Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Transistor Review

Back in mid 2011, a little company named Supergiant Games took the gaming world by surprise. As a company nobody had ever heard of, they created a game called Bastion. Bastion quickly garnered large amounts of praise for being a highly polished, artfully crafted and all around profoundly beautiful game, and has since been ported to a plethora of platforms. For a while, people wondered what was next for Supergiant Games, and there was some doubt that they would make a second title. After all, how do you follow Bastion? In March of 2013 this question was finally answered when similarly gorgeous cyberpunk action-RPG Transistor was revealed. A little over a year of intense anticipation later, and the game has finally been released. I played it, and here is what I think:

First out of the gate, I want to state that I played the PC version of the game, and to be honest, I wish that I had a PS4 to play it on instead. The downside to Transistor's stunning art style, is that there are no graphics options to speak of, which is a problem when I was struggling to run the game at 20 FPS. The game is definitely very pretty, but it doesn't look like a game that should be particularly taxing. Perhaps this is simply an issue that will be resolved down the road via patching. I also felt as though the keyboard controls did not work very well at all, which was surprising given that they were fine in Bastion. It felt in general like much of the game's controls were a little sluggish, but it's hard to say how much of that was the low frame rate, and how much was my 360 controller being bad. I will say that, I played the game on a PS4 at Pax, and none of these problems existed.

Platform complaints aside, the game is a joy to play. I mentioned earlier that Transistor is an action-RPG, and I am glad to say that it's combat is incredibly deep. It has two main things going for it: the function system, and the Turn() system. Functions are essentially your abilities, however each one can take one of three forms. You can assign it as an active ability, you can assign it as an upgrade to another function, or you can assign it as a passive. With 4 active abilities (each with 2 possible upgrade slots) and 4 passive slots, there is an astounding amount of flexibility in how you can choose to play. I also really like that, when your health bar depletes, rather than dyeing immediately, one of your functions overloads and temporarily becomes unavailable. It forces the player to replace that ability in the interim, and thus try out abilities and strategies that they maybe wouldn't otherwise use.

To further add to the combat depth, is the turn() system I mentioned, which works something like the VATS system in Fallout 3. Essentially, any time you wish you can pause the combat, and input a certain number of actions, which you will then execute in quick succession. After turn() has concluded, you have to wait for it to recharge before you can use any abilities. This creates an interesting dance wherein you have to decide how much combat you want to do in real time, and when you want to use turn(). It allows you to use many attacks at once, but that isn't always what you want to be doing, and it leaves you vulnerable for a while. turn() is also not infallible. The game will predict how much damage you will do, if an enemy is out of range, if your attack will be blocked by terrain etc. This prediction is not always how it turns out though, and it encourages you to learn how your abilities and your opponents behave. It's actually kind of astounding how good a job Supergiant has done of making sure that spamming turn() every time it is available isn't always the optimal course of action, but still a very deep and strategic system.

Unfortunately, once we move beyond the realm of combat, things start to look a little bit less sunshine and lollipops for Transistor. I think the word I would use for it is "whimsical", though I saw someone describe it as "impenetrable", and I think that works well too. The problem Transistor has is that it makes no significant effort to explain itself to you. Certainly there is something to be said for leaving things up to the player's imagination. Supergiant chose this option at every possible juncture though, and you are left with a game that feels pretentious at best. The player is just dropped into this deserted city and has no recourse but to make their way from point to point. Nothing is explained explicitly or otherwise. None of the characters or locales are properly introduced or fleshed out, and you aren't given any good indication of what their motivations are. Everything just kind of exists. The Transistor itself talks constantly, much like Basion's narrator, and yet it feels like he never says anything worth hearing. There are tons of little interactive bits in the area, and yet they don't flesh out the world so much as say "hey, there's this thing here, isn't that cool?".

