This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Longtime readers may recall that I quite enjoyed Bastion, the first game from Supergiant Games. I’d always intended to check out their sophomore effort, Transistor, but never got around to it. Now, Supergiant Games have released two more titles: Pyre, which is actually included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality and so might pop up in my Scratching That Itch series eventually, and Hades, which is enjoying critical acclaim after a very successful stint in Early Access. It’s high time I got caught up with their catalog.
Transistor appeared in 2014, three years after Bastion, and it shares a lot of similarities. It has the same isometric viewpoint with beautiful hand-drawn environments. It has similar themes, of a cataclysm engulfing a vividly realized world. It has a similar granular system for adjusting difficulty during play. Its soundtrack, composed by Darren Korb like all of the Supergiant Games catalog, uses the same conceit of setting vocal tracks to accompany particularly important events in the story, sung by the same vocalist, Ashley Barrett. It even features the narration that was so remarkable in Bastion, performed again by the same actor, Logan Cunningham.
This time, however, Ashley Barret actually plays the protagonist of the story. Players control Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank, who has lost her voice. Well, mostly. She can still hum along to the music, which is implied to consist of her own compositions, but she cannot speak. Beginning in medias res, Red stumbles across the titular Transistor, which looks like a cross between a greatsword and a microchip. This is her primary tool and weapon, and it is also the narrator. Or rather, the captured psyche of a man the Transistor has killed is the narrator. Logan Cunningham’s performance as the narrator here is quite different from the friendly drawl he sported in Bastion. Here he speaks in hushed tones, with fast, clipped sentences. He’s a little too chatty, in fact, commenting on nearly everything, often addressing Red directly to ask what she’s going to do or to offer advice. He started to get on my nerves, before I realized that he’s terrified. He’s trying to hide it, but he’s scared of what’s happening, and especially of what might befall Red. At a certain point in the story, the Tranistor is hit by a mysterious affliction, causing the narrator to speak in a slurred stupor. That’s when he really starts to open up about his feelings for Red, and I started to sympathize with him.
Bastion was set after a horrible cataclysm, but in Transistor the cataclysm is in progress. The city of Cloudbank is being eaten up and transformed by the mysterious Process, who Red must battle as she tries to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. It’s clear from the start that Cloudbank is some sort of virtual reality, with information overlays appearing over objects, and news reports that sections of the city are “offline”, awaiting attention from administrators. The Transistor is no different, loaded with functions like “Crash()” and “Breach()” which Red can use to battle the Process. The most important function, however, is “Turn()”, which freezes time and lets Red plan out a series of attacks before executing them all at once. Rarely, if ever, would Red engage enemies outside of Turn()’s effects. Fights generally involve pausing time, planning out a route that lets Red take out one or more enemies, and then running around picking up the cells left behind while waiting for Turn() to recharge. The times between Turn() uses aren’t that interesting, unfortunately, although there’s some strategy to getting behind cover to avoid attacks.
This combat style is the biggest deviation from Bastion, and honestly I found it less interesting. The projected outcome of a plan is shown, and individual steps can be undone and planned again until everything is set right. But it doesn’t always play out as predicted, which is annoying, and I often felt there was too much dead time between Turn()s. While time is flowing normally, Red feels powerless and vulnerable, dragging the heavy Transistor behind her as she runs for cover. I expected to have some sort of dodge move to use to avoid danger, but there isn’t a dedicated dodge, just a dodge function which must be equipped like an attack. It felt strange to use, and eventually I forwent it as an active avility, using it to upgrade other functions instead.
This is where the real game lies. Every function in Transistor can be equipped in an active slot (usually granting an attack ability), or an upgrade slot, changing the behavior of another function. Or it could be placed in a passive slot, offering some constant bonus. Juggling functions around lets Red use all sorts of different strategies in combat. Single-target attacks can be turned into area effect blasts, a long-range piercing projectile can adopt a spread-fire pattern, a bomb can be laid that splits into smaller bombs when detonated, each of which charms the Process for a short time so it will fight itself. There are a ton of possibilities, and designing a set of functions that work well with each other yields great rewards. Some functions weaken enemies so that subsequent attacks do more damage, so setting up quick debilitating hits followed by strong strikes can be deadly. Those preferring to stay out of harm’s way can add extra range to specific attacks, turning them into long-range sniper shots. Players who like careful positioning can deploy bombs across the battlefield and detonate them at opportune moments.
Players are encouraged to experiment with many different loadouts, rather than stick to one they like, because each function is associated with a former Cloudbank resident who is now preserved inside the Transistor. In order to learn each character’s backstory — including that of the mysterious narrator, and Red herself — players must try out each function as an active ability, an upgrade to another function, and as a passive boost. Also, the home base idea that was central to Bastion returns here as the Backdoor, acting as a hub for various optional challenge rooms (another idea borrowed from Bastion). These often give players pre-defined function loadouts, to teach different strategies. Honestly, I wished that some of these had been introduced earlier, as it wasn’t until these challenge rooms that I learned certain basic concepts like extra damage from backstabs. But I’m glad they’re included, and that they’re optional in case players don’t want to bother.
My biggest complaint with Transistor is the interface for equipping functions. All known functions are displayed, along with descriptions of their effects when placed in various slots, and currently equipped functions are highlighted. But it doesn’t show where they’re equipped, except on the small HUD that’s still at the bottom of the screen, where upgrade and passive slots are tiny and hard to see. Those only take center stage on a second screen that appears when trying to equip a function. If there’s no more room to equip anything, there’s no way to get that screen to appear without unequipping a function. I just want a clear view of where everything is slotted!
