It's a few years after Capella. You are Sunder Marcel, leader of a group of mercenaries designated Kappa wing. You've just gotten a job escorting the transport Incontrovertible on its shipping route.
Sync Players: Does this sound familiar?
During his escort run, Sunder is arrested by, and forcibly recruited into, the Shadow Guardians (aka Omicron Wing), a secret unit that investigates strange tavern stories and spacer's tales, hoping to discover the truth behind them.
Sunder's first lead with Omicron is a freighter, the Chondral, which has it's cargo shielded to prevent scanning. Sure sign of suspicious activity.
So Omicron follows the Chondral. But when the chase turns into a fight,
And the authorities see four mismatched fighters attacking a freighter and it's escorts...
It's "Oh Crap" time.
But as if it couldn't get worse, the Chondral's destination is an uncharted nebula linked by an unstable jump node to Alpha Centauri.
And... there's something in the nebula...
...something that wants nothing...
...I SEE YOU...
Everyone has a limit.
PLOT: Credit to Ransom again!
PROs of the Plot
FEAR: Ok, I discussed this while reviewing Sync, but with Transcend I'm going to go deeper. Ransom's approach to fear deserves a good analysis. Transcend isn't like the generic slasher or zombie movie. It's more like an M. Night Shyamalan film (like Signs
, my favorite movie of all time
). What makes the difference?
Well, both Ransom and Shyamalan (and similar scary authors) understand how the mind works. You see, there are two ways to be scary. One is to be a generic zombie of slasher B-Movie and show a lot of people dieing violently. The other is to play with the viewer's phscology
. Once you master the mind of the audience, you don't need all that violence to scare people. There's, what, one finger that gets cut off in Signs
? And FreeSpace, obviously, rules out graphicness by being a space sim. Compared to this psychological fear, zombie B-flicks aren't even scary, just... gross.
Transcend is a masterpiece of this "Smart Fear". It takes the things that made Sync eerie, and improves or enhances them into a genuinely frightening work the exceeds its predecesor.
While I can't risk ruining all of this scaryness, several elements in particular deserve commentary.
CHARACTERS: Transcend is a character campaign, more so than Sync. It features a speaking protagonist, names and plot armor for the three members of Omicron wing, and several other spaceship captains that you meet along the way.
Previous commentators have noted the "personification of starships" in Transcend. (Sync's Persistence was also an example). Many supporting ships are treated as a single character- even whole corvettes. This enhances the lonelyness of the campaign: you're not with an Argo full of people, you're flying with one person, Sinclair, who is [...in...] an Argo. The ship represents the character, the character represents the ship. No other crew members object to the (sometimes risky or downright suicidal) decisions of the Captain. For all appearances, there isn't anyone else on the ship. The Incontrovertible
, the Silent Eye
, the Chondral
, and the Generation
, are not just ships, they're characters. And all of the characters are [...represented by...] ships.
Ah, the Generation. That brings me to my next point.
THE GENERATION: What can I say about this guy? He's a Deimos corvette who terrifies you more than any Sathanas. How, you ask?
Well, he starts chasing you and your Omicron buddies. And the guy WON'T. GIVE. UP.
I gotta be careful what I say about him lest I ruin it, but...
Think about it. He's chasing these four fighters, and everywhere he goes, they dodge him. And his escort ships start dieing. And he gets blamed by Command. Whatever unholy powers are afoot here, he thinks they come from you. And when Command tries to apprehend him...
They guy goes from being just another GTVA ship captain, to being the FreeSpace version of Captain Ahab. And you're his Moby Dick. Over the brink of madness, he chases you across the galaxy, demolishing law enforcement and military ships that try to arrest him. Ransom, I always thought you needed a Superdestroyer or Juggernaut to evoke that "unstoppable monter ship chasing me" feel. At least you'd need a destroyer with some dangerous tech advances (like the Auriga in Derelict. You proved me wrong. If your only allies are three (or two) fighters, all it takes is one ordinary corvette with a frighteningly insane captain
At the start, I mentioned Transcend nightmares. Well, Transcend has three capital nightmare-fuel moments, and the second one...
