It took me two tries to really get into Supergiant’s action RPG Transistor , and boy am I glad I did.
I wasn’t in the right mood when I first loaded it up is the thing. I wanted fast and mindless. So I dumped a bunch more hours into the hamster wheel of Destiny, then returned when I was ready for the real stuff.
I’ve written about new cyberpunk here before, so no surprise that a new and unique treatment of the genre would attract my attention. But… nowhere on the game’s site is the word ‘cyberpunk’ mentioned. Why? I mean, your powers have names like Crash() and Ping().
Here’s my guess. It’s the pantone thing. As soon as you say the ‘C’ word, it’s all twitching data junkies in alleys and wraparound sunglasses with stark color gradients. Green and black. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The visual aesthetic of the genre’s origins has come to define it.
And along comes Transistor, closer to noir than anything else. You play as a famous singer, not a leather-clad street samurai. It’s fashion and high art, not jackers and addicts. But the tropes are there — AI, technology and identity, personality as software. It’s cyberpunk without the trappings. A new take.
Four story-telling elements of note:
- Each new power is the… mind? soul? program?… of a human being involved in the back story. You want the full tale? You need to use the power in different ways to unlock it. A great way to blend a rewards system with world-building.
- The MC’s voice has been taken, and the sword-thing she’s carrying around won’t shut up. The voice of the transistor sets the tone of each scene and drives the emotional response without ever getting annoying. It’s very well done.
- Speaking of the transistor’s voice, on the PS4 it comes through the controller’s speaker. The guiding voice is coming from what you’re holding, just as it’s coming from what the MC is holding. It seems a small thing, but it really packs some emotional punch.
- So how does the MC (Red) communicate? How do we get a sense of who she is? News terminals are set throughout the city (classic cyberpunk there), and Red adds comments to the public feed. You see her type something, then change her mind. What does this mean? Is she impulsive, with just enough sense to keep her from saying anything too crazy? Is she a strategist, arguing with herself over the best play?
- One particularly fine moment is the first Red uses one of these terminals something for the transistor to read. It’s the first actual interaction we see between them, and it comes unexpectedly. A cool, surprising use of the tech — which is what cyberpunk is really about, right? The street, and the protagonist, finds its own uses for things.
Gameplay is varied and fun as well. So go play it!