Transistor Dev Supergiant is ‘Preoccupied’ with Strategy Games
The simplest way to explain Supergiant Games’ Transistor is in terms of its last game, Bastion. It’s Bastion with strategy elements.
Bastion, for the uninitiated, is a top-down action-RPG title similar in presentation to games such as Diablo 2. It has players manning a number of different weapons as they worked through various levels in a strange country called Caelondia, where a cataclysmic event has killed just about everyone and rent the very land into floating pieces. A phenomenal soundtrack, hand-drawn art style and gravely voice-over narration brought extremely high production values to the game, and it was a generally a well-liked indie title that pushed the bounds of its genre.
Transistor, Supergiant Games’ next game coming more than two years later, is similar in a lot of ways. It has a fantastical setting, a similar hand-drawn look, and an emphasis on a single speaker as storyteller. It’s played from a top-down viewpoint as well, and makes use of action-RPG elements in its combat-heavy gameplay.
The major difference between Supergiant’s two titles, however, is the emphasis on strategy elements in Transistor. Players charge up a resource that allows them to briefly freeze time and execute a “turn” of attacks against enemies, who move slowly and can’t react during that period. Protagonist Red can move around the game space and rattle off a set number of moves during that time; some moves seem to expend more energy than others, shortening the number of attacks that can be strung together.
“A lot of people on the team are just sort of preoccupied with that kind of game. A lot of us on the team love tactical kind of games,” said Darren Korb, Supergiant’s audio director, explaining the genesis of Transistor’s strategic elements. “At the same time, we wanted to maintain some of the immediacy of the action-RPG thing and real-time combat. So we decided to try to kind of combine them in a way that would allow you to play as tactically as you wanted, basically. Because, for some people, that’s not their thing, but we wanted to give you options.”
The name “Transistor” actually refers to a sword with special powers. During a hands-on demo on the E3 2013 show floor, I got to play the early portion of Transistor, in which Red — formerly a popular singer in the game’s world — was attacked and suddenly found herself in a strange place, and apparently, without a voice. A moment later, she discovered a body run through with a huge sword: the Transistor. Things get a little stranger when the Transistor starts to talk to Red, giving her advice, convincing her to pick it up, and guiding her out of the area and through fights against “The Process,” which seems primarily to be made up of strange robots that look like cousins of the Aperture Science turrets from the Portal series.
Before she even knows what’s going on, Red finds herself embroiled in combat against various Process robots. Mostly, the robots are pretty dumb from an AI standpoint, and will largely just chase Red around each room. They become dangerous because, for one, Red isn’t very fast, and two, their numbers are often enough to crowd the area.
On the Playstation 4 build I played, Red’s attacks were mapped to the face buttons on the PS4 controller and came in a number of varieties. At first, only two were available: a line-based attack with a short range, and a larger, more powerful line attack that took longer to execute. You can use these moves in real time as you run around each battle, but you can also use the Transistor to execute a turn instead. The benefit of the tactical approach is that it gives you the ability to stack moves together and then get Red out of danger, and also provides you with more detailed information about things like line of sight: in essence, you can plan your attacks to do more damage as they hit more than one enemy.
The trade-off, however, is a short period of vulnerability following the turn in which Red can’t attack. So rather than constantly using turns, you can move Red’s attacks in real time, which can sometimes prove more effective (but also dangerous). As Korb said, players have options, and often the situation will dictate which approach is the better one.