Transistor gives a vision of an interconnected world.
We live in a technological world. We carry our phones everywhere as our central means of contact with everyone, and everything from cash registers to cars are quickly becoming more and more computerized. Hell, I’m writing this on a computer, after all. With things like public wifi and 4G networks everywhere, access to the internet is simple and instant. Amidst all this, some people question whether this rapid series of technological advancements might be controlling our lives.
In the midst of this comes Transistor, a sci-fi action RPG that builds a world more interconnected than it might seem. The game’s stage is a great city where all citizens submit to surveys about what they want for the city, creating percentage graphs of the population’s interests that run the actual workings of the city. Some people decide its time to change the system, but what happens when they don’t fully understand the system being changed? What if the man-made processes of things around us are so ingrained within us that we don’t even see them at work? These are questions Transistor broadcasts loud and clear.
Transistor puts you in the designer shoes of Red, a popular lounge singer fresh off witnessing an attempt on her life. Luckily Red is still alive, but her voice has been taken away from shock. Instead, the voice to her actions comes from the large, circuit-like sword she finds embedded in the body of a man who jumped in to save her life. His voice, and seemingly his very soul, is trapped within the strange blade intended to take Red. Red takes this unexpected weapon and friend in hand, and the pair goes off in search of those who tried to steal Red’s voice. Along the way, other people become integrated into the blade, adding to its power and proving just how much it is capable of. The man who gives the sword a voice was not the first to be taken inside, and not the last either.
This game is the newest adventure by Supergiant Games, creator of 2011’s critically-acclaimed Bastion, and as with that game, story is crucial to the experience. Like the game before it, Transistor primarily relies on a single voice to tell its story, but things aren’t quite the same. Red’s sword is a character with some knowledge of what’s going on, enough so to send the pair in the right direction, but he still witnesses all the game has to offer as Red does. A couple other voices come in later in the game, but Red’s sword is the only consistent voice throughout, and his viewpoint from inside the mysterious blade just adds to the mystery that is one of the game’s strongest points.
Upon removing the blade sword in the stone-like from the gut of its poor victim, Red becomes pursued by The Process, a pseudo-robotic hive mind manifesting itself in various forces to try and eliminate you. The Process is set loose by the Camerata, a group of sociopolitical higher-ups seeking change for the city of Cloudbank, and the same group who arranged for your death. It is them, then, who must be hunted down for the sake of not only vengeance, but to uncover the truth of their plans, the fate of Cloudbank, and why your death was essential. The story plays out in a way that hides things and doesn’t always give up-front explanations, and sometimes gets a little too weird for its own good. However, for those willing to put some extra thought into it post-ending, the story is a well-told sci-fi adventure with some genuinely interesting ideas at its core.
So when one is confronted with legions of Process, how does one fight back? Red’s big blue blade is good for far more than simple hacking and slashing. The combat in Transistor is clever and deep, and most importantly, it isn’t afraid to take risks. Instead of a fast-paced action game, Transistor plays more like a strategy RPG. You can run around the battlefield trying your best to take down enemies in real time, but pressing a button sends Red into a time-freezing planning mode. Here you can queue up attacks and movement, strategizing and lining things up just right to do the most damage possible. After the mode is used, you’ll just have to wait through a brief cooldown before you can start planing again. The Process vary greatly, and each one defeated will respawn if you don’t finish it off quickly enough, so being able to freeze time and fully assess and absorb the situation comes in very handy.
But a plan is only as good as the tools you have to execute that plan with, and Transistor does not fall short in giving you a well-polished arsenal. Four attack slots are open to you from the start, each with upgrade slots to augment abilities and grant them new effects. You’ll also start out with a passive slot (eventually upgradable to four) for non-offensive abilities. What’s great about these is that each “program” you unlock over the course of the game can be used as an active, upgrade, or passive power. Every program can work just as well in any position depending on your needs, from good offensive or support power to added offensive and defensive effects, and much more. By the end of the game, I found myself having used many programs in all three slots at one point or another, as I continued to toy with what combinations best suited my strategies. You won’t find yourself sticking to the same old weapons throughout the game, but nor will you feel overwhelmed by the variety.
If you’re felled in battle, instead of dying right away, you’ll simply lose one of your attacks temporarily, giving you a total of four chances. You’ll have to move on a bit before you can use those programs again, but by the time fights become hard enough to actually KO you, you’ll have a couple backups ready. If difficulty is your game though, you can turn up the heat just about as much as you can fathom. Over the course of the campaign, you will unlock several “limiters” which can be turned on or off at will, giving XP bonuses at the cost of making enemies more challenging in various ways.
