The city of Cloudbank is stunning, a lusciously detailed, hand-drawn cyberpunk future built atop the memory of a red-gold art deco past. As the Process consume it, streets awash in vivid green and red and purple lighting fade to austere white. Cloundbank's end state will be like the Construct in The Matrix: endless nothing, ready to be overwritten.
At 1080p and 1440p I never saw Transistor's framerate dip from a smooth 60 fps. It was rock solid while exploring or fighting a dozen Process at once, even with neon particle effects overwhelming the screen. The framerate did struggle at 4320x2560 on the Large Pixel Collider, a resolution it clearly wasn't optimized for. Though the game was designed for 1080p, it looked great at 4K and at 1440p. Zooming in on 4K screenshots, I can see the signs of upscaled 2D art, but from normal sitting distance the game was unfailingly beautiful.
Exploring the empty streets of Cloudbank had me as entranced as the first time I stepped foot into Bioshock's Rapture. Supergiant's 2D art is that compelling, and the city's blend of sci-fi and classic architecture promises a fascinating backstory. I was still waiting for that backstory when the game ended.
There's this feeling I get when I'm dropped into a new fictional world like Transistor's in media res. It starts as an inkling of excitement. This imaginary world was established long before I got here. Events have been set in motion, and I'm playing catchup. What makes this world tick? How long has it been here? I want to know.
I start playing like an archaeologist, scouring the corners of a game world to find out more about this place and its characters. I start reading more closely, paying attention to character bios and posters and signs to piece the world together. I get more excited as I approach the payoff—that moment when the worldbuilding clicks, when I come across the charred remains of the poor soul whose audio diaries I've been listening to in Bioshock, or read a passage of William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer so evocative that I can see cyberspace clearly in my mind. This is the moment when I'm completely absorbed, and I know this world is complex and vital and alive beyond the narrow pathway of the specific story it has to tell.
Transistor never has that payoff. I thought the narrator's cryptic references to Cloudbank's past were building up to a moment that would do the city justice, but that moment just never comes. I hoped that I would encounter the people of Cloudbank and learn their stories, but after battling the Process from empty environment to empty environment, that hope shrank. I hoped sidequests or puzzles would feed me clues, but only a handful of terminals around Cloudbank offer cursory insight into the city's culture.
Like Bastion, Transistor is focused on a hero and a narrator traversing the ruins of their world. But Bastion had a hub point to return to where more characters eventually gathered. As the mystery of Bastion unfolded, it tied the fates of its characters to the fate of its world. It was that world's epilogue. Red's story, by contrast, feels like a sliver of what is interesting and compelling about the city of Cloudbank. Transistor is disappointingly linear in a city that begs for exploration.
The story Transistor does tell is dished out in tantalizing morsels, and I had to spend some time reflecting on the ending to decide what happened. Perhaps because of that vagueness, Transistor's emotional climax didn't hit me like Bastion's did. Supergiant's games are, in that sense, mirror images—the first with shallower combat but a powerfully told story, the second with deep, tactical battles but a story that doesn’t fulfill the promise of its world. Then again, that promise lives on even after the credits roll. I hope Supergiant isn't done with the world of Transistor, because there's so much more I want to know.
A brilliant and rewarding combat system propels a story that never becomes as interesting as it seemingly should.