On one hand the player is left to interpret things as they wish. On the other hand, I personally end up just feeling really confused by this empty void of a world and what seems like multitudinous plot holes. By the end of the game I had just kind of accepted that I wasn't going to get a cast of characters or a world I cared about. I accepted that nothing was going to make sense, nothing was going to be explained, and that I should just put my head down and enjoy the combat. Perhaps the game's narrative just isn't for me and someone else will be able to understand it just fine. I can certainly see it being something that some people do enjoy, but it most assuredly left a sour taste in my mouth. However that being said, I still enjoyed the game quite a bit purely on the strength of it's combat. Luckily the minimalist approach the game takes to everything else means that it's pretty easy to pretend fighting the process is all that Transistor is about.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Thomas Was Alone and Narrative in Gameplay

We live in a very interesting age for video games. 20 years ago the market was still growing; AAAs weren't quite so monolithic and the the market didn't have the accessibility or the infrastructure for indies to thrive. Yet in a world where game budgets are getting outrageously out of hand, the indie market is flourishing. In a world where Activision and Ubisoft and Gamefreak are pushing yearly releases of big franchises, we have a plethora of indie games. Games which can be successful thanks to digital distribution, word of mouth. Games which, without hundreds of millions of dollars riding on them, can get away with taking creative risks. It is in this world that a game like Thomas Was Alone, a game about colored rectangles, can sell over a million copies. Myself being among them, I thought I would talk about what makes such a simple game so great.

So aside from rectangles, what exactly is Thomas Was Alone about? Well the idea is to reduce a puzzle platformer to it's most basic elements. Image a game like Trine or The Lost Vikings, wherein you control a group of characters one at a time. Each character has a personality and a backstory and a set of abilities, and you must combine these abilities in order to get the entire crew to the end of a level. All of these things are also true of Thomas Was Alone, except instead of Eric the Red and Baelog the Brave, you have Thomas the red rectangle and Claire the blue square. While they don't have fancy graphics or flashy abilities, I would argue that the characters in Thomas Was Alone are much better defined than most games without ever saying a word, and the game's narrative is shaped significantly better than most, too.

When you first start the game, Thomas is quite literally alone. You are given several levels to get the hang of what Thomas can do by letting the play figure it out (as is the case with every new character you are introduced to). While you are learning, the fantastic British narrator introduces you to the story of Thomas, who is lost, confused and lonely. Over the course of the journey you are introduced to other rectangles, such as Chris the pessimistic orange rectangle and John the narcissistic yellow rectangle. Each level the narrator tells you a little about the characters, sometimes a little about the story, which in truth, is barely there and really kind of irrelevant. The story is about the characters and their journey more so than the game's actual plot. Sure there are puzzles. They are well made, they are well paced, they make you think without being too hard, everything a puzzle game should be really. Yet to me, what really sets Thomas Was Alone apart is the unspoken narrative.

I think Chris really tells the tale of Thomas Was Alone. When you meet him, he is down, antisocial, and not much use to be frank. He's small, he can't jump very well, and he constantly needs the other characters' help to get around. But sometimes there's a spot that only Chris can reach, you need his help to progress. The same is true of every character. Some characters are more capable on their own, but at some point they all need help, and no matter how pathetic a character may be solo, there always comes a time when you need their help. Nobody can make it on their own, and when they work together not only can you make it to the next level, but your little rectangles grow as people(polygons?), too. Their personalities perfectly match their abilities, and each character has real and measurable character growth. I often found myself identifying with the little shapes, sharing in their woes, and celebrating their accomplishments. It's truly astounding how such a minimalist game can send such a powerful message, and it's all because the narrative and the gameplay are as one. Sure, the narrator is great and lines are well written, but the strongest messages are the ones that are inferred rather than stated.

Of course, you can have all of these things and have a game that isn't actually much fun. Often this is the case with the most "artsy" games. I don't believe this to be the case with Thomas Was Alone, however. None of what I mentioned is thrown in your face if you aren't looking for it. If you are just looking for a puzzle platformer, Thomas Was Alone does that, too. You don't have any grappling hooks or rocket boots or arcane magics, but figuring out how to use each character's size and abilities does make for quite an interesting game. It's not very hard nor exceptionally long, but it will make you think in a way that no other game will. It's also very good for short sessions, with most levels being easily beaten within 15 minutes. All in all, I would say that if you are looking for a good puzzle platformer, an interesting game, a strong narrative or any combination therein, Thomas Was Alone is definitely worth your time.