, shooting, or striking with a sword. Transistor has this too. The very first fight tells you that this is how you will fight. Press X to Crash(). The developers seem completely aware that this is what one would expect from a follow-up to Bastion. But then the next fight thrusts you into a planning screen. The combat is turned upside down, and now you’re planning your attacks before executing them. There are tons of moments where Transistor subverts expectations, perhaps not as blatantly obvious as the above example.
The clear example of where Transistor and Bastion remain similar yet tonally different, are in their uses of a narrator. Bastion’s narrator was wordy, filled with a knowledge of the world that resonated in his voice. He fully described the events occurring, never leaving a doubt in the player’s mind of what was happening. Transistor‘s narrator seems aware of Cloudbank’s ruinous future, but restrains himself from vocalizing concerns about Red continuing on her adventure. He is vague, ominous, and above all else, indirect. He is as much a character as he is the one in charge of setting the tone of the game. Supergiant Games employs the narrator in both games as a way to build the world and a relationship between the player and the world.
The games are also strikingly different in pacing. Transistor is all about slowing down and taking in the sights, or planning a strike in advance. Rushing through environments and combat situations will gain you nothing. There is even an option to stop and hum to the score of the game. Meanwhile, Bastion demands a faster pace simply because of its gameplay style. As an action game, players are encouraged to be agile and reactionary. The narrator wants to tell a story to the player, but can only do that if the game continues at a steady pace. Transistor‘s narrator wants to stay with Red for as long as possible, and encourages slowing down and taking in the sights.
Both games remain incredible, but Transistor feels more like a reaction to Bastion and the notion of a sophomore slump. Transistor is a better game than Bastion, but it is also building upon an already proven foundation. That comfort is threatened by the developers themselves as they dismantle elements and rework Bastion into something different but that still feels similar. Transistor undermined my own expectations, while still delivering on something that feels familiar, and that is a feat which many games fail to accomplish.