Apple v. Orange Review: Bastion and Transistor (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.”

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)

So, what’s the big deal?

Supergiant Games’ new release, Pyre, is coming out later this month and I thought a compare-and-contrast retrospective on their previous titles would be relevant.

Unlike many other mainstream titles, both Bastion and Transistor rely more on implication than exposition; having its audience fill in the spaces left purposefully blank. It’s a style of storytelling I find preferable for videogames, rather than another wrong-headed attempt to be “cinematic.” Because, as we all know, the best way to improve interactive entertainment is to slavishly mimic a passive medium (not really though). There is more to intrigue and incentive for players to actually ponder and further explore the physical setting, which reinforces a seldom felt sense of immersion. A rarity at a time when extravagant facades, built upon shoddy foundations, are the norm. Especially as it can occur through gameplay rather than as an overlong movie cut to pieces and interjected, no matter how awkward or contrary, in between the parts that begrudgingly give the audience agency.

That isn’t to say either Bastion or Transistor is entirely successful. Even with the limitations that come from being a newer studio, Supergiant Games does an admirable effort with the resources at hand. However, the flaws are noticeable enough to distract.

Then what’re the…er, plots at hand?

Chris Franklin’s interpretation of Bastion being, metaphorically, about recovering from a disastrous break-up of a long-term relationship is hard to argue against and I can appreciate that. The problem, however, is that Bastion establishes a very lived-in ecosystem with basic laws attached that contradict its interpretive elements. Given that, how does the actual plot function? To answer that question in one fell swoop: it starts and remains strong up until the game’s midpoint, leading to a revelation of morally reprehensible actions by Caeldonia towards the Ura — that the titular device was, in fact, a weapon for ethnic cleansing — with an endgame twist made inane by lacking any precedence.

Along with being a doomsday weapon, it’s apparently a TARDIS that looked like a vividly lush floating island…or something.

…Wait, what…?

Yes, in fact, Ruckus — the character acting as the game’s narrative voice — explains that the device was meant to rebuild the world as much as destroy it; but there are no clues given that it could bend time and space. This reveal is brought up during the final level, occurring at so late a point that it is downright contrivance. Internal logic be damned as the narration is implied to have come from a person aware of future events…except Ruckus claimed that, in literally winding back the clock, events would be forgotten by those who experienced them. Why is he immune to such effects? Oh, right, there wouldn’t be an omnipresent narrator otherwise. For that matter, why create a device that can act as both a terraformer and a weapon of mass destruction? Why have an Ura refugee work on the device or give him the knowledge to use it against them? The more information given, the more plot holes become apparent.

And Transistor?

In deciding to be far more abstract and less concrete, it fares better as a minimalistic and interpretive story. What little explanation is given remains obscure, as do the rules applied to the setting, making it more difficult to determine whether or not one element of the plot is inconsistent with the rest.

Much to my chagrin, the patronizing adage of “your mileage may vary” would apply on the issue of whether or not that works in its favor. Personally, I loved the story. It gave me the same sense of wonder I had when watching ReBoot as a kid and then years later with The Matrix during my early adolescence — seeing it as an allegory of the democratization of culture in the internet age, of the dangers in relying so much on consensus that it becomes erroneously conflated with quality. Yet, at the same time, one can’t assert those less enthused with this game are somehow wrong or “don’t get it.”

It’s like an expressionist painting or Dadaist assemblage: while one person can find meaning in it whatever the reason, another can find none, and both perspectives are valid. Only a person who claims to understand it more than anyone else is full of shit.

What I will argue with is how it deals with voice acting. It bothered me that, in Bastion, Zia is only given a speaking voice at the penultimate scene. If she could have a voice before, why didn’t she have it then? Transistor is even more problematic in that it not only renders the female protagonist a mute before her introduction (even Ariel in The Little Mermaid got better treatment than that) and explained away with a lazy hand-wave, but there are male characters in the supporting cast who do get their own voices. Her talking sword drones on, sounding like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner reading passages from a Raymond Chandler novel, in a one-way conversation — even though some friendly or flirtatious banter would’ve added so much more. Red is a character as indicated by the comments she posts, in response to news articles found at computer terminals, where she’ll even delete what she just wrote to rephrase her statement to be more succinct or dramatic. The problem being that such terminals are wholly supplemental and leaves that characterization unseen by those who didn’t bother to look. It comes off as a sexist creative decision even if done unintentionally — moreso given it’s been done twice now.

That is unfortunate with the game’s otherwise progressive attitude towards sexuality and gender, as several gay characters and one transgender individual are present. None of that is treated as somehow abnormal nor their sole defining trait, instead adding a layer to their overall personality. It’s the kind of story beat needed in the medium.

What’s their commonality?

As said before, they were developed by Supergiant Games and are isometric action-adventure videogames with RPG elements. The art direction, from Jen Zee, is more evocative of painted illustrations than computer-generated imagery and is accompanied by a collaborative musical score by Darren Korb with vocals by Ashley Lynn Barrett. Logan Cunningham also provides most of the voice-over work on both titles.

