By Nathan Grayson on September 19th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
The art of mixing two really great things to make a (theoretically) even cooler thing has something of a checkered past. On one hand, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups exist. But on the other, boardgames plus movies equaled Battleship and also a string of mysterious disappearances in Hollywood that they still haven’t linked to me to this day. So where does Transcripted – the end product after a night of neon-lit, virus-scare-fueled passion between Geometry Wars and match-three puzzlers – fall? Here’s wot I think.
I don’t think I ever really stopped being frustrated with Transcripted. But, oddly enough, I consider that to be mostly a good thing. See, it’s hard – oftentimes brutally so – but with one of the most sublime skill curves I’ve experienced in ages. It’s one of those games where things that sat back, relaxed, and treated my death like their own personal fireworks show in early levels were dispatched in enormous quantities by simple reflex mere hours later. It never stopped being this harrowing, sometimes stressful experience, but each level sharpened my skills just enough to keep me barely competitive with whatever new challenges it hurled my way. In retrospect, I feel like Rocky post-montage – only, you know, with matching same-colored blocks and shooting evil mutant disease blobs instead of boxing. Right then, I should probably explain that part.
So the story is that you’re piloting a nanomachine to fight some crazy, rapidly evolving disease epidemic, but honestly, that part’s pretty unspectacular. Sure, the voice acting during between-level talking head segments – which mainly feature your obnoxiously obstinate hacker main character and his sentient AI sidekick – is decent, but the characters range from tolerable to downright irritating. They do, however, provide a canonical excuse (DNA!) for the giant rainbow block chains that snake through each level. The goal, then, is to collect blocks from fallen enemies and blast them – one-at-a-time – into same-colored rows in the continually moving chain. “Destabilizing” the chain (read: blowing up enough blocks) ends each level – or at least, most of them.
It’s a mix that could easily end up totally disjointed and frustrating, but some seriously clever design decisions make it all click together in shockingly natural fashion. Foremost, holding onto a block makes all enemies immediately (though briefly) perceive you as one of their own. Not only that, it deflects all projectiles – even when bullet-hell-like swarms are miliseconds away from turning your tiny ship into bacteria-riddled Swiss cheese. So it’s all about timing. Do I grab a block now because I’m clearly overwhelmed? Do I then hold onto it and reposition myself, or do I fire it into the chain immediately? Or do I just take a breather to strategize? Do I attempt to make an elaborate pattern in the chain so that – when I finally match three and blow a portion of it up – it’ll create a crazy-huge combo chain, which will skyrocket my point total? These questions were always racing through my mind as I played Transcripted – though eventually so quickly that I didn’t even notice them anymore.
Now it’s story time. Specifically, I’ll be spinning a yarn about an enemy type I’ve nicknamed The Bastard. When I first met The Bastard, he was shooting me in the back. Naturally, we didn’t become fast friends, because I – in retrospect, somewhat rudely – died immediately. Fucking Bastard plagued me for some time after that, often preferring to appear in groups right as I was about to complete a level. Shitting Shit Shit Bastard once even managed to ruin a whole, somewhat lengthy boss fight for me – which I then had to start all over. But Bastard – bless his wretched cesspit of a heart – couldn’t keep up. Between upgrades to my ship (the skill tree contains everything from movement speed increases to freeze rays) and countless slowly introduced game mechanics, Bastard just sort of faded into the background. He tried to shoot me in the back like he did during the good old days, but I didn’t have time for him anymore. Instead, I weaved right between each bullet without even turning to face him. We’d grown apart, I realized. He tried upgrading – gaining thicker armor and whatnot – but by then, it was already too late. Poor Bastard.
But I had bigger things on my microscopic plate. Much bigger things. Transcripted, you see, has this wonderful way of snowballing on itself. I’d barely survive a level, only to hobble across the finish line and into the skill… store? (Is commerce a thing in DNA world? I don’t actually know.) Then I’d load up on more powerful weapons, bulk up my shields, gain the ability to eat blocks, and other such things, and I’d think, “OK, this game can’t handle me anymore. I’ve clearly beaten the system with my gigantic brain.” I was on top of the world. But then the next level would introduce a new mechanic – slowdown goop, corrosive acid, giant lasers, chains that move extremely quickly, blocks that explode on you when you match them up, among tons of other things – and yank me back down to Earth. Transcripted walks this constant razor’s edge between power and powerlessness, but I can only think of one occasion where I actually felt overwhelmed. By and large, the sense of control was excellent. No, it didn’t always lead to success, but even when I died, I could generally pinpoint my exact mistakes – so as to (hopefully) avoid them next time.
Over time, new mechanics gave way to different level types entirely. Some were great. For instance, giant, multi-stage boss fights forced me to apply techniques from multiple levels while making precision-timed use of blocks to avoid certain death. Other level types, however, revealed the seams in Transcripted’s design – the places where its disparate elements don’t hold together quite so well. First up, escort missions. Yes, Transcripted somehow has them, and they’re pretty un-fun – just like in every other game ever. The twist in these, though, is role reversal: you’re defending the chain from enemies who are trying to match colored blocks and blow it up. So it’s all about breaking up clumps of the same color with other colors. This demands a high level of precision – which Transcripted doesn’t quite have. As a result, I’d narrowly miss where I was aiming and then watch helplessly as evil blocks leisurely took their seats, grabbed handfuls of popcorn, and cheered at my inevitable demise.
More fundamentally, a rather large component of luck is Transcripted’s biggest double-edged sword. Admittedly, it allowed me to eventually clear those escort levels, but on regular levels, it often kept me from getting good block combos going simply because the right colors weren’t presenting themselves. So I’d wait while enemies slowly whittled away at my health, then die at the last second and have to start all over. And since difficulty ratchets up mid-level as you get closer to destabilizing the chain, I’d essentially have to snooze through the easy early bits to get back to the parts that gave me trouble. Helpfully, levels usually only last around ten minutes tops, but the trial-and-error’s still frustrating.
But, like I said, that’s Transcripted in a nutshell: frustrating. Most of the time, though, it’s for a very good reason. Defeat’s always nipping at your heels, but the payoff when you succeed is tremendous. On top of that, it never stops feeling like you’re growing by leaps and bounds – both stat and skill-wise. Sure, the campaign’s fairly short and all you’ll find beyond that is a few challenge missions, but I’ll take short and perfectly paced over lengthy and bloated any day of the week. And while Transcripted’s a bit inconsistent, it rarely fails to keep things fresh.
And now, since we at RPS don’t do review scores, I’ve devised a far simpler, more understandable system: Transcripted’s mixture of Geometry Wars and match-three isn’t quite a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it’s waaaaaay better than Battleship: The Movie. There. Hope that clears things up for you.
Transcripted is available now on Steam for £7.99.