This is bizarre. It’s an inventory screen, games have been doing these for ages. You’ve got your equipped items in their slots on one side, and unequipped items on the other side. There is no reason why this information should be spread over two screens. Yes, functions have a bunch of different effects when they’re used to modify each other, but surely this information can still be shown on top of a standard inventory interface? It’s doubly frustrating since mixing and matching functions is such a huge part of Transistor. I liked trying out different combinations and strategies. I didn’t like the tedium of navigating these screens to set them up.
The battles grew on me, though. Once I started to figure out enemy behaviors and the best ways to engage them, I enjoyed planning out my Turn()s with different sets of modified functions on hand. I eventually gravitated towards big, hard-hitting attacks, picking a specific enemy and trying to eliminate it entirely within a single Turn(). Rather than using an array of active abilities, I opted for two heavily modified functions as my arsenal. I used short range but high damage attacks, boosted so they would weaken enemy defenses and gain extra bonus backstab damage, and then simply ran up behind an enemy and one-two punched them to death. My fully-powered Red was an excellent brawler, knocking out even the biggest baddies in an immensely satisfying manner.
But variety is key to Transistor’s appeal, so its length is pitched appropriately. Shorter than Bastion, Transistor lasted just long enough for me to try out everything I wanted to, but not so long that my final build got boring. Its tale is simple but compelling, and while I was surprised to find no big choice to make at the end like Bastion had, I liked the ending. Cloudbank is another fascinating place to explore, very different to Bastion’s Caelondia but just as beautiful, and for those who want more, there’s the option to replay the game in “Recursion” mode, keeping all the functions found so far and finding extra copies of them again to allow for even weirder combinations. But I wasn’t tempted by it. I enjoyed Transistor, but too many aspects feel like repeats of Bastion’s ideas, ultimately making for a game that feels less fresh and imaginative. It’s still a good game, and I’m glad I played it, but I’m less likely to return to it than to Bastion.
But I wouldn’t advise skipping it. Bastion is excellent, so a game similar to it is certainly not a bad thing, and the $20-ish asking price is appropriate. If you fancy a jaunt through a beautiful futuristic city, uncovering the threads of a mystery as you go, Transistor delivers, and its clunky elements aren’t enough to tarnish that. Besides, we all know the sophomore album is the toughest. Speaking of which…
Darren Korb’s score for Transistor is sold separately, but it’s very generous. Consisting of 24 tracks spanning over an hour and fifteen minutes, purchases from Bandcamp (I’m not sure about other storefronts) also include the Extended Soundtrack at no extra cost, which adds another 25 tracks including instrumental versions of the vocal tracks, “hummed” versions of the instrumental tracks, and a few extra pieces. All together, there’s over two and a half hours of music here, and like Bastion’s wonderful soundtrack, it’s pretty great.
It’s not just a retread either. Bastion’s soundtrack was characterized by its twangy, acoustic guitars, evoking the score of a Western film and setting the mood for the pioneering spirit of the Caelondians exploring and colonizing the wilds around their city. Later, it brings in more Asian-influenced sounds, to represent the cultural clash at the center of the narrative. Transistor’s soundtrack has a more singular feel, its defining sound that of a reverb-heavy electric guitar, which pierces through the mix in lead and rhythm parts alike. The music generally has a brooding feel, sounding like something that might be played in an absurdly stylish cyberspace jazz club. If I had to pick one defining genre it might be post-rock, with the jazz and electronic influences that implies, but really there’s a lot of variation in style, if not in the general atmosphere. In fact, many tracks lack the defining guitar sound completely, leaning more into electronic grooves. Yet somehow the guitar feels like it’s still there, just hiding for now, ready to emerge again later.
It’s all a perfect accompaniment to Cloudbank itself and the people who live there, which I don’t want to spoil. I’ll just say that it sets a mood which reflects the society of Cloudbank and the main themes of the story. Sometimes things veer more into jazz, with acoustic bass, vibraphone, or electric piano joining the ensemble, and other times the programmed beats take over and looped synthesizer melodies dominate, but there’s always an air of melancholy to the music. The sense that whatever is happening to Cloudbank is inevitable, and the only question was when.
Fittingly for a game starring a singer, there are more vocal numbers this time around. Bastion famously featured a vocal centerpiece from Ashley Barrett, recurring as a duet reprise later on. In Transistor, Barrett lends her voice to no less than five songs, some of which accompany particularly dramatic moments. Some, however, are mixed in with the rest of the score, such that I can’t recall exactly when they played during my time with the game. Barrett’s performances are excellent, bringing to mind images of Red performing in fancy clubs to Cloudbank’s fashionable elite. Lyrically, they echo the game’s narrative themes as well, casting Red as an oracle unwittingly presaging Cloudbank’s fate. The instrumental pieces which make up the majority of the soundtrack feel like they might be backing tracks to more of Red’s songs, especially when Red starts humming them. I couldn’t always get this to work, but in principle Red can hum along to the music at any time — or maybe only while in the Backdoor? — which is a nice touch. It ties all the music together nicely.
This singular tone for the music is absolutely the right choice for Transistor, but it does mean that fewer pieces stood out to me when listening outside of the game. Bastion’s soundtrack has many immediately recognizable tracks that have stayed in my day to day musical rotation, but with Transistor’s soundtrack it’s harder to pick out individual pieces aside from the songs. As a result, Transistor’s soundtrack doesn’t work quite as well on its own. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I’m impressed with Korb’s compositional chops here, since it would have been easy to just make something that sounds like Bastion. Instead, Korb shows his versatility with music that, while recognizably his, nails the different tone that Transistor needs.
I expect that Transistor’s soundtrack has/will win its share of fans, just as Bastion’s did, and it leaves me excited to hear Korb’s compositions for Supergiant’s later titles. You can grab the soundtrack digitally for a minimum price of $9.99.