Games

'Transistor': 'Bastion' Has a Little Brother

Attempting to copy-and-paste what made Bastion powerful misses the point behind its influence and presents new complications for Transistor.


Transistor

Publisher: Supergiant Games
Players: 1
Price: $19.99
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release Date: 2014-05-20
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I completed Transistor after two sittings, the entire time waiting for the game to reveal itself. Decoding the cryptic storyline and what ties the world together hovers tenuously out of reach throughout, so piecing this puzzle together becomes the engine that drives the game. But such a construct is a risky proposition; if it falls flat at the climax, the world and plot feel haphazard rather than nuanced. After the credits roll, Transistor lands somewhere between the two.

Transistor comes as Supergiant Games’s second release, following 2011’s masterpiece Bastion. Returning are the latter’s groundbreaking narration as well as the 3/4 camera angle and battle arenas. But with a change in protagonist and fighting mechanics, only some of these design features land with the same effect, which is to be expected when Bastion was heralded for being unique and innovative.

Playing as famed singer Red in the city of Cloudbank, the game opens with the Transistor -- the sword-like weapon you use throughout the game -- impaled on an unnamed man. The weapon, as you quickly learn, can be used to consume the souls of Cloudbank citizens, and the voice emanating quietly from it is that of the dead man. The Transistor’s monologue, environmental clues, and government-run OVC Terminals work to explain the basic foundation of the story; an illuminati-like group named the Camerata attacked Red, losing the Transistor in the process and unleashing a robotic plague called the Process on the city.

If all of that sounds needlessly convoluted for a 10-hour game, you would be right. The primary antagonist is rarely understood, and the amount of plot holes that go unfilled at the game’s conclusion point to a development team in search of a story to match its gameplay. Transistor’s plot isn’t confusing because of its complexity as, for example, 2013’s Bioshock Infinite was. It’s confusing because it was poorly conceived.

The fighting, though problematic, is at least structured to be indicative of the plot. Battles can be fought in real-time, but most attacks take prohibitively long to cast. In their stead, the game features a turn-based system, which enables a stop-time sequence, allowing you to plan and cast actions. Every action takes a predetermined amount of time, the management of which becomes a strategic juggling act mid-battle. The Transistor was developed to control the Process, so its ability to stop time and inflict significant damage is at least thematically coherent.

However, the implementation of this system nearly ruins the gameplay. The use of the stop-time process requires a cooldown period in which you can neither use the system again nor cast any attacks. Battles turn into an eye for an eye affair which flips intermittently between the planning and execution of your attacks followed by approximately 10 seconds of running around with your hair on fire trying not to take damage.

All of which is to say you will take damage and you will “die”. Transistor’s greatest gameplay accomplishment comes from its inventory management system, an unglamorous claim to fame. Every ability has a primary, secondary, and passive effect, only one of which is in use depending on how the ability is equipped. With four primary and potentially eight secondary and passive ability slots, there are countless ways to customize your battle loadout. The challenge is that each ability has an equip cost between one and four units of which, you only begin with 16 to spend, so as you collect more abilities, you must manage your equip costs with an optimal loadout. When you die during battle, one of your primary abilities becomes inactive until you reach multiple save points further in the game. This forces players to experiment with new loadouts and approaches to battles.

The art direction remains the game’s real draw. From the angular, neon architecture to the occasional 2D cutscenes, many of Transistor’s most important moments are punctuated eloquently with dramatic artistic flare. Even the enemy and boss design puts the art on display, turning an army of robotic creatures into fluid, ornate animatronics.

Transistor will never escape its status as Bastion's little brother, not least of all because of its narration style. In the realm of indie games, Supergiant's debut remains capital-I Important. Attempting to copy-and-paste what made Bastion powerful misses the point behind its influence and presents new complications. For example, the narration in Transistor takes on an unsettling male gaze as the protagonist is a not-so-subtle sex symbol in Cloudbank being guided and empowered by a disembodied male voice. And yet through it all, it remains a captivating play. Perhaps it's the need to uncover the secrets of the universe or the ever changing battle sequences, which rarely feature the same lineup of enemies, but Transistor demands to be finished and revisited.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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