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Games of 2014: Transistor leads the indie charge on PS4

By Chris Schilling on Tuesday 28th Jan 2014 at 11:29 AM UTC

"Our strategy of focusing on a console/PC launch worked well on Bastion so we're doing it again on Transistor," wrote Supergiant Games' creative director Greg Kasavin on the company's official blog last June. His explanation highlights one of the most significant shifts in the console market in the last couple of years: while Bastion debuted on Xbox 360 alongside its Steam release, Transistor is headed first to PS4.

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The California-based studio is hardly the only indie that seems to be keener to work with Sony than Microsoft, and that's partly thanks to Sony's hard work in making its platform a more welcoming market for smaller developers. Sure, Microsoft has since launched the ID@Xbox program, but some critics suggest that may be little more than closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

With enthusiastic and highly visible platform evangelists like PlayStation's Shahid Ahmad promoting and recruiting indies to its cause, and Sony itself making a big fuss of smaller titles like Housemarque's excellent Resogun, it's little wonder many studios consider PS4 the more attractive proposition of the two.

This is more important than you might first think - particularly when you consider that last year's biggest trend was the rise of the indie game. It's no exaggeration to say that it could have a significant impact on the way the new generation console war plays out, with signs that critics and players alike may be starting to grow impatient with the safety-first approach adopted by many blockbuster franchises.

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Transistor's one of the most exciting of this incoming wave of indies for a number of reasons, not least that its predecessor, Bastion, was one of the boldest debuts of recent years. Developed by a self-funded team of seven over two years, it was an extraordinarily polished, accomplished and characterful action-RPG with a terrific hook: its story was relayed by a gravel-throated narrator, his malleable monologue adapting to your actions.

Voice actor Logan Cunningham returns here to tell Transistor's story, but despite that and a similar isometric perspective, Supergiant's sophomore effort is markedly different from its predecessor.

Set in Cloudbank, a sumptuous, art-nouveau-inspired future city - think Blade Runner via Antoni Gaudí - it tells the story of Red, a flame-haired torch singer who finds a strange electric sword (the Transistor of the title) lying next to the corpse of a friend. Picking up the mysterious blade, she's shocked to discover that it speaks with the voice of her recently-deceased ally, and even more surprised to then find she's being pursued by a group of robotic assassins, collectively named The Process, who appear to be after the Transistor - or are they chasing Red herself?

Such mysteries are a natural part of the enigmatic narrative, with clues drip-fed throughout by the sword, as the story gradually begins to take shape. The Transistor also has the capability of tapping into the environment, revealing information about Red's surroundings to add further colour to an already evocative world.

As you journey through the city, you'll encounter a number of curiously friendly ghosts, with the sword able to hoover up their souls to boost your powers and unlock new ones. The presence of these benevolent spectres is another thread within the game's intricately woven tapestry of secrets, just waiting to be unpicked.

"It's incredibly empowering to watch Red take out several enemies in one expertly choreographed manoeuvre"

Naturally, being a sword, combat is the Transistor's primary purpose - and it's here that things get really interesting. Supergiant has introduced an inventive system called Turn, which allows you to freeze time as you choose what Red's next move - or rather, moves - will be. You're given an energy meter that depletes with each action, whether you're moving between cover, attacking with the Transistor or firing a beam of light.

Then it's a simple case of unpausing the action to see how things play out. In practice, it sits somewhere between Wii RPG The Last Story, the 'mark and execute' mechanic from Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and that iconic scene from the Matrix where Trinity stops time to spin in mid-air and delivery a hefty kick to a hapless cop's face. It's incredibly empowering to watch Red take out several enemies before retreating to safety in one expertly choreographed manoeuvre, though it comes with a major downside: once your energy bar is empty, you'll be left vulnerable for several agonising seconds as you wait for it to refill.

If that's a concern, or you simply prefer the thrill of real-time combat, you can engage enemies without such interruptions. The choice is entirely yours, with both having distinct pros and cons - some attacks are more potent when fighting directly, and vice versa - though encounters are designed to cater to both approaches.

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The choreographed flourishes of Turn look pretty spectacular, but if you ignore it entirely you won't ever have to concern yourself with cool down times. And if you fancy mixing the two, saving Turn for more desperate situations, you're free to do so: switching between the two is as seamless and immediate as squeezing the DualShock 4's right trigger.

Red's moveset expands as the game progresses, but we've already witnessed a few in action. Breach is immediately available from the moment you pick up the Transistor, firing an energy beam in a straight line at enemies. Then there's Jaunt, which sees her dash forward over a short distance to deliver a standard melee attack; Crash, a close-range overhead strike that can be charged for extra damage; and Spark, an area-of-effect move that damages any Process enemies caught within the shockwave.

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There's plenty of action, then, though you'll also get to enjoy a bit of downtime. Occasionally the game will switch to a side-on view, usually to signify Red moving to a new area of Cloudbank. She'll walk along or ride her motorbike through the city, while the narrator continues to tell the story - and in a further neat touch, the DualShock 4's light bar will pulse in accordance with the rhythms of the Transistor's synthesised voice. These sequences are essentially cutscenes with very limited interaction, though Supergiant is hoping to give players a little more to do than simply watch as they idly push the analogue stick forward.

These sections make for an impressive showcase of the game's distinctive aesthetic, but it's a strikingly beautiful game throughout, with combat a lightshow of laser beams and beautifully animated showboating, while the city teems with detail and colour, its neon lights a wonderful contrast to the imposingly dark architecture.

The story has us intrigued, too: there's something about the idea of harvesting new abilities from the souls of the dead - even if they're willingly given - that sits uneasily with us. Could there be a Shadow of the Colossus-style twist in store, with Red revealed to be an accidental accomplice to the Transistor's lust for power?

Barring delays, it shouldn't be too long before we find out, with Supergiant pencilling in a tentative 'early 2014' release date. Either way, we're keen to see how this tiny but talented team handles the twin pressures of increased expectation and the challenges of working with new hardware. That will ultimately define whether or not Transistor becomes a standard-bearer for the next generation of indie games, but all the evidence so far points to a worthy successor to Bastion, and another shot in the arm for PS4.

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