Is when, several missions after you SAW the Generation blow up... it crawls out of a Node and rushes you again, followed by a gang of ships you killed already.
My thought pattern at the time: "What? Oh crap, now we've got another Corvette to dodge? ... wait... it can't be..." -targets it-
GENERATION: Hello, Omicron!
"YOU- YOU- You were DEAD!"
Ransom, I haven't been that scared since the Alien ran across Meril's TV the first time I watched Signs.
VOICES: First Nightmare fuel moment. You may or may not want to read on; I won't give away too much but I'll put it in spoiler tags anyway. Your call
One of the best touches in the campaign is the mission
"Memory of Shadows". After what so far was a non-voice-acted campaign, Ransom himself Voice-acted... someone. An incredible job of audio processing somehow turns
SPOILER WITHIN SPOILER static and fuzz
Into something that would be terrifying even if without the heart-attack inducing mission/plot situation.
I litterally (LITTERALLY) had trouble getting my jaw shut!
For kicks, after you beat the campaign, crack open Transcend's audio files. Halloween is coming up!
THE FINAL MISSION: What can I say? Everything that made Sync and Transcend memorable, crammed into one mission.
More under Gameplay.
ENDING: Very different from Sync, that's all I'll say.
SPECULATION: But Transcend and Sync leave a lot of questions hanging, such as... well... what was that all about? I'm reviewing Transcend, not speculating on it, but I have my own theories. I agree with Ransom: Any answer he provided would feel wrong compared to the ones people puzzle out for themselves. If Ransom were to step in and answer our questions, it would ruin the fun of Transcend permanently.
Ok, now for the hard part.
CONS of the plot.
GENRE: Basically, Transcend, like Sync, isn't everyone's cup of tea. While I felt that it had more of a heroic element than Sync, I'm sure many people will find it too different from FreeSpace. But hey: diversity is HLP's strong point.
Transcend is less of a military or hard SF story and more of a phsycological horror story with a lot of reality-bending Twilight Zone
themes. If you're looking for the space warfare plotlines like the classic Freespace games, I'd recommend Derelict, Warzone, or Bem Cavalgar. If you like Blue Planet, you MIGHT like Transcend. If you're a FreeSpace fan AND a phsycological fear fan, you'll definitely like Transcend (and Blue Planet!)
OK, now we move on to GAMEPLAY! Credit goes to... you guessed it... Ransom Arceihn.
PRO's of the gameplay!
Actually, they do exist this time! ;D
FINAL MISSION: For plot reasons, I can't say much. But... it's a HARD dogfight
. In my estimation, it's the most lethal-to-player mission I've ever played, although Forced Entry and a lot of Bem Cavalgar was harder in terms of completing your objectives.
Let's just say it's straightforward, but FREDed to be extremely challenging. Unnaturally
challenging, in fact. Deliberately so. The atmosphere is nerve-wracking and the stakes are...
you don't want to know.
ALSO: I also found one other mission to be a fairly exciting dogfight: the one where you battle several waves of Kelpies after the
Ok, CONS of the Gameplay.
RUSH NODE, FLEE NODE, REPEAT: Much of Transcend is spend rushing all across the GTVA, sometimes escorting someone and usually with something chasing you.The missions end up a repetitive pattern: You rush at a jump node with your wingmen. Pursuers warp in behind you. You keep running, trigger dialogue as you approach, reach the node, and warp into it- sometimes you have to wait for whatever your escorting.
On the following mission you copme out of the node with the pursuit following you. You wait for your jump drive to recharge (equal to the amount of time it takes to kill four wings of fighters) and then warp out...
To another jump node. And it happens again. And again. And again...
The gameplay becomes very repetitive, without anything for you to do but dogfight and jump, dogfight and jump.
PLAYABLE CUTSCENES: The main break in this pattern comes with "playable cutscene" missions: missions with gameplay but no enemies. Playable cutscene missions aren't bad in themselves- take Blue Planet for example- but have say, four of them in a row only worsens the generally disappointing gameplay. BP uses them rarely and with justification- they're super short ("A Blue Planet...") or at impactful plot moments ("...With Vast Seas"). Transcend, however, uses them all over the place as settings for conversations or exploration, and not always at impactful plot points. To sum it up, Playable Cutscenes are not bad and can be used well, but Transcend overuses them. Like Sync, Transcend puts story first and gameplay second, so this is to be expected.
