Transistor – Review
In 2011, the independent developer, Supergiant Games, released Bastion with wide critical acclaim. Three years later, they would head in a completely different direction with Transistor. While not quite the same game as Bastion, Transistor shares the same passion, artistry, and brilliance that make both games a “must play” experience.
Transistor takes place in the cyber-like city of Cloudbank. A popular singer named, Red, is shown removing a giant greatsword known as “The Transistor” from the chest of a familiar, yet, unidentified man. Having lost her voice as result, Red discovers the spirit and voice of the slain man is trapped in The Transistor. Soon, she is pursued by a robotic force known as, “The Process”, and a secret organization called, “The Camerata”, as they both attempt to remove The Transistor from Red’s possession for an unknown purpose.
Much of the game’s story is left intentionally vague and difficult to follow initially, only being made aware of the plot as it progresses. The characters of Red and the unidentified man, who serves as Red’s guide, are also in the dark as to what’s happening. Much of the game’s lore is told through character biographies, obtained from new powers, and computer terminals. It’s not until a second playthrough when the story starts to make more sense. Although the story is designed to generate discussion well after the game is completed, much of what makes the story intriguing will likely be ignored as some players likely won’t be willing to stick with the game long enough to uncover it. It’s unfortunate because it’s apparent the team at Supergiant Games spent a lot of time crafting their world.
Transistor isn’t afraid to make the player work to uncover its story. This is most apparent when reading character biographies. Every power absorbed by The Transistor, literally represents a character’s spirit in the game just like Red’s faceless companion. In order to reveal more about each character’s history, you must use their representative power, aka “Function”, in three different ways: in a main ability slot, a boost slot, and a passive slot. If you enjoy reading lore in video games, this is an excellent technique for encouraging combat experimentation, and this is important because Transistor’s combat is insanely deep.
As previously mentioned, Functions have three different abilities with similar characteristics. They can be assigned as an Active ability, a Passive ability, or as an Upgrade attached to an Active ability. One Function called, “Crash()”, is a standard melee attack with a stun property when used in an Active slot. Add Crash() to an Upgrade slot on another Function, and that Function now has a stun property of its own. If placed in a Passive slot, Crash() grants damage resistance and Red is immune to slowing attacks. Since each of the four Active slots contains two Upgrade slots, the complexity of power combinations can be quite overwhelming, branching off into hundreds of possibilities. Add in the fact that each Function cost a certain amount of ability points with a cap limit, the level of strategy is staggering. Expect to spend hours obsessively managing your Functions.
Combat in Transistor is separated into two fighting methods: real-time combat and a turn based system called, “Turn()”. Real-time combat is pretty straight forward, and has the main advantage of eliminating the cooldown of Functions. Turn() combat’s advantage is the ability to freeze time and plan out your moves to maximize your efficiency in battle. Each action taken, including running, cost a certain amount of ability points. The major drawback to using this method is the loss of the ability to attack while the Turn() meter recharges. Most of my playthrough consisted of abusing the powers of Turn() combat, however, in my New Game+ run I was able to rely on real-time combat more easily. Adhering to the range of Functions was sometimes a frustrating process. Sometimes enemies appeared to fall in range of an attack, but were blocked for seemingly no reason.
Transistor’s twist on health is a unique concept that you will either love or hate. Instead of having traditional lives, when Red takes a hit with an empty health meter, one equipped Active Function will be locked; any Functions attached to that slot cannot be used until you activate an access point. As long as Red’s health is empty, she will continue to lose one of four Active slots with each subsequent hit. The game ends once all Active slots are exhausted. When struggling on a section of the game, this can seem like a very punishing process – which it is. At the same time it encourages the player to constantly change playstyle and strategy on the fly. Often times you will rely heavily on one Function. When that Function is suddenly gone, combat can get fairly tense as you switch tactics. I’ll admit I did not like this system at first, but I grew to appreciate it because it enables you to use Functions in ways you normally wouldn’t attempt.
An interesting take on adjusting difficulty is the inclusion of, “Limiters”. As Red levels-up, she will gain Limiters that add handicaps to certain aspect of the game while also gaining experience bonuses. With 10 slots to fill, Limiters can be used in any combination and are completely optional. Using Limiters will also unlock additional lore on the various enemies in the game. Those looking for a challenge have that option to modifying the difficulty to their liking in unique, and I wouldn’t mind if more games tried this approach.
Colorful and rich with style, the cyberpunk world of Cloudbank bares resemblance to Rapture from Bioshock in terms of its color scheme and architecture, but adds enough personality to stand out on its own.
Supergiant Games hit a home run with Transistor’s stellar soundtrack, beautifully sung by Ashley Lynn Barrett and composed by Darren Korb, both involved in the soundtrack for Bastion. The sound is a unique blend of electronic and rock with jazzy vocals. The music is one of the strongest points of the game, and Transistor wouldn’t nearly be the same without it.
Transistor is an example of video game art at its finest. Although the story can be hard to follow, those who enjoy it will be discussing their interpretations long after completion. The game is relatively short with much of your time dedicated to adjusting your ability loadout (My New Game+ run only lasted about 5 hours), but I felt the game to be at a satisfying length. There are many things Transistor does right so its flaws can be easily overlooked. Supergiant Games have certainly created an impressive duo of games in their short existence, and I’m anxiously waiting what’s in store next.
Style – Single-player, Action RPG
Publisher – Supergiant Games
Developer – Supergiant Games
Release – May 2014
- 5.0 – Gameplay
- 4.5 – Graphics
- 5.0 – Sound
- 5.0 – Entertainment
- 4.0 – Replay Value