And the differences?

Bastion is hack n’ slash while Transistor has mixed real-time/turn-based combat mechanics that emphasize strategic usage of special abilities and numerous variations when combined with others for either an active or passive effect. The earlier is also Steampunk filtered through Spaghetti Western aesthetics, whereas the latter is cyberpunk infused with noir sensibilities and a fondness for Art Nouveau.

Okay, whatever — how about the gameplay and graphics?

Aside from the chibi-proportioned characters of Bastion contrasting with the more realistically formed ones in Transistor, there isn’t much difference in terms of overall in-game graphical quality. It goes without saying that Jen Zee’s art direction is absolutely lovely. It’s in the level design — in how they progress — that they diverge.

Despite the isometric view, Bastion has the pretense of being a platformer as well as encouraging exploration (the operative word here being “pretense”). Blocks of flooring, both small and large, appear as the player character ventures forward, that indicate possible hidden paths. But in reality it’s actually quite linear and those paths are easily found. The items they lead to add texture to the game’s setting, but that’s about it. It also doesn’t help that these platforms are littered with both breakable items and décor, which are hard to determine from one another, adding to frustration in combat when it comes to dodge-rolling away. There’s even a level selection screen though one can’t replay completed areas nor have much choice as which to play next.

Transistor, to both its benefit and detriment, streamlines the environment and lacks the aforementioned pretenses. There’s no worry about continually falling into a void. While it does implement platform jumping as last minute as Bastion’s, it is done purely by button-prompt (rather than poorly implemented precision jumping) that functions better overall. There’s no doubt it is linear and that point A leads to point B, with very few detours for world-building texture. However, it also lacks the vibrant colors and details needed to make an environment more fit for the combat with the most gorgeous vistas — outshining even those in Bastion — being few and far inbetween.

It’s the closest I’ve come to playing an interactive Gustav Klimt painting, if only for one brief and fleeting instance. I wished the whole experience was like that…

I’d put that print on my wall!
I’d put that print on my wall!

Combat is central to both games’ mechanics and those are more dissimilar. As stated in the previous section, Bastion is a hack n’ slash and it’s a competent one — though overburdened by features disproportionate with the game’s length. Going back to the review by Chris Franklin, he praises the game for lacking anything frivolous or unnecessary in its design and I just don’t get it.

You only have two weapon slots and the game gives you a new weapon almost every level, save for the challenge areas, up to the final one. As much as variety is the spice of life and all that, it creates this problem where I’m forced to use this new weapon I’m not familiar with even though I’ve been using those I prefer or have gotten used to already. Were this to allow for various playing styles, it would be understandable, but they’re often needed in the level you find them in anyway. The game isn’t extensive enough to justify needing that many to begin with. The challenge areas themselves, save for four, only provide more money for upgrades or special skills for a specific weapon you probably won’t use otherwise. It gave me flashbacks to Assassin’s Creed 2 when they piled a bunch of melee weaponry on you, even given a steady income to buy more of them, that went unused because the wrist-blades worked well enough anyway (and, hey, they’re pretty damn cool).

Meanwhile, in Transistor, there is only the titular weapon — though it functions less as a melee instrument than it does a medium for casting spells dubbed as “Functions.” You can use a Function by itself but combining it with others can extend its range or add a status effect that stuns or weakens opponents. Alternatively, one can put it in a slot for a passive effect for the player character by, for example, spawning a decoy to distract enemies or shield them from damage. There’s a very tangible effect with each Function that can drastically change the nature of a battle. You can employ a number of viable strategies and applying them can become an engrossing experience.

When I finished Bastion, only to restart it in New Game+ mode, I felt like I saw everything the first time around and wasn’t really challenged anymore. Transistor, well after completing it, had me replaying battles that totally kicked my ass with a new set of Functions to see if they were more effective than the last.

Anything you forgot to mention? You do that sometimes. Well, a lot, actually.

Not sure why Darren Korb and Ashley Lynn Barrett haven’t made a studio album or two yet, because the soundtracks of Bastion and Transistor work wonderfully by themselves. They act as proof that original musical soundtracks for videogames can actually be better overall than all the compiled licensed music you’d find in Grand Theft Auto. Like Akira Yamaoka’s compositions for the Silent Hill series, each song perfectly represents its environment and remains tonally consistent throughout — whether it is Bastion’s idiosyncratic country/bluegrass-style strumming and percussion or Transistor’s electro-jazz beats with occasional lounge singing.

I’m guessing, based on all that, you prefer Transistor?

Well, yeah, obviously.

Yet I can only say that I liked it quite a bit but not that I loved it. There’s a lot of charming elements like its unique take on combat, the Art Nouveau aesthetics you see nowhere else, and a form of storytelling that’s (as George Wiedman once put it) borderline avant-garde. At the same time, being different doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. They’re all things I’d be pleased to see more of, to some extent or another, in the future — but their awkward implementation does not keep the rest from falling short of true greatness.

[Originally posted on 7/12/17 @ Medium.com]