The protagonists of Transcripted's story spend a couple of hours puzzling over the origins of a complex and lethal virus, but it will take most players only a few seconds to identify the origins of the game itself. For all its talk of false DNA and Big Pharma, it's a straight-up hybrid of twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars and tile matchers like Zuma, but in a marketplace where developers are mashing together genres like George Mendel blending plant species, it shines as one of the finer efforts. It manages to feel at once like dozens of other games but like nothing you've ever played before, and it's a rewarding experience that's well worth its humble price tag.
As if the odd mixture of Zuma and dual-stick shooters weren't fascinating enough, the storyline also pushes the limits of what's expected. Similar puzzlers usually satisfy the need for context with a vague string of sentences describing plot details; Transcripted bulges with around half an hour's worth of competently voiced dialogue between a nasty pharmaceutical businessman with an English accent, a sleep-deprived programmer named Adam who steers the probe you control, and a female AI named NADIA.
The story is simple fluff that nevertheless achieves a certain charm at times, such as when NADIA and Adam swap quips with all the flirtatiousness of Mass Effect's Joker and EDI, but it also eases Transcripted into a fairly manageable learning curve over its 25 levels. In the early tutorial stages, the idea is that you're just blasting apart strands of malignant DNA in the lab, but as the story veers toward concerns of bioterrorism and alien interference, it introduces killer lasers and pathogens that fire plasma cannons in a way that fits well with the urgency of the storyline. Maintaining the biomedical setting requires an increasingly forced suspension of disbelief with all these lasers going off, but Transcripted handles it well for a game that would have been fine without a story.
That's mostly because it meshes the ideas behind the two genres so well that jumping into the first levels of gameplay without a tutorial requires only that you imagine yourself playing both on the same screen. In each match, you control a probe that fires projectiles at floating pathogens much as you'd fire lasers at space rubble in Asteroids, and you pick up the colored cubes these enemies sometimes drop with the aim of firing them at three or more cubes in the moving pseudo-DNA strands that surround you. It doesn't take long for this formula to get intense (especially when you consider that both Geometry Wars and Zuma get intense enough on their own), which makes the option to independently adjust the difficulty of the shooting and the tile-matching a welcome one. If you're a master of the tile-matching portion but less adept at the shooter aspect, for instance, you can crank the puzzle setting to hard and nudge the shooter portion to easy. Such options are especially useful in the enjoyable boss fights, which hinge on clever uses of the strategies you learn in prior levels.
Transcripted's design makes bold strides toward easing you into its learning curve; for instance, it grants breathing room for shots by temporarily registering the probe as one of the pathogens while it's carrying the globs at the expense of slowed movement. This allows enemy projectiles to bounce off your shield, and cloaks you from enemy pathogens. Elsewhere, upgrades abound, allowing you to install better weapons to blast through enemies more quickly or boost your probe's health and speed if you're dying too much.
The upgrade system inspires replay and bestows a clear sense of progression and improvement, particularly since you can get more credits to spend on the upgrades only if you beat your score from a previous attempt. This detail alleviates concerns of simply replaying easier levels to snag better gear. Further replay value arises from the five challenge rooms, which limit the probe's upgrades and include worldwide leaderboards.
It's a credit to Transcripted's design that you never lose sight of what's going on, thanks to a smart use of color, even in the later stages when the screen is packed with flying projectiles, increasingly complex DNA strands, and enemy pathogens. It's also a visually striking game, with a limited but arresting assortment of backgrounds that mimic the wonders seen through electron microscopes. The visuals are complemented by a softly pulsing soundtrack that suits the biological setting and manages to walk a delicate line between soothing and intense. The combination is such that Transcripted is relaxing once you've mastered its idiosyncrasies, even in the frantic final levels when you're shaking off toxins and attempting to stave off pathogens from specific zones across the map.
Yet for all its strengths, Transcripted isn't without its issues. Its unique hybridization works best when it's playing it safe by simply mashing the two genres together, but it falters when it attempts to introduce gameplay elements of its own. These weaknesses are most apparent in escort missions, which subvert the matching genre by asking you to prevent enemy pathogens from making matches on DNA strands by tossing in white blocks that disrupt the chains. These missions always feel awkward even with the best upgrades, especially since the need to fight at the same time disrupts the extreme concentration and precision required. Elsewhere, the settings screen indicates that you can play Transcripted with an Xbox 360 controller, but plugging one might only activate the hint screen when you press the Y button. Some players have discovered workarounds, but these troubles are a shame, since a controller is better suited to the game than a keyboard and mouse.
But such drawbacks shouldn't dissuade you from giving Transcripted a chance if you like Zuma or Geometry Wars. It's one of the most satisfying twin-stick shooters since the latter made its appearance, and it's another fine example of how new separate genres can feel when you combine them. It's more than challenging enough for veterans of either genre, yet it usually feels fair enough to welcome newcomers, and it evolves with excellent pacing that could appeal to almost anyone.