Sometimes you just have to figure things out yourself. In a gaming landscape dominated by mandatory tutorials, pop-up hints, and glowing markers, Transistor takes us back to a yesteryear-like feel from the very beginning, where it is up to us to figure out how we want to play in a vague structure of a story.
That became most obvious to me in the screen after the game’s title card, when the game expected me to press a button to start, whereas I was expecting a menu, a cutscene, or even a “press A to begin” to show up. I waited a good 15 seconds or so before I realized I had to press something, but it was the first time in recent history when I had to mentally check-in just to start the game. That was a good indicator of the world Supergiant Games had in store for me in their follow-up to Bastion.
Nothing is quite what we expect it to be in Transistor‘s world of Cloudbank. Right from the start, we’re introduced to our herione Red, a singer rendered voiceless after an attempt on her life, guided by her deceased protector, whose essence is now trapped in the Transistor, a sword-that-isn’t-a-sword. On face value, that sentence almost seems like an inherent paradox. But in Transistor, that story just works. It’s not about the minutiae; it’s just about a compelling starting point. The Camerata attempted to kill Red, and now she’s going to return the favor. Along the way, Red discovers the Camerata’s motivations and an even bigger threat seeking to swallow up Cloudbank, whose culture and presence is revealed through computer terminals, menu text, and Logan Cunningham’s omnipresent commentary as the Transistor, as opposed to direct exposition. That’s what gives weight and color to the otherwise simple plot and ultimately what makes us care.
Visually, Transistor is stunning, as was expected from the people who brought us Bastion. But although they share a similar action RPG backbone, Transistor trades Bastion‘s lush nature for one of futuristic cyberpunk. The subdued skyscrapers lit in neon highlights color the city, starkly contrasting with the clinical white that seeps through as The Process claims the city.
Similarly, the soundtrack accompanying the game is befitting a heroine who draws crowds with her voice. The jazzy songs just fit her character design; there’s something just so natural about it for our main character. The fact that she can stop to hum along with the background music certainly helps this, and, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself holding that button more than once throughout the game.
While the visuals and sounds are noteworthy in and of themselves, Transistor‘s gameplay is where the game shines. The game is combat-focused, mixing real-time action with strategic, turn-based planning. And, largely, learning how to best utilize those modes is an exercise unexplained. Aside from letting you know that pulling the right trigger starts the Turn() function (all the names are written in this cute pseudo-pseudocode, for reasons that are never stated but should be ripe for interpretation), the game lets you figure out what’s best for yourself. Early on, there’s even a small joke, where arrows pointing to “recommended move” rain from the sky, a nod from the developers that any move can be a “recommended move” depending on how you play.
And, actually, that’s the fun part. When you start, Red can equip four active functions (mapped to the face buttons on the controller), which can each be equipped with one support function. As you level up, you can unlock four passive function slots and additional support slots. Everything has an equip cost, so it’s a game to mix and match the combination of active, support, and passive to best suit your abilities. During the Turn(), time stops, allowing Red to plan her movement path and the execution of several functions in a near-instantaneous amount of time. The more you do in a Turn(), the more time required to recharge your meter — and during recharge, you can’t do much more than run. It’s a balancing act between executing functions and maintaining defense. Close range attacks tend to have smaller turn costs, but a long range loadout combined with defense down could take enemies down in one hit. Stealth increases backstabbing damage, but lifesap gives back needed HP. You have to balance Red’s arsenal to best suit your particular play style.
Adding to the puzzle that is every battle, the enemies present a steadily increasing challenge as well. As you level up, the enemies (called “The Process”) level up with you. With every step up, they get increased life and other bonuses, like shields, masking, ally spawns, etc. Toward end game, some enemies even gain the ability to obscure the screen during Turn() planning or to cancel Turn() planning altogether, making some of the more strategic choices all the more challenging. If you fight in real-time, you’ll likely lose since they’re faster than you, but executing Turn() to perform your attacks quickly in an obscured state can become the strategic equivalent of “spray and pray.” Every fight is a new test: do you have a good combination of equipped functions to take on the bad guys and can you figure out which enemies provide the most immediate problems? Finding that answer with each passing battle is easily what makes this game such a joy.
In another example of subverting certain expectations, losing all of your HP doesn’t actually end your game, it only adds to the challenge of a battle. Right before death, you’re given an emergency Turn() to launch a series of attacks in an attempt to finish off your opponent. If you fail to do so, your strongest active function is “overloaded” (i.e., disabled) and you’re given a full HP bar. Now, the name of the game is to see if you can stragetize your way to victory using only whatever functions are left. (I should note that you can actually die if you have no more functions left to overload.)
Transistor gives you a great battle system, and lets you figure out the rest. After mixing and matching various functions, you will find out which ones best suit you. If you play in the Backdoor (heh), the game will provide various challenges with a fixed, predetermined set of functions. Not only do these challenges provide for fun diversions, they were critical in teaching how certain combinations work together in specific situations (for me, anyway.)
While I’ve spent this entire review thus far just singing the game’s praises, it’s not quite perfect. For example, you can increase the difficulty with limiters that power your enemies or depower Red. While these give increase your XP gain, I haven’t found much of a compelling reason to use them; you level up quickly enough just playing straight. Additionally, it’s frustrating to not have the ability to check your functions and what they do (especially in the Backdoor, where you might be given a preset loadout containing a function you haven’t seen yet.) When you’re trying to test out new combinations, it would be beyond helpful to be able to check to see exactly what part is doing what. Lastly, while I’m glad it exists, I don’t see myself digging to far into New Game +, as there doesn’t appear to be a compelling reason to keep going. While I want very much to keep playing in Red’s world, there isn’t much in the way of exploration in the game, so there isn’t anything new to discover in a new playthrough — and I don’t see much point in experiencing the exact same events again (at least, not immediately. It’ll be great to start from this point again in, say, a year from now.)
The biggest problem I had with the game is that it sometimes seemed too focused on leaving things unanswered just to be mysterious, as if to draw attention to how clever it’s being. It’s clear that there’s a certain point Transistor is trying to make (particularly with the final scenes of the game) that what isn’t said can be just as important as with what is said, but while I enjoy the subtle hand that they’ve taken with the story, sometimes I felt it was taken just a bit too far. I only felt this way a scant two or three times throughout the game, though, so again, while this is my “biggest” problem, overall it is a mere quibble compared to the overwhelming fun I had playing the game.
Rating: Very highly recommended. Transistor is a clever game that trusts you’ll find your way to play to make it through to the end.
Transistor is available now on PlayStation 4 and PC (via Steam.)
Reviewed on PC, played with an Xbox Controller (the AI changes to show A, B, X, Y!). The PS4 version is identical, except that Cunningham’s voice can come through the controller speaker, letting the Transistor talk to you, much like it talks to Red.