How Bastion devs snuck turn-based strategy into Transistor, and made a hardcore genre welcoming
Transistor looks and feels much like Bastion at first glance. The isometric view, hand-drawn aesthetic, and narration provided by the incomparable Logan Cunningham make the game seem like well-worn ground when you pick up the controller. But the game ditches the fantasy world of Bastion for a dystopian future, and the omniscient narrator is replaced by a sentient sword that is trying to figure out what exactly is going on.
You play as Red, a famous singer who is the target of five assassins. It’s odd fighting across a world that is plastered with images of the character, and her music played in the background as I played the demo.
I sat down with Amir Rao, the studio director of Supergiant Games, to ask the obvious question: Didn’t he know that games with female heroes don’t sell? “I heard something about that,” he said, laughing. “We pick characters that are appropriate to the world and the world that we’re building. Red was the right one for us. We don’t think of her so much as a female protagonist, she’s just our protagonist. We know her very well and love her very much.”
These were all things I expected. The surprise came from the combat, as Transistor isn’t an action title, or at least not entirely. The more interesting combat takes place in a souped-up version of turn-based strategy.
Finding the rhythm
Red can pause the action during combat, and there is an action bar on the top of the screen that shows you, in real time, how much room you have for movement and maneuvers. If you run across the map, some of the bar fills up. Attacks also fill the bar, with more powerful options taking up more space. Once that bar is all the way filled your turn is over, you get to see Red land her attacks, and then it’s the enemy’s turn.
It’s an organic, elegant system that combines movement and action points into one seamless package, and it works beautifully. You can run around during the monster’s turn, but you can’t attack. This keeps the turn-based action from feeling stale, as you’re always in control of a moving, active character.
“We spent a lot of time making sure the planning mode was something that people understood, and that felt right. That has been the most intensive thing, for sure,” Rao explained. “We hit a lot of dead ends. What we were going for was something that paced well, dramatically. In a turn-based game you go, and then they go, and finding the right balance when the enemies get to go, and how long that should be, we tuned it so it’s just long enough that you’re uncomfortable. We tried it at one second, all the way up to ten seconds, just tuning it.”
This is an interesting way to handle turn-based strategy, and I have a feeling fans of Bastion may play, pick up the system intuitively, and not quite understand that they’re playing a turn-based strategy title. I was able to figure out the game, how the system works, and how to create combos and special attacks without any instruction, and without anyone guiding my demo. I told this to Rao and he clapped his hands, delighted. Making a game that was strategic while remaining accessible was always part of their goal.
“Right from the start we were interested in doing something with a more strategic feel. We have a lot of strategy RPG fans on the team, people whose favorite games are Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, stuff like that,” Rao explained. They try to incorporate their passions into the games, and then unpack what makes them special before adding their own twists.
The combination of action and strategy was a welcome change, and the way it was implemented makes the game feel fresh and exciting. I wasn't the only one who thought so; the game's trailer caused quite the buzz online, and the line to play the game at PAX East was often three to four hours long, a line that rivaled many of the bigger games from established publishers.
Of course, we're leaving out one of the most important parts of the game: The voice that ties the whole experience together. We also sat down with Logan Cunningham, the voice of Rucks in Bastion and now the titular Transistor, to talk about the process of recording the voice-over for the game, finding the character's voice, and why Transistor was more acting than performance. That story is coming tomorrow.