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Transistor preview - hands-on at PAX East

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Sophomore projects are scary; there's always a risk that they'll fail to live up to expectations, that they'll come out stained with sequelitis. When Supergiant Games announced Transistor (opens in new tab) , I felt a very real stab of fear. The Cunningham-driven narration, the isometric perspective, and even some of the combat—they all go back to Bastion. Would Transistor be the same game, except with a red-headed fox of a protagonist instead of the wild-haired Kid?

It isn't. Transistor may share themes, but it's far from a copy of Supergiant's inaugural title. The sweeping, futuristic cityscape is a grittier place than the post-Calamity world of Bastion. Though Logan Cunningham once again lends his smoke-and-whiskey rasp to the game, Transistor's narrator is noticeably less jovial than Bastion's Rucks; he's a more urgent presence, one intimately involved with the story and the heroine's welfare. While his true motivations remain unknown, The Transistor seems to care about Red, even going so far as to plead with her to make him a promise:

“Don't let go.”

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The pre-alpha demo opens with Red, dressed in her performance gear, getting up to her feet. It's obvious she's somewhere she neither should nor wants to be. Her movements are slow, the vibrant yellow of her attire out-of-place against the moodily lit streets. She walks with her arms around herself. Red might not be terrified, but it's hard not to imagine that she wouldn't be, at the very least, anxious.

A voice breaks through the silence: it's the Transistor, a massive blue-green blade that would do the Buster Sword proud. He calls to Red to remove him from his stand while promising that everything will be alright.

But no, things are not okay in this world. Transistor tells Red it isn't him anymore, but the slack-limbed silhouette of the body she finds doesn't look good. In Bastion, the worst has already happened. With Transistor, a kind of slow-moving catastrophe is still happening. Things are still in the process of going terribly wrong.

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The main antagonist appears to be a force called The Progress: crimson-eyed robots that resemble mechanical denizens of the Portal franchise. According to the Transistor, they've taken hundreds of people. Red was supposed to be next or, if the way she's assaulted is any indication of things, is still next.

As is the norm with the introductory sequences of most games, Transistor will give you time to acclimatize to the controls (which are also quite similar to Bastion's). It was demoed with a controller—you run around with the left analog stick and execute various attacks by hammering on one button. Unlike its predecessor, however, Transistor isn't just about manically chaining together combos while dodging attacks. You can choose to stick with the fast-paced, traditional approach, but shortly after your first conflict, you'll get introduced to the Transistor's ability to temporarily stop time.

This new mode, which has been appropriately named 'Turn', transforms combat into a sort of turn-based affair. Sort of, but not quite. Turn puts the battlefield on ice and provides you with a limited set of moves which you can plot out in a series. Once you're ready, you can exit Turn and watch Red execute your orders at super-accelerated speeds. A warning here, however: there is no guarantee that Red will hit her target, as some enemies may be able to dodge out of your onslaughts. Because Turn has a cooldown before it can utilized again, you'll need to use it strategically, and based on what I played, this mix of button-mashing and strategic combat is a satisfying concoction.

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One of the things I'm most curious about is the ability system in the game. In the beginning, you'll get a basic attack and a slower, more powerful version of it. After you encounter a dead woman and the will-o'-the-wisp-like thing that I presume is her soul, however, you'll be saddled with another companion and the potential to cast long-ranged 'Sparks' at your opponents. Here's what's interesting about that: the soul had a few, brief statistics tied to it—including a line about the deceased female's disposition. I'm not sure if it's just flavor text, but it looks like there's potentially a lot more to learn.

All said and done, Transistor was my favorite encounter at PAX East. It's an intoxicating fusion of all the things we loved about Bastion and something entirely new, a juxtaposition of old and new that few developers working on their second titles get just right. Want another thing to love? In a time where many are commenting on the treatment of female protagonists in games, Red succeeds at conveying a quiet strength in spite of being a literal—the Progress stole her voice—silent protagonist. So far, Transistor is on the right trajectory to become another stunning, and even emotional, experience from Supergiant.