LOADOUT: Like Sync, you're stuck in your fighter for a straight 42 missions. And your loadout is worse than Sync
You have a Hercules II this time, so durability and maneuverability are better, but weapons are much worse: a bank of Subachs and a bank of Prometheus Rs for primaries, and 32 Harpoons (less than Sync) and 100 highly inaccurate Hornets for secondaries. I facepalmed when, on mission 3, Sunder turned down the offer of a better fighter. Oh well.
At least, like Sync, your fighter repairs/rearms between missions (magically, but I won't complain; any realistic solution would have rendered the campaign unplayable.)
TIP: Like Sync, Transcend is best played on Very Easy at a good pace. The gameplay just isn't the main point.
Now for AESTHETICS! Credit goes to
CUTSCENE SKILL: Ransom makes superb use of short cutscenes during missions to add to the nerve-wracking atmosphere. If your screen jumps... you're about to see something bad.
MUSIC: Mostly retail, but Ransom did use one very eerie sounding track that apparently was a track from another game played in reverse. Fits the one mission it's in perfectly.
MOSTLY RETAIL: Transcend doesn't use very many user-made ships: just the GTF Kelpie (dangerously powerful heavy fighter) and GTSC Plato (combat-capable version of the Faustus). Both look fine; the Kelpie is somewhat reminiscent of the Apollo, while the Plato looks like a Faustus on steroids (which it pretty much is).
BACKGROUNDS: There's one early mission notable for its dramatic planetary background
As for CONS of the aesthetics...
NOT VAed: It's not voice acted yet. Honestly, I'm ok with that. Anything less than BP:AoA level voice acting would demolish this campaign. Better no voice acting at all than, say, Derelict-class acting.
Don't get me wrong, I like Derelict, and its voice acting works great FOR DERELICT
. Problem is, Transcend and Sync have such a delicate atmosphere that voice acting like that would blow it. In this kind of story, if it ain't good enough to show, don't show it; leave it to the audience's imagination. As it is, the lack of voices adds to the eerie/lonely air of the story, and it would take really good voice acting to replace that.
Ok, that brings us to TECHNICAL STUFF. Credit... ya... Ransom.
MISSIONS SEEM TO WORK FINE: Exactly what it says on the tin.
NOT HARDWARE INTENSIVE: As opposed to Blue Planet.
MOD.INI: Sync was made a while back, so if you want the MediaVPs (with are plot-significant at one point because of the backgrounds), you need to edit the mod.ini
NOT FOOLPROOF: As a whole the missions work fine if you do what you're obviously supposed to be doing. Goofing around (shoot allies, blowing up cargo crates) is known to break them. Safe for the wise.
While Transcend is similar in many ways to Sync, it is a massive improvement on its predecessor. Transcend takes the plot aspects that made Sync worth playing and magnifies them greatly, making it more dramatic and much scarier while making the player into more of a hero and less of an "along for the ride" guy. I greatly approve of Ransom's decision to give Sunder Marcel a name and (unacted) dialogue. The smaller cast of characters actually makes each character come out stronger.
Not only in terms of story, but also in terms of FREDing, Ransom has upped the quality. Creative use of specialized FRED features adds greatly to the atmosphere.
Transcend still suffers from Sync's weak gameplay, and in fact is even MORE repetitive, although on the other hand it at least has somewhat more action than it's precursor and at least one gem of a mission. IMO, Transcend is harder than Sync.
Overall, Transcend isn't for everyone. But if you feel like you can survive a good horror story, and you're willing to forgive the gameplay (again, play it quickly on Very Easy), I highly recommend trying it!
Hope this helped! I believe that reviews need to be reviewed, so I'd love to see some player's comments on whether or not this was helpful, any developer replies to my comments, or general questions.
Next up is the Windmills segment. Stay tuned...