The annual PAX East is the largest gaming convention on the East Coast. Last week regular contributor J.P. Grant braved the miserable weather of Boston to chronicle this year’s convention for Paste. (It helps that Boston is his home.) Over the next two days we’ll be running J.P.’s thoughts on eight different games that were exhibited at the show..
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release Date: 2014
Platforms, Publisher, Price: TBD
It’s fair to assume Supergiant Games still has a reservoir of goodwill left over from their 2011 hit Bastion. But that wasn’t the reason their new game, Transistor, received nearly universal praise from everyone I spoke to who’d played the PAX East demo. I saw it for myself when I got some hands-on time: This game looks like another stunner.
That’s not to say Supergiant is resting on its laurels. Quite the contrary, Creative Director Greg Kasavin tells me: “Taking no decision that we’ve made in the past for granted, and kind of reconsidering everything in the context of this new game…has been not just refreshing, but the challenge of it has felt right.” Despite the surface similarities—Transistor is also an action-RPG featuring an isometric view, persistent narration, beautiful art, and a mysterious setting—it’s not Bastion 2. “It’s really important to us that this game have its own identity,” Kasavin says. “If Bastion was our take on fantasy, [Transistor] is our take on science fiction.”
Transistor’s heroine is Red, a star performer who has just avoided an attempt on her life. She doesn’t know why she’s been attacked, only that she managed to escape with a weapon of tremendous power: the Transistor. Now, robotic entities called the Process are hunting her down to retrieve it. Complicating matters is the fact that the Transistor appears to possess a kind of sentience, as expressed by Logan Cunningham’s narration. Kasavin hints that the Transistor may contain the “identity” of another character or characters—and that may lead to problems as well. “It’s somewhat of a chaotic entity,” he says. “Your control over parts of it may be somewhat tenuous, and we want to play around with that.”
But Supergiant isn’t counting on narrative tricks alone to hook players. The most immediate innovation is Transistor’s combat system, which feels like a combination of the hack-and-slash battles of Bastion and the tactical planning of Mode 7 Games’ Frozen Synapse. In combat, Red can trigger the Transistor, which freezes time and presents a tactical overlay, allowing her to plan her next several actions. There are no “action points” or grid squares as in turn-based games like Final Fantasy Tactics, but rather a more fluid interface that maps out your actions as you plan them. Meanwhile, a bar at the top of the screen fills up, showing you how much energy each action consumes. It’s a clever and intuitive solution that feels natural almost immediately.
Supergiant’s goal was “taking the feel of a turn-based tactical game, but putting it into a much more action-y context, so that you can engage with it using the same mechanics you’d normally use to play an action-RPG,” Kasavin explains. “We wanted to go for a more thoughtful and deeper-feeling moment-to-moment experience, where it could be played at a more deliberate pace.” Whereas Bastion’s twitch mechanics reward “playing with finesse,” Kasavin says, Transistor will reward “the quality of your planning.” Yet it retains the feeling of constant movement and action that action-RPGs are famous for. “Turn-based games have a level of abstraction that can be pretty weird,” Kasavin says. “We wanted to make it feel intuitive and action-oriented. You’re not having to learn a separate set of mechanics in that [tactical] mode,” which he says helps preserve the flow of play. In my short time with the game, I found I agreed: I got a handle on the combat very quickly, and discovered I was experimenting with a variety of tactics without any tutorial prompting.
It’s a testament to the talent of the 10-person development team that Transistor, even at this early stage, feels incredibly polished. Composer Darren Korb returns with a striking score, and Jen Zee’s art paints Red’s city in resonant color. It’s obvious in the production quality of the demo and the interactions of the Supergiant team that they have terrific chemistry. “I want to keep [making games] with these people as long as my hands can type,” Kasavin says. Let’s hope that’s a long, long time.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.