Transistor Review: Tactical Allure

Transistor_Wallpaper_1920x1080“Hey, Red. We’re not going to get away with this, are we?”

Transistor starts boldly and isn’t afraid to let players figure out mechanics and story for themselves. That sense of mystery and discovery fills every moment of the second game from Supergiant Games, creators of the wonderfully unique Bastion. While it can be slightly intimidating at first, Transistor quickly becomes a very satisfying and unique game that shares many similarities with Bastion, but is never beholden to old ideas.

Transistor takes place in futuristic city called Cloudbank built on the idea of choice. You can be whomever you want to be: a singer, an artist, or even a professional trickster. If you don’t like the color of the sky, you can vote for a new color at the nearest OVC Terminal. However Transistor opens after a mysterious computer-driven virus called the Process starts consuming Cloudbank and destroying the very choice the city was founded on. You play as Red, a popular singer gone mute, on a mission of revenge against the Camerata, a handful of the city’s elite who nearly killed her. The Kill Bill-esque story comparisons stop there as Transistor isn’t about revenge at all costs — it’s about hope in a dying world. The narrative plays out mostly through the voice of the Transistor, a giant talking sword Red lugs behind her as if all of this is too heavy a burden for just one person.

Transistor employs a largely opaque narrative, letting players fill in the blanks of their own accord and never truly revealing its secrets. The Transistor will talk to Red, telling her about Cloudbank’s suffering and the different environments you travel to, but Transistor doesn’t bother with many specific plot points. It is far more focused on using environment and mood to tell its story. On its face, the story presented isn’t all that interesting. Yet as you delve deeper into the themes and lore of Transistor, everything sort of clicks and becomes far more than the sum of its parts.

While Transistor’s combat system is slightly bewildering at first, it becomes immensely satisfying once you understand the core concepts and can eliminate groups of enemies in one turn. Combat plays out in real time, but at any moment you can halt the action and chain up a number of attacks that will execute in rapid succession. This creates a necessity for more strategic planning in order to be effective in battle. Transistor has a good number of enemy types that continue to get more challenging as the game continues, which forces you to be even more tactical.

You have to be mindful of everything within the battlefield. If you don’t effectively chain attacks and understand all of the different enemy types, things can get very difficult very quickly. If your health reaches zero, one of your active Functions will overload and become useless for an extended period of time. While it might seem negative, the extra challenge only makes pulling off crazy attack chains even more rewarding.

All of the Functions — the game’s jargon for abilities — can be fitted into active, upgrade, or passive slots within the combat hotbar. There are dozens of combinations for the different Functions, all viable and rewarding in their own way. In addition to offering more effective combat strategies, experimenting with Function combinations will uncover the history of various Cloudbank citizens. By fitting the Functions in different slots, you discover more rich and compelling lore about characters’ lives, Cloudbank as a city, and how everything went bad so quickly.

Transistor is absolutely beautiful. The artstyle perfectly captures the more somber tone where all beauty and difference are being snuffed out by the order and bleakness of the Process. While Transistor looks fantastic, it sounds even better. Logan Cunningham’s voice acting infuses the world with life and mystery. The soundtrack by Darren Korb captures the oppressive society of Cloudbank and the flickers of hope in a seemingly lost world. “We All Become” will be stuck in your head for hours if not days after you’ve finished the game.

Transistor exudes so much charm and style that you’d be hard-pressed not to be pulled into its world. The combat is frantic, challenging, and satisfyingly different from most games. Even with its relatively short runtime of 6-7 hours, Transistor offers up a new game plus mode that, if you’re a fan of the awesome combat, you’ll definitely want take advantage of. While there were a couple of combat-hitching bugs on the PC and a hard crash at the most inopportune time, Transistor is such a pleasantly different experience than many of the games on offer so far this year.