Neo-noir and cosmic-horror go together like beetroot and ice-cream. No one said you couldn’t do it but nevertheless here we are with Stormling Studio’s second ode to H. P. Lovecraft, Transient. Bad food analogies aside, this oddly compatible combination coalesces in a highly concept-driven game that reaches for the cosmos, exploring interesting ideas pertaining to surveillance and one’s perceived reality. While the journey is a short burst of dense narrative weaving that may leave some confused, the experience feels like something that is meant to be replayed to grasp its greater meaning.
Transient’s narrative presentation will be polarising, but it’s integral to its identity. You embody Randolph Carter in his journey to rediscover a tiny sliver of his memory after his team’s heist on the omnipotent Khepra Corporation. This first-person horror-adventure game is condensed into five chapters, spanning interdimensional vistas and dystopian cityscapes. To conjure an appealing image for you; it looks like Blade Runner but plays like Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Its most awe-striking quality is the way it questions Carter’s (and the player’s) own reality. Carter’s ability to transmigrate through both computer simulation and the immaterial imposes a notion of distrusting reality, and two moments in chapter three in particular stand out in their demonstration of layering different realities. Inwardly, when you start playing video games within Transient, but also outwardly when the fourth wall is broken. Their combination really puts questions to the forefront of the player. While the concept of ‘what is real versus what is simulation versus what is a dream’ is by no means revolutionary in storytelling, it is nonetheless an intriguing attempt at something substantive. Particularly when undertaking a second playthrough, there comes a greater understanding of what has transpired. In doing so, Transient’s construction then becomes almost profound.
On an initial playthrough, there’s a major disconnect from everything; characters, world or even the plot as a flood of concepts are just thrown at you. When you reach the admittedly abrupt ending, you could feel a little letdown or confused. Fear not though, as investing in a second run seems almost intentional to Transient’s design. It reveals itself to be a wonderful short story-like plot that’s meant to be ‘reread’ multiple times to discern the true nature of events and grasp the wider story. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had replaying, strictly from a narrative perspective and is something truly admirable given that there are no choices, alternative paths or other ways to differentiate playthroughs. It’s the density, literary style and rediscovery of things in a new light with already acquired knowledge, that makes the story quite remarkable, on the second time through.
Unfortunately, a layer that falls a little to the wayside throughout is Transient’s horror tone. Definite props are due for the team’s nailing of cosmic-horror, with grotesque creatures that consistently rack your brain. It’s just the actual scares or thrill of being scared is somewhat lost in the general confusion of piecing together the plot. One way it attempts to unsettle you is by constantly placing you in foreign lands, and this ploy is successful in some regards. However, Transient never quite reaches a total fear effect of freezing you in place to try and discern if you’re alone or not. In terms of a proclaimed horror game it feels a little flat. Don’t get it twisted though, the game’s atmosphere with accompanying music does affect a creepy vibe, and creates a far more subtle type of horror than what we see elsewhere.
Being an adventure game, the light gameplay involves pushing and pulling physics-based objects. When not battling these somewhat finicky interactions, the game ebbs and flows from story beat to puzzle gracefully. The puzzles maintain consistency across Transient that reveals a high aptitude for design from Stormling Studios. Some of which have simple solutions that require translating journal entries into answers, which is expected for the genre. On the other hand, though, the more intricate puzzles appear complex at first glance but are intuitively designed so that their solutions aren’t needlessly obscure, yet still satisfying to complete in their simplicity. Take for instance the gem puzzle pictured below; easy to understand but somewhat difficult to execute. Also, the little touch of an out-of-context timer to show how well you did on a puzzle is quite nice and feeds back into the idea that you should play Transient more than once.
Traversing the many worlds and simulations of Transient is an enthralling part of the journey. Mainly owed to the locations you spend such brief windows in being so hideously detailed, like, in a beautiful way. Vats of malformed human bodies, Lovecraftian creatures captured in statues and squelchy tendrils of biomass applied onto a cyberpunk aesthetic is, as I said, a combination that has to be seen to be believed to work. These two genres complement each other rather than clash. With a lot of nicely detailed moments of visual storytelling, world-building and symbolism that are placed in the background, left for your own definition. By creating these small layers of depth without needing to explain or overtly point to them, shows Stormling Studios respect for both craft and player frankly.
Transient’s profoundness comes not from its dense narrative alone, but rather the gestalt; every piece of the experience funnels together to create something great. Whether it’s the entangled narrative that begs to be untwined, the excellent visual storytelling or just the gameplay and puzzles; there’s a damn lot of pleasure to come from the journey. While its short length may surprise some players with a hollow feeling, its brevity grants it replayable accessibility. If you’re someone who lives for narrative-based games or a convoluted cosmic mysteries, Transient is definitely worth relenting a piece of your mind.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Stormling Studios
- Iceberg Interactive
- October 28, 2020