When it comes to 2D sci-fi adventures, it might actually be contractually obligated to make it a metroidvania. That’s what it seems like, anyway… not that I’m complaining. Transmute is the result of one developer’s passion for the subgenre rolled into a succinct, tightly structural package. A demo made available during the 2021 Steam Next Fest ensures that anyone currently on a metroidvania kick—especially since Metroid Dread is less than a week away—will find some appreciated catharsis.
For me personally, atmosphere in a game goes a long way. It’s one thing to simply be transported into a new world, but being able to immerse oneself within the environment on display. Visual, auditory elements at play, and the familiarity of controls of old, connected to bring fiction into the real world. Metroidvanias tend to do this very well, hence why I enjoy them so fondly. If this title has any chance of providing a memorable experience, it’s through the effort put on display—literally and figuratively.
Transmute is available to play as a free demo between October 1-7 during Steam’s Next Fest. A “2022” window has been provided for a full release.
Story – Moon Comes to You
When it comes to the usual fare for this subgenre, a grander “story” generally isn’t too integral. Characters may be provided things like “names” or “dialogue,” but some would argue it means little to the experience overall. Transmute takes a passive compromise between complex and barren by providing a name and recurring motivation for the player-controlled character.
Moon Mikono, as our heroine is called, crash lands onto a planet called Terra 6, the last place with traces of her mother. Waking up from cryosleep, she finds herself stranded on a planet she has no knowledge of. Determined to find out the whereabouts of her mother, she descends into the heart of the planet, finding clues and fighting hostile species along the way.
As the demo progresses, not much arises to further develop this surface synopsis. Moon will come across a few characters that offer some dialogue, even if it amounts to simply ominous worldbuilding. Others simply fill their role of tutorial machine, fetch quest provider, or fast travel associate. At the very least, Moon will make her motivation apparent on more than one occasion, so it keeps her character human and the player from losing sight of the primary goal. That will not prevent one from scouring every corner of the map for goodies and blasting baddies, but nonetheless.
Gameplay – Inject Yourself; It’s Fun!
Platforming, gunplay, and collectible trinkets scattered about a gargantuan map. Indeed, this is the metroidvania template. Transmute does not make it a secret that it’s heavily inspired by games from before. And from it, an experience both old and new comes to life. For veterans, it may come across as a bit too simple, at least from what’s covered in the demo. Some slight deviations to gameplay make themselves apparent early on, though the bulk of the experience is much like you’ve played in similar titles. How does it stick out?
Most apparent is the health system, which is something of a motivator for aggressive play. The player starts with three hits—which can grow as the journey continues, but it’s still a drastic change of formula. If health gets low, one can inject themselves with a healing device to restore a hit, at the expense of collectible fluid that fills upon damaging / killing creatures on the planet. An intriguing system that forces the player to not be too careless, while simultaneously genocidal.
Something that the game advertises for itself is its difficulty, which this health system definitely ties into. In roughly 85 minutes of playtime in the demo, I died maybe eight times, which indeed says something about the ferocity of its design. Enemies get intimate quickly, and bosses signify every ounce of respect within the moniker. Even the hazards within individual areas don’t screw around—falling stalactites, lava / poisonous water(?), and thorned vines make this no leisurely picnic.
Moon’s primary weapon is less of a Power Beam and more of a plasma shotgun blast. Its short range again encourages risky play by getting close to baddies that will fight back when irritated. Combat overall is a basic manner of getting just close enough and blasting away, assuming you can coordinate yourself well enough. Interestingly, one can aim left and right and up, but not down. Though this isn’t generally an issue; enemies cannot spring up from underneath you (in the demo). It remains curious, nonetheless, that this isn’t allowed. Perhaps it’s another thing chalked up to difficulty? I had fun, regardless.
Another crucial aspect to metroidvania is the balance of progression and flexibility of power-ups. While not too much is provided early on, receiving any sort of boost to Moon’s capabilities remained a pleasure, and the final item received was particularly fun. It gives me confidence that the full game will ensure that the player will eventually be able to fly—not literally, but flying on amusement, I suppose. Generally received just after defeating a boss, it provides a steady stream of motivation to go forward, with necessary challenge to allow the ability to feel earned. Transmute certainly knows how to accentuate all the better qualities of rewarding a player for their effort.
Should there be anything worth noting this early on from a negative point, it’s the room design. There are quite a few that are rather barren, only lively from throwing a million of one or two enemies types in there. The opposite can occur, as well; the third area is so cluttered in environmental set dressing that it can be hard to see actual enemies or hazards lying about. Difficult as it attempts to be, there are some manners of archaic cruelty that aren’t appreciable.
Graphics & Audio – A Dark and Colorful Place
A looming darkness fills every room. Wall material shaded in bizarre colors of light blue, green, and pink. Alien creatures that look every bit as fascinating as they do dangerous. There’s a blockiness present with some of them, while others are more sleek, slender. Big, booming presences that cause cautious curiosity. There’s a lot to see on the surface of Terra 6 that you don’t necessarily want to see you.
Immersion is a great quality to have in an adventure off far away. Transmute does well to keep visuals similar enough to keep the planet cohesive, yet different enough to keep the player engrossed. Most of this is done through colors and the presence of various materials or enemies, specific to the environment. Sometimes, as stated previously, this deters the player from being able to ready themselves properly. Nevertheless, it’s a definite strength to the whole demo to keep the aesthetic similarly varied.
I spent a certain amount of time paused while playing through this. As I did, the atmospheric tunes of the first area caressed my ears for some time, allowing me to really ingrain the sound into my subconscious. A dreary, almost mysterious symphony of quiet strokes that doesn’t feel particularly “adventurous.” It’s perhaps more apt to a YouTube playlist titled “Tunes to vibe to when things get deep.” As one goes “deeper” (I don’t know how the structure of the planet works), the tunes get a little faster, more involved. Honestly, I didn’t like them as much; I preferred the somber musings of the opening area. Just felt… right.
Then you have your general sci-fi action effects: blasts and booms and zaps and what have you. They provide a nice crunch to combat, and I did like the antiquated clacking of the cassette tapes playing when you found any. Text bubbles also provide a nostalgic melody of obnoxiously loud stuttering that I adore. Not quite as memorable as the soundtrack, though it keeps the energy of the gameplay present.
Transmute was previewed via a demo available on Steam.