It’s not often we get to play something as captivatingly unique as Transistor. SuperGiant Games first outing since début game Bastion diverges from expectations not just through it’s compelling subtle tale of intrigue and love, but also through a combat system that masterfully bends tried and true mechanics into new exciting shapes. Readily embracing Transistors vague narration and committing to learning the deepest nuances of it’s flexible tactical combat system I found trawling the beautiful neon lit city of Cloudbank to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Though not one without a couple of niggling issues.
Exploring the technological city players take control of Red, a famous musician in Cloudbank Red’s life at the games very opening is violently shaken into disarray. Red’s livelihood, her voice, and her loving boyfriend have both been snatched away from her by a mysterious weapon known as the Transistor. The computer chip looking blade has been tragically skewered through her lover who nobly sacrificed himself; my first act then was to pull the blade from his still warm body. It’s a sad provocative place to start our journey, but it gives the experience a dense air of sad mystery, we really don’t know who is responsible, we just know it happened. It’s an exciting start point; then glowing, the blade begins to talk calmly, and we hear the voice of Red’s apparently deceased partner speak.
Narrator and companion, the trapped consciousness and voice of Red’s lover echoing from the high tech sword does the vast majority of the games speaking. Charming and funny he not only accompanies the now mute Red on her journey to uncover the secrets of Cloudbank, but also guides the player in the right direction too,. His cool calm delivery adds a comforting element to the adventure, a voice of constant reassurance in a world gone awry. Though I met other characters along the way none ever felt as nuanced as the blade in Red’s hand, their relationship is convincing despite the fact or maybe even because, it’s verbally one sided. Without verbal reciprocation we see love displayed in touching scenes of Red clutching the sword caringly, all that remains of her love.
The two’s relationship is the high point of the tale. Whilst the rest of the story is compelling it requires the player to put in the work to fill in the blanks. There’s no hand holding, Transistor never really expands on detail past what it’s obliged to do – it prefers the player to colour in the details themselves. Embracing Transistors purposefully vague nature I found the unfolding mystery of secret societies and powerful governments to be an intriguing. But those who’re looking for a more straight forward easy to follow tale will probably find Transistors lack of elaboration frustrating. Even when focusing they’re times the journey becomes confusing.
Regardless of whether the sparse detail frustrates or enamours the futuristic metropolis of Cloudbank is a setting that shines both literally and metaphorically. It’s glowing neon lights starkly contrast with the black that envelopes the world, even the Transistor shines dimly. Viewed overhead using an isometric camera Transistor exploration feels like a typical top down dungeon crawling action RPG, but it’s diverse eye catching locale ensured I was never looking at the same repeated environments. Beautiful design is not just reserved for the city either but the few characters we do see are well designed too. All dressed in a strange futuristic fashion that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hunger Games movies, it all gives surrounds an intriguing alien feel.
Red herself is not only a compelling heroine but, also sheds the female lead apparence stereotype. She’s looks exactly how you might picture a famous musician, beautiful and elegant – SuperGiant Games have made a progressive hero, they avoided the all too common practice of throwing in some super giant boobs. And that’s most welcome. Her opening vocal track is spine tinglingly well performed, it’s a slow somber song that opens the game perfectly. The tone established is masterfully carried throughout, Transistors jazz soundtrack is wonderfully soothing, a perfect accompaniment to the blades calm voice. Both are calming centres amidst the games unfolding tragedy.
Of course the adventure is far more than a relaxing meander through Cloudbank, Transistor sports a thoughtful combat system. Battling feels much like a slower paced typical asymmetrical action game, but with a host of differentiating intelligent factors built on-top. Red can fight the evil members of the process using four active combat skills, these abilities can be picked from an extensive pool that only expands as the players progresses. The variety of customisation on offer is astounding, the core moves available can be customised into any combination making Red a diverse hero. She can just as easily sling bouncy projectiles around arenas as she can summon a mechanical companion to aid her. There’s a play style for everyone.
Each technique is not just limited to active use either. They can be used to augment the attributes of selected abilities. For example augmenting a normal ranged shot with an explosive technique may result in the once weaker shots exploding on contact with a foe creating a powerful splash damage effect. Each active ability can be augmented by up to two other moves, once the slots have been unlocked by levelling up. Additionally the moves can be used to imbue passive buffs that give Red a power increase, utilizing one move might increase all damage output by 10% for example. Finding the most effective way to utilize the extensive range of skills is key to success.
Fiendish robotic foes dubbed the process level the playing field as adventure progresses too. As Red battles through the city becoming more competent each base enemy type upgrades as well. Light scouts begin to move faster, explosive foes fire bigger payloads more often and lighter enemies strike twice as hard. The pressure of their improvements forced me to constantly evolve my playstyle, I needed to try out new combinations regularly and as result combat rarely got bored. Even once the robotic nemesis are knocked out they’re not necessarily finished off, upon dispatch each combatant drops a casing, fail to pick the casing up in time and the foe will resurrect. Destruction and collection need to balanced carefully to ensure enemies are slain and interrupted from respawn effectively.
In real time balancing Transistors demanding attributes might be a struggle, but thankfully it has another crafty trick up it’s sleeve. Using the power of the ominous blade Red can can slow down time. At a push of a button players can periodically bring time to halt, during this phase Red can plan out her movement pattern, when she’ll attack and where. As time starts again Red begins to move in bullet time carrying out orders exactly as planned. Get it wrong and the enemies will move out the way, a miscalculated step could result in a foe surviving a brush with death rather than succumbing. Pull it off correctly though and it’s incredibly rewarding to see Red fire across the screen at blurring speed strategically dispatching her would be killers.
Mixing and matching moves then using them effectively is the key to success. As such Transistor has a neat little home base that Red can return to numerous times during her adventure – a place where time seems to stop, and it’s the prime location for experimentation. A mysterious place, an island occupied by a singular sturdy tree and home to a selection of doorways, it’s great for chilling out; you can even listen to collected music from the gorgeous soundtrack whilst visiting. Passing though any of the doors initiates a range of challenges that grow ever more difficult as time passes. These speed, planning, performance and stability tests are the perfect way to check and new moves and hone already learnt skills.
An extensive new game plus mode that unlocks upon completion really makes a replay feel appealing. Red carries across her skills and her level meaning I could pick up exactly where I left off, happily perfecting Red skills. Enemies also come back more powerful and throw in remixed abilities to make them more unpredictable than before.
A word of warning though. Although the issues don’t appear to be wide spread I did at the four hour mark encounter a concerning issue. Playing on PS4 I ran into a error that forced the game to close, upon opening the game again the save file was deemed corrupted and all of my progress was deleted. Sadly because there is no manual way to save multiple files in Transistor only one auto save file is kept, any problems and it all goes. These issues do according to a quick google search affect both PC and PS4 versions. It speaks volumes however, that I wasn’t completely soured of Transistor after the error, after a break I was keen to return.
Transistors immense replayability is one of it’s finest attributes. Thanks to an extensive new game plus mode and a fair share of challenge maps there’s plenty of reasons to return to Cloudbank for repeat visits. Regardless of if you’re a chronic re-player or not Transistors subtle tale of intrigue and love is absolutely worth experiencing. Exciting real time strategic combat keeps makes encounters engaging and the constant evolution of both Red and her enemies means battling always feels fresh. Really Transistor is a unique trip from beginning to end and, it’s one that is absolutely worth experiencing.