Transistor, an action role-playing game by Supergiant Games, is actually a title I’d played about a month ago now. As a huge fan of the team’s previous game, Bastion, I made sure to pick up Transistor as soon as I’d gotten my PS4. However, seeing as it’s available free to all PlayStation Plus subscribers this February, I figured what better time than to share my thoughts on it.
The game drops the player in media res as Red, the mute, red-haired heroine who begins her adventure by taking up what appears to be a talking sword-like object, the titular Transistor. Much like Bastion, the Transistor reacts to your environments and situations as you proceed, slowly piecing together the dense mysteries of the world and your role in it. The game world, Cloudbank, is home to a rich tapestry of interesting lore and characters. Players will need to actively seek out information on the narrative, as much of it is learned from informative text given from utilizing the game’s combat system. Though it may take players some time to get their bearings in the plot they are dropped so suddenly into, I felt it was rewarding to slowly understand the narrative and setting properly. Ultimately, Transistor’s narrative is very open ended and encourages discussion and examination, which can be a bit tiresome if you come seeking a more straightforward and comprehensible story. This kind of storytelling is a bit refreshing though, and I appreciate games that can generate a lot of conversation.
The plot itself wouldn’t be as interesting if not presented in such a beautiful way. The graphical fidelity won’t blow anyone’s minds, but it’s used skillfully and artistically to portray some gorgeous looking locales. The computer-like setting is a sight to behold, and often the game will takes advantage of this to let players enjoy the view. The characters and artwork are drawn strikingly and really help the world stand out as something utterly unique. Transistor really is a pretty game, and its presentation may be its strongest point. The one downside to the visuals I found was the game’s isometric perspective, which can sometimes lead to confusion on the actual layout of the map, and it may take a few moments to understand where the barriers actually are, as well as distinguishing the sense of depth in some areas.
You won’t come across too many characters in Cloudbank, but those that you do are incredibly well acted, and help make the story that much more engaging. The music is also one Transistor’s highest notes, written and produced by Darren Korb, who had also worked on Bastion’s brilliant soundtrack. Described as “old-world electronic post-rock” by Korb, it sets the stage perfectly in Cloudbank, making the game a truly immersive experience as you wander its sullen city streets. And just to add its musical score, despite Red’s inability to talk, she can uniquely hum along to each track at the press of a button. It’s the little things.
The bulk of your time in Transistor however will be engaging with its deep combat system. Players will have to make use of real-time and turn-based tactics-like combat, a process referred to as “Turn()” to battle against the Process, the enemies swarming Cloudbank. Entering Turn() freezes enemies, and players will have a limited amount of meter to burn by using attacks and traversing the arena. Once initiated, you’ll have to wait for the meter to fill back up to use any attacks, real-time (which uses no meter) or otherwise, often forcing players to judge which attack plan will be more efficient. It can take a little getting used to, but think V.A.T.S. in Fallout.
Red’s attacks and abilities, referred to as “Functions”, are gained through story progression as well as leveling up. Each function can serve up to three roles, an attack, a passive ability, or an upgrade to an attack. The number of slots can all be upgraded, allowing the player to have an unimaginably huge assortment of options when deciding a method of attack. I think the amount of options can be very overwhelming at first, and maybe too vast (calculated to be about 22 billion possible combinations!), especially when some layouts are objectively much better than others. Combat can actually get a bit repetitive when you find one combination that works effectively, but the game tries to alleviate this by unlocking Cloudbank’s backstory information from the usage of every function being used as each of the three options.
Death is handled by having each of Red’s four attacks taken away in turn before a game over screen, a process that I honestly found frustrating. When using an attack I found to be optimal for the situation, having it disappear on me after losing one of my lives often lead to giving up and letting myself die just to have that attack return. It’s another way Transistor attempts to shake up your techniques, however when some attacks are undeniably more useful than others, it can be irritating to be forced to resort to less effective options.
In the end, Transistor is a game with stunning presentation and many unique and clever ideas that are held back a bit by its sometimes frustrating and overwhelming combat system, as well a plot that while interesting, may leave you scratching your head. You’ll be left with a memorable impression of Cloudbank and its inhabitants though, along with more than enough fun and exciting encounters, and I think Transistor is still definitely worth the play. While not as strong as its predecessor Bastion, it still left me a huge fan of Supergiant Games and very excited for their future.
Definitely make sure to download Transistor as part of PlayStation Plus’ offering for PS4 this month!