Transistor is Supergiant Games’ second game following the wildly successful and critically acclaimed Bastion. Transistor has similar hallmarks as Bastion, what we may now consider the signature features associated with Supergiant games, as Transistor features beautifully hand drawn art, an isometric point of view, wonderful music, and somewhat ARPG (action role-playing game) gameplay. While that may make it sound like Transistor is just Bastion re-skinned, don’t believe it for a second.
To sum up Transistor: it is a mix of ARPG combat and strategy set in a futuristic, sci-fi, sort of apocalyptic world. You play as Red, a singer who lost her voice and can no longer speak. She has a partner with her however, who does plenty of talking, in the form of a circuit board looking sword, called the Transistor. She, with Transistor at her side, sets out to save the city of Cloudbank from the group known as the Camerata, who are seemingly trying to destroy the town with something called the Process, which are the enemies you fight in the game.
The entire game is spent going through a wonderfully developed world to try and figure out the Camerat’s true intentions and what the Process actually is. Cloudbank is an intriguing city which seems to have little to no rules in terms of what is possible. In different messages, and conversations with her sword, we get a feel for the kind of wonders Cloudbank has hidden inside. For example, at one point at a computer terminal, Red had the opportunity to change the weather in the city as she chose.
Through the use of those terminals, which Red often approaches to read the newest headlines and particular news of the moment, we get a good sense of what is going on in the world, as well as insight into who Red is. As mentioned before, Red cannot speak. But, in those terminals, Red can comment on a particular news story and it is through her typing out that comment we get to learn more about her. Several times she will type out what she really thinks to only delete it and put down a more politically correct or mild answer. At some point she uses it to communicate with her sword as well.
The visuals, which are stunning, as you will see throughout this article, combine with the wonderful music and the nuances of Cloudbank to make for extremely compelling storytelling. You learn so much, not just from some character talking, but through the way the game presents itself visually and aurally to set both the tone and progress the story. One particular moment where Red hums into a microphone, fading into the story of the previous night’s events makes for a chilling presentation.
The story may be overwhelming at times, forcing you to stop and think several times to try and figure out exactly what is going on. In some ways it can be confusing, but it is always leaves you with just enough curiosity and wonder to try and figure it all out.
Interestingly, the combat and the story are strongly linked together. Each ability the Transistor contains is linked to what can best be described as a digital signature (digital soul?) of a person that the sword has “absorbed” or “downloaded.” Every character has their own contained story that is slowly revealed as you use the abilities in different ways, which both sheds more light on the overall story as well as give information on how Cloudbank functioned.
Transistor’s combat as a surprising amount of depth contained in a $20 game that takes 6-8 hours to complete. Red, through Transistor, has 16 unique abilities, each of which has three separate functions. At any one time, Red can have four active abilities of the 16, as well as 4 passive abilities. The four active abilities can be modified by the remaining abilities, which Transistor calls “upgrades,” to change how the active ability works, increase its damage, cause the ability to ricochet off other enemies, and a host of other things. Each active ability can be modified by two of the other abilities.
All of the abilities, then, have three functions: what they do as the active ability, what they do as a modifier, and what they do as a passive. The active and modifying ability are usually directly related to one another for each ability, with some of the passive functions of the ability doing something unrelated. For example, there is one ability called “Bounce(),” which as you can guess bounces between enemies. Used as a modifier, or upgrade, Bounce() modifies all of the other abilities by giving them some kind of bounce effect. Its passive gives Red a protective shield.
Just knowing the amount of abilities and how they all can intermingle with one another in seemingly endless combinations, you can already see that there is a lot of depth to Transistor’s combat. It get’s a little more complicated with the mechanic known as “Turn().”
Turn() is the strategic element to Transistor’s combat. When you activate Turn(), Red enters a planning mode where you can map out her movements and sequence of abilities. Turn() is limited, however, by the bar at the top of the screen, which will be taken up by Red moving around and setting up an ability – each ability taking up a different amount of the bar. During Turn(), Red can set up many different combination of abilities, some of which will get a bonus when used with another to do more damage. Most abilities will do more damage when behind an enemy as well, known as a backstab, which plays into the strategy of Turn() as well. After using Turn(), you have to wait for the bar to refill before you can use most of your abilities again as well as go back into Turn() mode.
Certain abilities lend themselves better to Turn() and some are better suited for when you are just running around killing things as you don’t have to use Turn() if you do not want to, but it is almost always smarter to use it than not to, but you have to be careful even then because you are vulnerable after you leave Turn() mode.
Transistor lends itself to many different kinds of gameplay, as you can make yourself a sort or “glass-cannon” and deal as much damage in the biggest AoE as possible, or you can be more tactful and cloak yourself, setting up backstabs. Or you could even set your character up to whittle down your enemies as you run around avoiding being hit by your enemies.
Combat is surprisingly difficult, as are some of the bosses, but the game is more than forgiving when you fail, as each time you lose your health bar, an ability will go with it. Once you run out of your four abilities, you finally fail.
One final thing to mention to the extensive combat mechanics of Transistor is the “Limiters” system, which is an interesting approach to a difficulty system. A Limiter is a self-selected penalty which rewards you with more experience. For example, you can cause more enemies to spawn for a 6% increase to experience. You can set up as few or as many as you want, some of which are more dastardly than others.
Believe it or not, there is actually even more to the combat system (like the enemy variety) than is described here, but that is best left for you to find out.
There is so much more to discover in Transistor (far more than this already long review can pack in), several nice and intriguing surprises, that I will leave to all of you to find on your own. There are plenty of things for a “completionist” kind of player to do as well, some of which definitely piqued my interest enough to start to venture through the game again in the New Game+ mode known as Recursion mode. The combat only gets more outrageously fun, and difficult.
The best way to sum up what is so great about Transistor is just Supergiant’s attention to detail. Everything, from what you see on screen visually to the various systems and mechanics in the game, is full of detail, each piece crafted for a specific purpose.
Transistor is a game full of emotion, oozing with style and wonder in both its presentation and the world its set in, and its combat system impressively lends itself to a multitude of playstyles. It is one of the few games that should appeal to just about anyone who is interested in gaming.
If you can believe it, Transistor surpasses the quality of Bastion in nearly every respect, making it a near perfect game. Easily the best game of the year so far.