Friday Feature: Transistor

A little while ago (2011) a brand new game studio, called Supergiant Games,  showed up at PAX with a cute little action game. Gameplay-wise, it was nothing to shake up the action game scene, even by indie game standards What made this game truly unique, though, was it’s art-house style and peculiar narrative design.

In Bastion, the landscape itself formed up around the protagonist as he made his way through the game, fighting off enemies as they popped out of the ground. Much like the land itself, the narration of “The Kid” and his story happened only as you played. None of the story was told through cutscenes and the narrator only ever responded to the player’s actions. These two components of Bastion gave players the feeling of more involvement in the story. Rather than playing the game to reveal the story, the story was about what they were doing.

Of course Bastion was still a very linear game, but its claims to fame – gradual terrain and responsive narration (not to mention the absolutely unbelievable soundtrack by Darren Korb) – are no less well-earned.

But just last week, Supergiant Games released their second title: Transistor. 

Transistor is more than just a worthy successor Bastion.

The gameplay feels like a natural progression from where Bastion began. Both games would comfortably be described as “action” games, but Transistor incorporates strategic “tactics”-like elements (other “tactics” games include Final Fantasy TacticsAdvance WarsFire EmblemX-COM, and The Banner Saga) that make Transistor feel a bit more grown-up. Less technically speakig, of course, Transistor is just plain fun! As the titular weapon downloads more “Functions” (the game’s name for your attacks), experimenting with different combinations becomes almost as entertaining as the plentiful battles that adorn your journey.

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back. It’s even more than that, I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s worth your investment. Suffice it to say that it rivals or even surpasses its AAA, giant game company, contemporaries while coming from a still-very-small studio.

The story is probably best described as a sci-fi noir romance. It has classic elements of all three genres, but it adapts them into something wholly new and claims it for its own. Where both Bastion and Transistor are set against the backdrop of collapsing “civilizations,” Transistor‘s approach is able to carry the romantic sub-genre in a way that Bastion wouldn’t have been able to, and as a result the protagonist is far more sympathetic, even while silent.

The game also carries on the grand tradition of having an unparalleled soundtrack, something I find to be an asset to any game, but it makes ones like Bastion and Transistor really stand out from the crowd. Darren Korb’s work is the music that the games industry deserves.

All-in-all, Transistor is just worth your time and money, don’t be kicking yourself when it starts getting tossed around as a possible game of the year – play it now!

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Friday Feature: Tiny & Big

Every now and then there’s a game that comes along that just gets you. You deep dive it and nobody sees you for a week, and then you go out to share your experience with everyone only to find out it’s not a great game.

“It’s too short!” they say. “Those controls are terrible!” they moan. “There’s hardly a story at all!” they cry.

Well I’m undeterred. I’m still going to recommend this game.

Tiny & Big: Grampa’s Leftovers is pure gold. No matter what you say.

You play as Tiny, the oddly shaped inventor, armed with his three trusty tools: Laser, Rocket, and Hook. Big, the other titular character, is a bully who stole your inheritance from your gramps: magic underpants.

All of that doesn’t really matter, though, because the point of the game isn’t to advance the story. Though the cutscenes are amusing and the intelligible grunts of the two main characters are worth a few chuckles, this game is, at it’s heart an puzzle/action game.

The “puzzles” of the game aren’t puzzles so much as they are areas that are difficult to traverse. In order to make it easier, you have to rely on Laser (which cuts through things), Rocket (which pushes things away), and Hook (which pulls things).

There are collectibles in the game, secret rooms to find, and above all a fabulous soundtrack. The developers worked with a handful of independent bands to create a fun and unique soundtrack that you can customize as you play. One of the collectibles is new tracks for your radio to play while you solve puzzles, so finding these little floating tapes becomes even more interesting than getting to the next area after a while. Because you only start off the game with one song, by the end of the time you get the last level, you’ll probably be kinda burned out on that one, as well as the first few tracks you find.

The game is done in a cel shaded art style, evoking a comic-book feel which is accentuated by the fact that most of the game sound effects are accompanied by onomatopoeia words the flash up next to the source of the sound. “POK!” flashes up when your hook sinks into a rock, and “BZZZT!” or “ZORT!” will show when your laser activates. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s seamlessly integrated and adds both character and charm.

I’ll have to admit here that the art style and the soundtrack are both unparalleled in their greatness – but they’re the best part of the game. There are places in the game where having such awesome style makes the game’s flaws stick out a bit. The really cool cel shading feels a little underutilized when there are only two characters and really only three environments in the whole game: desert, pyramid interior, and a virtual game-within-a-game world. There are also places where the artistic awesomeness makes me willing to ignore even the most grievous of gameplay flaws, so you take the good with the bad I suppose.

When I really step back and think about it, I have to tell you that Tiny & Big feels a bit like it’s somewhere between a game prototype and a full game. It is a bit too short and it could have benefitted with a bit more fleshing out. Sigh. Truth hurts.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m still recommending it! Even with it’s flaws, it’s still fun to play and if you buy the version of the game that includes the soundtrack ($15; the game by itself is $10) it’s a very worthy purchase.