When I finished playing Transistor, I immediately started it up again, much like it did with Supergiant’s other game, Bastion. It is a sleek, beautiful, and satisfying experience with touches that just ooze the studio’s signature (as much as a signature as you can have after one product) embellishments. But more than that, it’s the foundation that supports the fancy, artful veneer that makes it so good.
Transistor is, as previously mentioned, the second release from Supergiant Games. The developers have returned with a remix of what made their freshman product Bastion so distinctive: an isometric view, a unique and voiceless hero, moody and charming voiceover from Logan Cunningham, and a deliciously beautiful and colorful world built so richly and completely that it’s impossible to ignore.
This time, however, they tell the story of a woman named Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank, and entirely digital realm governed by the same rules and regulations as would run a computer. She pulls a sword from a body only to discover it embodies the voice and, ostensibly, the consciousness of a person. It is the Transistor and soon becomes her partner and her voice as she prepares to engage with an ominous foe called the Camerata.
There’s a great deal that the game reveals as it progresses and turns this already intriguing premise into one of revenge and mystery, almost in a neo noir fashion. But the delivery of the story loses some of its steam as the flavor text you discover through terminals and logs of text quickly become far more interesting than the main event but infinitely slower to get through. The plot starts off quite nicely, throwing heavy impetus at you as problems and urgency pile up like bruises in a moshpit.
As you meet more characters, however, it starts to feel like the events of the story happen and you are meant to care more about it than they or even Red does. It’s a little disappointing since the world of Cloudbank is so well realized and interesting, begging to be explored and mined for tasty morsels of backstory, but in the end, Transistor‘s story sits closer to the bewildering side of the table than the memorable.
That is but one side of this multifaceted game, though. Its core sits as an action game, centered around combat and strategy, and it excels so incredibly far and above what you might expect from it. It looks an awful lot like going around and whacking things with a sword, but the Transistor actually enables Red to freeze time and plot her moves out in advance.
While you can go about and stab Processes (the game’s nomenclature for enemies) to your heart’s content, you probably won’t find much success. At any given time in combat, you can stop time and move around the battlefield and queue up Functions (read: abilities) without being impeded by silly things like taking damage. You can undo or redo or simply sit and think as much as you want before you engage. Well, so long as your action bar can support your moves.
Doing so, however, will leave you vulnerable and unable to do anything for a few seconds. This forces you to consider the balance of inflicting damage and taking cover and always thinking a step ahead of where either you or your enemies are. And given the varied combinations of Processes you encounter, you will always have to predict and discover what that advantage really means. It’s an incredibly satisfying cycle of enemy engagement.
Not utilizing your brain and trying to just pound through foes will result in an unconventional and severe punishment as each time you go down, you lose one of your Functions. Like, completely. You can’t use it until you make it to the next save point, rendering perhaps your primary and most successful strategy totally worthless because you can’t even try it.
This, though, is not a negative, as much as it might sound like it. You see, as you collect Functions (another benefit of the Transistor, turning citizens of Cloudbank into discrete abilities), you can either equip them directly onto a face button for usage or you can combine them with a previously equipped Function, resulting in a new attack.
For example, Jaunt is normally just a dash move, allowing you to dodge attacks. Spark just dumps out explosive nuggets. Throw Spark onto Jaunt and you then shoot out bombs in your dashing wake. Bounce fires off ricocheting projectiles while Help calls in a friend to aid you in battle. Put Help on Bounce and now you have a 50-percent chance that Cells, the floating collectibles that appear after you defeat and enemy and threaten to become new ones, won’t even spawn.
The combinations are deep and almost entirely useful, which means that the strange punitive measures of taking away what you’ve earned and learned to use and rely on is really an encouragement for you to explore new options and find new Functions to appreciate. It’s partly the sense of discovery but also the idea that strategies and advantages and disadvantages are always appearing and disappearing, gaining and losing relevancy, as you play the game that makes the combat so appealing.
It also helps that the game is so gosh darn pretty. It’s flush with super saturated and bright colors and fantastical vistas that make you wish you could live vivid walls forever. Things glow and move and bounce and roll with such character and liveliness that it’s nearly disarming. And combine that with the unreal music—catchy and haunting and comforting all at once—that plays such an integral part of the story and you have a sensory treat in every possible regard.
Then there are the small touches that are easily glossed over but are seemingly quintessential to a Supergiant game. Much like in the way Bastion worked within a wholly recognizable and particular idiomatic speech, Transistor tells you to “come closer” to things worth inspecting. It sings with personality in its comments on online forums and becomes interactive in its polls. And if you’re worried about Logan Cunningham being a one-note performer, his turn as the Transistor’s voice is totally fresh but equally compelling as before.
For as tepid as the actual story was, Transistor found its way through its layered and incredible foundation of deep and fulfilling combat and its unbelievable aesthetic, bringing to life a mysterious but infinitely intriguing world of digital denizens and functions and processes. It has its problems, but Transistor more than makes up for them with its overflowing and overwhelming strengths.
+ Gorgeous visuals and chilling, brain-addling music
+ Deep and complex combat and ability configurations
+ The world of Cloudbank is endlessly exciting to think about
– Story falls short of what it promises in the beginning and perpetuates through its worldbuilding
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Transistor
Release: May 20, 2014
Genre: Turn-based action
Developer: Supergiant Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC