Transistor | Review
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Ratings: not rated PC version provided on behalf of Supergiant Games. Thank you.
Supergiant Games found recognition with their beautiful action-RPG Bastion. Adaptable narration and a distinct personality defined Bastion, setting up Supergiant’s dedication to games with identity. Transistor is the next ARPG from Supergiant for PC and Playstation 4 – a sci-fi affair set in the futuristic Cloudbank city. With distinct sound and visuals, and a unique combat system, does Transistor continue Supergiant’s success? In a word, yes. In many words, see below.
Transistor is a completely different kind of ARPG than the norm. Where a game like Diablo faces you off against hoards of evil enemies to mow down, unlimited loot to collect, and a strong focus on combat and exploration, Transistor takes a different approach. Transistor is linear, with little to no exploration. There is no loot. Levelling gives you one or two choices between a handful of total abilities. Transistor is narrative driven first and foremost, and it tells its story with confidence and panache.
You are thrust into the role of famous singer Red after a violent attack takes the life of her bodyguard. The huge blade-like weapon called the Transistor, instead of rendering a person to death like killing a person usually does, absorbs the unnamed bodyguard’s personality and fuses him to the weapon. With Red’s voice gone, her bodyguard’s body lost, and the newly bound Transistor in her possession, Red sets off through a city under siege by newly arrived digital creatures called Processes after the Camerata – the group responsible for everything.
Transistor skimps on exposition, trusting the player to pick up the details as they go along. Unfortunately, although the story is simple enough, it does suffer from a few holes as a result of this vague approach. Despite being occasionally confused due to the lack of information in the plot, the charisma of the characters picked up the narrative slack and adds a poignant strength to the story’s ending.
Interactions between mute Red and the sardonic Transistor are genuinely charming, with the disembodied bodyguard’s sometimes dry humour and real affection for his charge lending weight to their plight. There is tragedy too, as Red cares for her bodyguard deeply, striving to undo the damage done to him.
Red, despite having no voice, has her own distinct presence in the game. In game, you can occasionally find terminals that deliver snippets of exposition, to which Red will type a reply. It’s an opportunity to give Red a direct voice that works well, especially in conjunction with the Transistor. There are also rare painted backdrops that serve as exposition or character points and show Red’s expressions and emotions wonderfully. While not overly expressive, there are subtle ways that her feelings are conveyed – mostly in response to the Transistor’s speeches. One of the more touching moments happens when Red returns to her apartment after fighting her way through hostile processes.
In a single painted panel, we see her happily enjoying a cold pizza, smiling, relaxed, with a jacked draped around the Transistor. He tells us how good the pizza place is, and muses on how it must taste. Then it’s time to leave again. Leaving, he asks Red why she locks herself out of her own apartment, stops himself, and gives a resigned “oh”. Red says nothing, does nothing – the door locking isn’t even animated. But we know exactly how she feels in that moment – her resolve, her devotion, her fear. That is Transistor’s triumph in characterisation, and it happens intermittently but always specially.
It is, however, the Transistor’s show, and his performance and presence tends to take over. Like Bastion before it, Transistor has a narrator that follows your actions. While not as comprehensive or as adaptable as Bastion’s, Transistor’s narrator always keeps you company. Voice actor Logan Cunningham lends a noir melancholy to the role, sometimes funny, sometimes optimistic, always regretful and tragic. His performance is spot on, really carrying the mood of the game and defining the characters’ interactions. The Transistor’s voice is perhaps a little too dominant compared to Red, but the two do complement each other well.
Combat is a bizarre dance between real-time ARPG action and turn-based planning – an unexpected fusion that takes a little bit of getting used to. Partly to blame for the time it takes to get comfortable with combat is the lack of a tutorial. You’re dropped into the game and forced to learn how it all works as you go along. I suspect this is to mirror Red’s own discovery of her new abilities granted by the Transistor, and for that purpose it works. However, with no clear explanation of UI elements or mechanics, or a real “soft” tutorial area, it does at times feel a little inaccessible.
But when it finally clicks in your brain, it really works. You can approach combat two ways – in real-time, or by freezing time and planning out your Turn. Attacks made in real-time have no cooldown, but they take time to execute, lack precision, and let enemies move around. Using Turn freezes time around you, giving you a measure of how much you can perform in the form of a bar at the top of the screen. Each action and movement consumes its own portion of the bar, limiting how much you can do in a given Turn. You can use this to plan out which targets you will attack with what abilities, and how you will get out again. Unfreezing time executes your attacks immediately, with enemy movement slowing to a crawl as Red zips around carrying out your orders. It takes time to recharge your Turn bar after it empties, and you cannot take normal actions until it’s back to full again. It’s strategic, and, once you get the hang of it, very satisfying to pull off.
Killing an enemy doesn’t mean they’re dead, though. Most Processes will spawn “Cells” on their death, which is basically a respawn counter. If Red doesn’t pick it up in time, that Process can come back with full health, forcing you to kill it again. Cells add a complexity and tension to battle, and there’s nothing quite like missing picking up a Cell by a split second and having to fight that massive tank of a Jerk all over again.
Attacks themselves are where the levelling up and character customisation elements of the ARPG genre come in. As Red levels up, she gains access to abilities– called Functions. These Functions have three purposes: they can be placed in one of Red’s four “Active” slots and used as attacks, put in one of two “Upgrade” slots for each Active Function to add an effect to that specific Active Function, or placed in one of four “Passive” slots to give an overall bonus to everything.
Got that? Four active slots, each of which can be upgraded twice, and four passive slots. For example, you can set Breach Function (a long range projectile) in the first Active slot, making it your first attack. You can upgrade Breach using the Crash Function to add a stunning effect to the attack, and the Ping Function to make it shoot faster and take less room on your Turn bar.
It’s a very flexible system – one that encourages mixing and matching abilities as well as planning ahead. Speccing Red operates on a point buy system at the upgrade stations scattered around the city. Red can only have a certain number of points’ worth of Functions installed at a time, and each Function takes up from one to four points. This forces tough choices and prevents you becoming too immediately overpowered. Red also begins with some passive and upgrade slots locked, further restricting your choices. As you level up you can unlock more passive and upgrade slots, as well as increase your total Memory capacity, making Red more powerful and adaptable.
Another interesting element of levelling up is the introduction and use of Limiters. These have various passive effects, like giving enemies more damage or making them respawn faster. In return, you get a bonus to your XP earned after a battle. The more limiters you add, the quicker you’ll level up, but the more difficult combat will be. It’s totally optional whether to use Limiters or not, and which limiters to use, meaning you can completely customise combat difficulty to suit your play style.
Losing all your health in combat isn’t an immediate death sentence. Each time your health bar empties, your most expensive installed Active Function gets overloaded, disappearing from use. It then takes two visits to a new upgrade terminal to restore its functionality. As you lose more Functions, you lose more attacks, and you lose more combat options. If you lose all your Active Functions, you die, and have to restart from the last upgrade terminal or autosave. It’s a forgiving system, but one that also punishes lapses in strategy. Losing your most powerful attack just before a boss battle can be unpleasant, but since only the Active Function is locked off, you can still rebuild your attack lineup with new Functions.
Aside from the gameplay elements of Functions, each one also has an important expository role too. Every Function is a character, or the remnants of a character. The more you use one, the more information and background on the people of Cloudbank City you’ll be able to access. It’s a compelling touch, one that adds personality and character to otherwise emotionless things, improving the story and adding richness to the world.
Every now and then, accessible through occasional “back doors”, you get the opportunity to visit a secret respite to relax and take on challenge rooms. A surreal beach treehouse closed space offers you a hammock in which to chew the scenery, mull ideas, and generally chill. Aside from the aforementioned hammock and a pet dog and beach ball to fiddle around with, the two most interesting features are a jukebox and a variety of challenge rooms. Anywhere in the room, you can change the background track to whatever takes your fancy – and there is a lot of music that will take your fancy.
Tracks are earned by completing challenges, which are accessed through doors in the tree. Challenges take on a small but interesting range of objectives – survive for a set time, eliminate enemies as fast as possible, beat a number of waves of enemies, and, my favourite, destroy all the foes in one turn. While most of the challenges are self-explanatory, I appreciated the simple purity of the one turn elimination challenges, which not only introduces you to new ways to use your functions, but also presents combat as a puzzle to solve. It’s fascinating how the way framing combat as a puzzle immediately changes how you approach a fight and improves your skills. Each type of challenge has levels that unlock as you progress through the story, and completing one will net you a song and any XP you earn. Most challenges give you a set Function lineup too, which encourages you to try out new setups and combinations in ways you might not have thought of.
While PC controls are perfectly functional, I soon switched to my Dualshock 4. Not only are the controls much more intuitive and responsive, Transistor automatically recognises the DS4 without having to rely on any middleware. Plug it in and Transistor switches button prompts to Playstation symbols. Much more interestingly, it also takes control of the DS4’s lightbar, implementing it on PC exactly like it does on the PS4 version. Your DS4 emits a relaxing light blue that pulses when your Transistor talks, mirroring the hue and pulsing of the on-screen image. While it’s a tiny, gimmicky thing, it adds a wonderfully adorable touch to the game, and it’s very interesting that it works natively on PC. For those with an Xbox 360 controller, Transistor also natively recognises that and changes button prompts appropriately.
Transistor boasts a unique visual identity. Strong, bold colours, modern, clean blocks and lines impress upon the player, filling the screen up with lovely lovely pictures. It’s incredibly stylish and beautiful, taking the almost painterly approach of Bastion and adapting it to a modern futuristic setting. Static painted scenes are rendered in confident brush strokes, showing just how pants-droppingly talented the Supergiant art team is. Transistor is so so pretty.
As a form of virtual tourism in a future-modern utopia, Transistor is masterful. And it knows it, giving you ample time to just eat up the scenery. Instead of interrupting the flow of the game, gawking at the pretty scenery becomes a main feature, and one that fits perfectly with the contemplative mood of the game. Unfortunately, some UI elements are confusing. The game doesn’t easily distinguish between when activating something will give you a nice reflective moment or will move you to the next area, never to return. I missed out on some side content inadvertently by activating the wrong thing before I was done exploring, thinking it wouldn’t move me on.
Transistor lives for its music. And it has amazing music. Jazzy, relaxed, beautiful music. It follows you everywhere, scoring your journey through the city of Cloudbank. Gentle and supportive for the most part, it occasionally ramps up a little during combat, with drum beats and harder edges becoming more apparent. Activating Turn will bring down the track and bring Red’s humming to the fore, outlining that this is her time. A vast selection of music tracks can be accessed from the secret room’s jukebox too, after they’ve been unlocked, giving you a place to chill and listen to the fabulous music. Red herself occasionally utters a series of expressive sighs and gasps, giving her vocal presence.
The most beautiful music is reserved for Red’s vocal tracks, which sometimes play during flashback or story segments. Ashley Barrett’s vocals are truly wonderful, soaring where appropriate but mostly laying down a soft, seductive melody. As a unique feature, Transistor gives you a button solely dedicated to humming. Hold the button and you’ll hear Red hum along with the background track. I think I spent half of my time in the game just humming. Because you can hold a button to hum, and it is glorious.
Transistor is a unique experience. It tells a strong character focused story and has a deep and flexible combat system. But it is also an aesthetic experience, a walk-through art exhibit that feeds your eyes and ears at your leisure. It feels like Transistor was made to look at and listen to, just as much as it was made to tell a story and play. Melding these elements results in a rewarding and affecting five hours of playtime, with a new game plus option to boot. Transistor is not an action filled ARPG, despite its top-down perspective, and those that approach it as a fast-paced slash-‘em-up will not get all that is to be appreciated out of it. Transistor is there to be contemplated, to be considered, to be slowly consumed. And it is delicious.