Transistor does a wonderful job of giving the player a feeling of choice. The variety in combinations only opens up more and more as the game goes on, and planning your attacks in battles never feels guided along. You go into every battle able to approach things however you think best. Go right for the big guy and weaken him before hitting him with melee attacks? Go for it. Use a long range assault or spawn an attack drone to send in while you hide behind cover? Done. Go for a stealth route and sneak up on your foes from behind? Do it up. Draw them all to a point and bombard them with bombs? Well played. But even more important than having choice is getting some pushes in the right direction. Various points of the game will grant you access to a small virtual sanctuary containing various tests and challenges to face. Not only are these challenges actually some of the most fun parts of the game, they prompt you to try new things by limiting your options or presenting you with preset attacks. Hitting every available challenge when you come across them will improve your skills in battle, broaden your mind strategically, and give you more than double the total playtime.
The one negative thing about Transistor‘s combat unfortunately rears its ugly head here as well. The game puts a great deal of stress on the importance of using Red’s planning mode, but some enemies prove themselves ill-designed for a game of a more strategic pace. Every time you use planning mode, you then have to run around for a minute waiting for the cooldown to complete, during which periods you’ll find yourself easy prey for a couple types of fast, brutal enemy that really don’t seem tooled for a game like this. This disconnect isn’t everywhere, and is rarely present in the campaign, but can lead to a few slightly infuriating battles in the challenges.
The illusion of choice, and how that choice is given to us, is also an important part of the story of Transistor. The game does a great job at creating a solid mystery, giving the feeling of being a small, incidental part of something far bigger than you. Part of how it does this is through excellent worldbuilding. Cloudbank is an absolutely gorgeous city, possibly one of the prettiest sci-fi locations in the last decade. As you go through panicked city districts, bit by bit you’ll learn more about how the city runs. Terminals littered around the place offer polls for inconsequential things like the color of the sky, and are written in ways that tell you a lot about how citizens are treated in the place. Combat aids this worldbuilding as well, as using any given program in one way for long enough will grant you access to data on various members of the city, from various noteworthy citizens to Red herself. This motivates players to try more things with gameplay as well, as each program will only be fully unlocked after it has been used for a while in each type of slot.
The beauty in Transistor is palpable, as you roam the streets of a city that feels like a painting. All of the background architecture is gorgeous beyond question, and everything in the foreground is just as stunning. Every enemy is well-designed, and Red’s animations are a lot more clever than simply swinging a sword around over and over. You can feel the weight of her blade with each strike, and its uses can be pretty creative. Attention to detail such as this is what makes Transistor feel like such a complete, cohesive package.
The soundtrack also deserves a mention, as anyone familiar with Supergiant’s composer Darren Korb will have come to expect. Tracks go from haunting to action-packed, from soulful and organic to cold and computerized, and everything fits perfectly. Each piece of music has a secondary version when Red kicks into planning mode, with no actual instruments playing. All you get is Red’s voice, humming along the melody of the tune hauntingly, with a truly trance-like effect. Transistor’s soundtrack is one of the few I would genuinely recommend picking up, because you will find yourself listening to everything it has to offer until you feel yourself getting assimilated.
Transistor’s most notable achievement is successfully stepping out from Bastion’s shadow. The experience it offers is completely unique, with an unusual and very fresh battle system that offers tons of variety. It shines as a strategy game, and isn’t afraid to be somewhat brutal at times, albeit at the cost of facing a couple ill-designed foes. The story is enthralling from the start, creating a mystery that will dig its hooks deep. The answers to some questions are pretty cryptic, which may turn off some players, but they’re there for those willing to read behind the lines carefully enough. Nothing is as it seems in Cloudbank, and this work of stylish science fiction does a wonderful job of drawing players in. Great voice acting from a well-written narrator-via-sword gives us a thread of grounding through the sometimes crazy plot, and keeps us centered as the story evolves and transforms, eventually changing completely. But after all, as is a popular phrase in the game, “when everything changes, nothing changes.” And that’s part of why Transistor, as a complete package, and is so beautiful to witness and absorb.
If you’re expecting a fast-paced dash n’ shoot action game, Transistor is not what you want. But if you want methodical, planning-based combat with a lot to offer, and can stand a story that holds up despite not always doing a great job at explaining itself, the neatly processed streets of Cloudbank call your name.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4; Publisher: Supergiant Games ; Developer: Supergiant Games; Players: 1; Released: May 20th, 2014; ESRB: T; MSRP: $19.99