- Editor's Rating
- Creative combat
- Engaging aesthetic
- Mature, thoughtful narration
- Peripheral character's dialog can run-on
Quick TakeTransistor is an incredibly well produced experience that respects both your intelligence and your time. There are moments where the narration and the writing don’t quite meet the high-bar set by the overall experience, but few games can claim to have crafted a better tale.
I can tell right away that Red is someone of stature. Her short, fiery-red hair looks like something straight out of a 1940’s jazz lounge. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that she’s a famous performer. A feathered yellow cocktail dress tightly hugs her slender frame, but it’s the large men’s sports jacket that catches my eye. The over-sized garment drapes over her shoulders with room to spare, while the bottom half trails away into the wind like it’s trying to escape.
The owner of that jacket captures Red’s attention in soft and solemn tone. “Hey Red, we’re not going to get away with this, are we?” He’s not looking for an actual answer. His voice is thick with sorrow and fatigue. I never catch the man’s name. His body lies hunched over. I can see his silhouette, but I never get a good look at his features. The words never travel from his mouth, instead they emanate from the large sword lodged in his chest cavity.
It’s a fatal wound, at least in the technical sense. His body lies unresponsive, but his consciousness appears to be intact, trapped within the powerful azure blade known as the Transistor. Yet as his body withers away before him, his only concern remains Red.
She’s lost her voice, and the city is being overrun. He implores her to flee, to save herself, but she’s steadfast in her resolve. She must find a way to save him, to bring him back.
They’re competing wills, but they’re also one in the same. He’s her voice and she’s his sense of agency. They rely on each other and I found myself often relying on both. I was always in control of Red, but it was often through the lens of the man trapped within the sword that I saw the world.
He assumes the role of the narrator, not completely unlike the old man Rucks in Supergiant Games’ previous endeavor, Bastion. But in Transistor, the man isn’t some peripheral entity. He has his own biases. He explores; he interacts; he emotes. He’s not some omniscient scribe regaling me with details, he’s living the story. When he sees his favorite flatbread shop, I hear his heart leap into his throat. He notes that Sea Monster flavored flatbread is the only truly viable choice, letting out a soft but emphatic “yes” when I comply. He may not be able to taste the Sea Monster himself, but atleast he can share the experience.
Hearing this man talk I can’t help but notice the growth that Supergiant Games has shown in its sophomore title. The language, the game’s brevity — it all seems so much more natural. He speaks in short concise sentences. There’s no overacting, he doesn’t need to describe everything that happens. The game manages to say a great deal without weighing players down with excessive amounts of dialog.
Part of that is due to the game’s willingness to at times refrain from saying anything at all. When I played Transistor, it felt as though the developers trusted me. Like they were willing to take the risk to let context and nuance help fill in the gaps. There was no hand holding, there was no need to consciously point every little detail.
A perfect example is how Transistor lets the game’s aesthetic speak for itself. The game never focuses too keenly on its setting, but Cloudbank (present crises excluded) looks like a beautiful place to live. The impressive architecture, lush gardens and pristine waterways suggest that it’s a relatively wealthy city. Congested pockets of high-rises stretch across the skyline with pulsating bright neon lights that bleed together, painting the night sky.
In a place that should be be bustling with thousands, if not millions of people, there’s no one. The city is all but devoid of life. The narrator makes note of this, but he does so indifferently. He’s not panicked. It’s expected. After hearing that, it immediately became apparent to me that whatever has happened in Cloudbank has been going on for sometime. The characters lack of resistance, their acceptance of this appalling situation is far more telling than any monologue or cutscene the writers could have hoped to produce.
Transistor’s combat takes a similar approach. There’s no formal tutorial, the training wheels are thrown off right from the start. However, that’s not to say that it’s unforgiving. The game unfolds in a very approachable manner.
The main crux of the combat centers around balancing between fighting in real time and using planning mode. In real time, I can use functions (abilities) freely without penalty, but so can my enemies. In planning mode, time stops. I can strategically plan my course of attack, making it easier to hit multiple targets and link additional functions together. But that power doesn’t come free. Once I finish a turn in planning mode, all of my functions remain inactive for a duration. Each ability I use in planning mode adds to that duration.
From there the more nuanced systems of the combat begin to unfold. Each function operates in three distinctive states. There is the standalone ability, where Red will use the particular move if selected. Then there is the upgrade, which will allow a function to augment another function when attached to it. Finally there is the passive ability, which will provide some sort of conditional or permanent benefit to Red.
It can seem overwhelming, and maybe it is when trying to take it all in at once. But Transistor introduces these elements incrementally. At first I only had to deal with the basic functions. Then upgrades became available, and finally I was able to unlock my first passive slot.
The flexibility of the combat system and continually growing enemy pool work in tandem. The more powerful I became, the more challenging my enemies were. Suddenly foes were popping up that could shield allies, that could heal one another. I could no longer simply target the strongest enemy first. I had to survey the field and react accordingly.
Fights in Transistor are essential puzzles. The goal is simple: defeat all of the enemies. However, the means by which I could complete that task…that’s a whole other story. With the ability to mix and match functions, there’s always a vast multitude of solutions available. Yet every time I felt I had the puzzle mastered, like I found the optimal strategy, things would change. The board would reset and I’d have to adapt. My time with Transistor never got stale. I always felt like there was some new way of approaching a fight.
Bastion is a tough act to follow, but it pales in comparison to Supergiant’s newest work. Transistor is a game that respected me nearly on every level. It’s daring. It offers an entirely new combat system filled with caveats that reward experimentation and creativity, but never left me feeling overwhelmed. It’s mature and trusting. The narration, the environment and the characters don’t placate to the disincentivized. To learn about the world and its inhabitants requires context and deductive reasoning; it demanded that I be an active participant in uncovering the story, and I found the game infinitely more interesting for it.