Transistor is a sci-fi action RPG from Supergiant Games, who you might know from their smash-hit indie title Bastion from 2011. This is their first game since then, and it attempts to distinguish itself from its predecessor with a complete departure from Bastion’s setting and gameplay. A bold effort, but is it any good? I hope to shed some light on that as I talk about the finer points of Transistor.
My first impression of Transistor was pretty positive. As soon as I booted up the game, I was treated to the delightful, hand-painted, art-nouveau-esque offerings of Supergiant’s art director, Jen Zee. She truly succeeded in crafting a moody, technologically-advanced future world with her direction, and I can’t recall a moment during gameplay when I wasn’t enamored with the sheer beauty this game puts forward. It looks pretty damned awesome. I can’t express a single complaint with the artwork, besides crippling jealousy that I will never be that talented.
The story of Transistor is essentially this: you play as Red, a famous singer in a city known as Cloudbank. The game begins with a botched assassination attempt on her by a mysterious organization known as The Camerata, who try to murder her with a giant, glowing blue sword that looks vaguely like a USB stick. The attempt is thwarted, however, when someone steps between her and her would-be assassins, taking the blow and expiring in her place. You quickly find out that this unnamed savior was actually quite close with Red, and that his mind has been absorbed into the blade, the Transistor, allowing him to communicate with her.
The narrative explains, mostly through her “dead” friend’s dialogue, that Red had her voice stolen by the Camerata, and he urges her to skip town. On their way out of the district, however, they are accosted by a mob of robotic enemies, which they come to know as The Process. They learn their new foes are controlled by the Camerata, and their prime directive is to recover the Transistor, for an unknown purpose. Red decides that skipping town is for wimps, and she makes it her mission to hunt down whoever is in charge and get answers, fighting through hordes of robot jerks on the way.
It’s difficult to express what I like and dislike about Transistor’s story without getting into spoiler territory. There are many twists and turns to the plot, and I will say that overall, it was enjoyable and quite an emotional ride. I feel that there were some pacing issues–which, in my experience, tend to stem from parts of a game being rushed. Additionally, some plot points that seemed important got brushed aside, leaving me feeling a little bit unsatisfied as the ending drew closer, and I realized they weren’t going to tie up the loose ends.
That being said, I still think the story Transistor told was quite good. There were some emotional moments that really tugged at my heartstrings–for example, in several parts of the game, Red uses computer terminals scattered throughout the city to type things for the unnamed man possessing her sword to see. You really get an insight into their relationship with events like these, and you realize just how sad it is that he died protecting her, and is still cheering her on via his disembodied consciousness. It also shows how talented Supergiant is about writing dialogue. I have never felt so sympathetic toward a sword before, and even in her brief bits of text-based speech, Red displays so much personality, it’s ridiculous. Also, you get a robo-dog named Luna. This is important. (She’s cute!)
Let me now get into the music and general sound design. If I had to use one word, it would be, “brilliant.” The music is done by Darren Korb once again, who also did the OST for Bastion. It’s full of bumpin’ tunes, and they do wonders for the incredibly immersive feel of the game. The voice acting is mostly done by Logan Cunningham, who is the voice of the man within the Transistor. Once again, he is a carry-over from Bastion, and I have absolutely zero complaints about this. His voicework in Transistor is absolutely perfect, and I simply couldn’t imagine anyone else taking his role. The other actors throughout the game do a great job as well, too. All-in-all, the sound design is just as good as the visuals, and that’s quite impressive.
Finally, let’s get into the most important feature of a game, the gameplay. How does Transistor play? Well, the good news is that it’s quite fun, and has a surprising depth to the combat system. You have a host of different abilities, each gained from either leveling up, or various plot points throughout the game. The ability system allows you to equip 4 main skills, and then use your remaining ones to augment them, or give Red a buff by equipping them into a passive slot. This allows for a pretty awesome degree of customization, and I found myself constantly trying new things, with varying levels of effectiveness.
The combat takes place in many different areas, each small map having a set amount of enemies you must defeat before continuing on. The combat plays a bit like any other isometric game, you move around with the mouse and use abilities with your number keys. (Obviously different on a gamepad, but you get the general idea.) However, what sets Transistor apart is its Turn() system. Basically, it allows you to freeze time, queue up several actions, and then execute them very quickly as your enemies move in slow-motion. Using this system depletes a meter that will slowly replenish, so it adds real strategic merit to the game, forcing you to use your critical thinking skills to find the best way to dispatch a group of enemies. It also can screw you over quite badly, if you miscalculate your damage and end up leaving a ton of baddies alive while you’re in recovery mode.
Transistor also has a really cool facet of the gameplay that I believe is understated. The abilities you employ to defeat your enemies are all derived from characters in the story. I won’t get too into detail to avoid spoilers, again. But have you ever had a game where one ability, or combination of abilities, is just so much better than everything else, and you get super comfy with it and don’t want to use new abilities as you get them? It’s a game design flaw I see in a lot of brawlers and action titles, and it really sucks the fun out of a game, when you’re using the same damn move throughout.
Transistor gets around this by tying the lore into the abilities. You want to know more about a specific character and what their motivations were? You better use the ability you got from them. In addition, the game contains several challenge minigames that force you to use skills that are outside your comfort zone, allowing you to see firsthand their effectiveness. Supergiant deftly avoids this pitfall that mucks up similar titles, and I applaud them for it.
Overall, the gameplay feels solid and engaging. I’m a huge strategy RPG fan, so having a bit of SRPG sprinkled onto an action RPG makes me feel pretty comfortable. I had some minor gripes, mostly with the Turn() system occasionally not working correctly (sometimes the calculated result would be quite a bit different than what actually happened), and the TERRIBLE equipment menu. Seriously, the ability selection menu in Transistor is so asinine and confusing.
Every time I had to switch out my moveset, it took an annoyingly long time, and in a game that is very reliant on immersion and atmosphere, it was a little bit jarring. Also, the length of the game might be a turnoff for some–I beat it in about 6 hours. Personally, I’m okay with that length, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a game not being 200+ hours long. There’s also a New Game+ feature, which actually changes things up quite a bit on the second playthrough.
So, with all that said, it boils down to this: Is Transistor worth your time? Well, I’m here to say that yes, it absolutely is. Stunning visuals, heart-breaking but well-written narrative (with a few rushed bits here and there), brilliant sound design, and a fun and rewarding battle system are some of the things you’ll be signing up for if you purchase this game. And for a paltry twenty dollar pricetag (or your regional equivalent), you could do a hell of a lot worse. Transistor is a moody, atmospheric, tragic love story, and it’s absolutely wonderful. A few pitfalls keep it from being perfect, but I’d still recommend it to anyone who loves games.
Transistor was reviewed using a code provided by Supergiant Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.