Hybrid games are all the rage these days. As achieving true innovation in game design has become an increasingly daunting task, many developers have found success in merging traditional and often very different gameplay styles to create experiences that are both familiar and refreshingly unique. Sometimes these genre mash-ups work out, sometimes they flop.
Transcripted, out today on Steam from TopWare and Alkemi (versions for PSN and XBLA are also planned), is an example of a genre combo coming together just right.
Fusing the twin-stick shooter mechanics of games like Super Stardust and Geometry Wars with the Zuma / Luxor brand of match-three chain puzzling that has addicted many a gamer over the years, Transcripted has you following the story of a geeky nano-engineer named Adam who, under the guidance of a sarcastic, GLaDOS-like AI named NADIA and a not-so-trustworthy scientist in charge constantly leaving messages on your computer from afar, is tasked with analyzing and combating a strange disease that threatens all of humanity. The origin of this disease is unknown to science; it’s either some form of alien creation or a virus that has been bio-engineered by a certain smarty pants who was also born with the twisted S.O.B. gene. You’ll have to figure that one out by playing the game.
The game’s 25 missions, or samples as they’re called, are interspersed by fairly well acted and occasionally humorous voiced dialogue exchanges between Adam and NADIA, setting up the objective ahead. When a level begins, you take control of a Nano Probe as your “ship” and pilot it through microscopic tissue samples swarming with pathogenic enemies and a flowing chain of pseudo-DNA, the objective being to fill a progress bar at the top of the screen by clearing enough of the chain to slow the disease’s metabolism and stop it from spreading further.
To break the color-coded chains, you must first kill the nasty pathogens infecting the area from all sides, which you do by blasting away with the Nano Probe’s stock plasma repeater or other unlockable weapons. When pathogens are eliminated, they can drop experimental points for upgrades or crystals that instantly power up the probe’s firepower (the plasma repeater starts with a single line of bullets and eventually turns into a spread shot, for example), but most important are the nucleotide cubes. These cubes come in different colors aligned to those on the pseudo-DNA chain, and so your job is to collect these cubes and launch them at similar-color cubes to match groupings of at least three of a kind. Once three colors are matched the cubes are cleared, and the progress bar fills up. By causing chain reactions and making matches from long distance, more points are earned.
Your main mission is to clear the streaming lines of rainbow-colored cubes, but as the game progresses the enemy pathogens become more advanced and more deadly, giving the core match-three component a sense of bullet hell chaos as all sorts of microscopic organisms clutter the screen with projectiles, laser beams, toxic clouds that slowly corrode your probe’s shields and sticky substances that slow your probe to a crawl. You also have to contend with the fact that carrying cubes slows down the movement speed of your probe and gradually drains its energy, and without energy the probe’s weapons become puny and pretty much useless. Carrying cubes does have its benefits though. With a cube stocked, enemy pathogens view you as one of them, giving you the chance to move out of harm’s way undetected (or even repel bullets) while you sneak into position to make a DNA match or buy time for your shield to recharge.
Matching colors while fending off these pesky disease cells can be a lot to handle, but in a really clever touch the developers built in options to set the difficulty level for each half of the game to Easy, Medium, or Hard. That means if you don’t want to live in bullet hell while you do your color cube matching, you can set the Shooter difficultly to the lowest setting so enemies are less overbearing and damage intake is reduced. Adjusting the Puzzle difficulty, conversely, changes how fast the DNA lines scroll and how many different colors appear on the chains.
Multiple control options are available as well, and thankfully the game handles great, whether you’re probing it up with mouse and keyboard or breaking out your Xbox 360 gamepad. Using mouse and keyboard is a little more fluid and precise – WASD or the arrow keys control movement while aiming and shooting is done with mouse scrolls and clicks – but to compensate the gamepad scheme turns on an aim assist guideline that shows you the trajectory a cube will follow once fired. While aiming takes finer adjustment, for experienced shooter fans playing with two analog sticks will likely feel the most comfortable. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but work well all the same. After six hours or so split between the two, I haven’t settled on a favorite; it’s all up to personal taste as to which style you will prefer.
As you work your way towards eradicating the virus, you will earn experimental points and medals for fulfilling bonus criteria in each sample in areas like completion time, damage incurred, the number of chain reactions created, and so on (samples can be replayed later to improve medal count). These points are then used to research upgrades through a surprisingly robust tech tree interface, which allows you to arm your probe with increased health and shield charge, boosted propulsion to increase movement speed, faster cube launching so you can hit matches from further away, and new weapons (plasma rockets, ice spray, EMP bomb, etc.). The secondary weapons seemed rather useless to me compared to an upgraded plasma repeater with spread shot going, but the EMP definitely helps a lot to clear away a large group of pathogens that have become too close for comfort.
For the most part the game does a great job of throwing new enemy types and mission variables at you with each passing stage, including some crazy boss scenarios and a series of levels that reverse things by having you defend DNA chains from corruptive pathogens and survive for allotted time limits. Unfortunately this consistent increase of variety doesn’t apply to the graphics and audio. Don’t get me wrong, the game is visually striking, every level delivering on the sensation of what it would be like to pilot a microscopic probe through the fleshy, cellular highway system inside the human body. I imagine doctors skilled in performing colonoscopies and similar probing operations would be right at home here. It’s all very medical and scientific and organic.
That being said, the level backgrounds never really seem to change in appearance and the low-energy electronic music sounds like a recycled sample of the same song the whole way through. The gameplay is constantly mixing things up and introducing different twists, but after playing three or four levels at a time you will likely begin to wish there were more sights and sounds to keep the senses stimulated. As nicely lit and microscopically detailed as the game is, staring at same-looking red and purple blobby environments gets a bit old.
Overall, though, Transcripted is a frenetic, smartly designed hybrid title that nails the key attributes of the two genres it cross breeds. The shooter side of the game tests your finger dexterity and ability to quickly analyze the surroundings while matching cubes satisfies that match-three puzzle addiction every gamer has succumbed to at one point or another. Putting the two styles together works like a bio-engineered dream and with 25 main levels and five additional endless challenge missions to tackle, each with a high score online leaderboard (plus over 30 achievements), Transcripted injects a strong dose of gameplay hours for the spend.
+ Smart, well-balanced hybridization of two time-tested genres
+ Separate difficulty settings for shooter and puzzle aspects
+ Tech tree development, challenge levels, leaderboards and medals offer good replay
– Audiovisual elements have a limited range and don’t vary enough between levels
Platform: PC/Mac (also coming to PSN and XBLA later this year)
Publisher: TopWare Interactive
Developer: Alkemi Games
Release Date: 9/11/2012
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Review code provided by publisher