I've been keeping an eye on Transference ever since Ubisoft first announced it. Okay, I'll admit, part of this is because of Elijah Wood's involvement. What can I say, I'm a fan of the guy. However, I also love trippy narrative games and the aesthetic of Transference was always catching my eye. After being so impressed by it that I gave it my game of the show award at E3, I've eagerly awaited the full release. Now it's here. So does Transference manage to live up to my personal hype, or is it a disappointment?
Transference follows the Hayes family, who have been uploaded into a computer for reasons unknown. The implication is that you are playing as yourself and that you're living through whatever computer program the family is trapped in. While here you'll attempt to discover why the family is trapped, the events that led up to this, and just whose fault it is. It's a really interesting mystery, and by the end of it, I came away with a lot of interesting theories and questions.
This is mostly because you're not going to get much in the way of solid answers, and that's intentional. A game like Transference wants to inspire discussion. It doesn't want to hand you easy answers to big mysteries. There's a ton of little clues that can imply all sorts of different possibilities. Sure there's a chance that Raymond, the Hayes family's patriarch, and scientist, trapped the family in the computer. However, I noticed that Ben Hayes, the son, seemed to really have positive memories of the turbulent period played out here. Did he continue his father's research, as Raymond wanted, and upload himself?
Thankfully the writing is more than good enough to keep this mystery working. Each character is strong and fully fleshed out. There's smart use of replaying the same scene from multiple perspectives so you know how each character saw it. A birthday party seems to have gone off totally perfectly to Raymond, while his wife sees Raymond drunkenly harassing their kid. Even little touches, like finding a photo of the family moving, changes depending on whose perspective you're seeing it from.
Changing perspectives is also important to the gameplay. The basics of Transference are rather simple: you can walk around and interact with objects, and also pick certain objects up to bring with you. As you explore the area in and around the Hays family apartment, you'll find light switches that allow you to switch which character's perspective you see the world through. Each character has different areas they can access and puzzles they can solve. You can also bring items with you between perspectives, allowing you to open up even more.
The puzzles featured in Transference are surprisingly creative. One has you figuring out a password to Ben's room using environmental clues, then spelling it out by finding magnetic letters hidden around the house. Another requires you to play the right notes on a piano to light up all the lights above it. There's quite a bit done here despite the game only really having a few mechanics. The downside is that there's only a handful of puzzles in Transference. There could have been more opportunities for players to think a little. It would have been a nice way to break the game up.
There's also a mysterious shadowy creature in Transference. There's no combat or stealth at play, so you don't need to worry about sneaking around and avoiding the monster. Instead, it mostly just hangs out in specific sections of the apartment and attacks if you get close, which instantly sets you back to a checkpoint. If you listen closely you'll hear strange noises and feel the controller vibrating before you see it, but it's more likely you'll never run into the beast outside of the few pre-determined points where you have to. As such, it's hard to really consider the monster much of a threat, even with fantastic design that features erratic movements that make it look like a horrible life-consuming glitch.
Fantastic design is consistent throughout Transference. Everything always looks like a computer program on the fritz. Objects in the world seem to constantly blink in and out of reality like they can't determine if they really belong or not. Walls slowly turn to static as you approach, while audio clips distort or repeat. Speaking of audio, the quality of the acting thoroughly impressed me. I really have to give special props to Macon Blair, who does an absolutely stunning job as Raymond Hayes. The few times the game uses video segments he just absolutely sells his performance.
You can play Transference with or without VR. Most games I've seen that offer this option have VR as the afterthought, but Transference feels like it's the other way around. It's clear you're supposed to be playing with the VR headset on. The turning speed feels just a bit off when you don't have it, as does the actual movement. It's not enough to ruin the game, but if you have the choice VR is the clear winner here. Thankfully there's plenty of comfort options available for those who need them. The already brilliant atmosphere is so much better with the headset. I lost myself in very strange glitchy hallway and room.
Transference's story is a pure home run backed up by clever puzzles, a fantastic art style, and great acting. Even the non-threat provided by the game's sole enemy can't ruin this. Fans of stories that keep you up at night considering every angle should really take a look at this one. They may just find their next obsession.
TechRaptor reviewed Transference on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC, Xbox One, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift.
Transference combines a fantastic story with great acting and smart puzzles for an experience that manages to really stand out from the crowd.(Review Policy)
- Fantastic Story
- Great Puzzles
- Impressive Acting
- Captivating Atmosphere
- Good Use of VR
- Mildly Clunky Controls
- Not Enough Puzzles
- Monster Doesn't Feel Threatening