I can equate my experience with Transistor to that of a Rubik’s cube. There’s bountiful colour and complexity, skill and practice required – and then you finish it. Done. I was almost ready to pose a complex thesis about Transistor’s themes of control and influence in a struggle against human love and connection when I realised there were sneakily hidden gaps in the storytelling and world that slowly, yet steadily bothered me. Behind the veil of Transistor’s mesmerizing art style and unique design there is a quantity of potential energy that feels active and vibrant, but lacking in a certain something to synthesise a journey that could have it reach beyond a fun action/RPG adventure game.
Transistor’s developers Supergiant Games are no strangers to unique design. In 2011 they dominated the indie scene with their debut title, Bastion. It’s evident the great work done on Bastion has been forwarded to Transistor while incorporating a unique style of its own. This includes the likes of Logan Cunningham’s brilliant voice work and a colourful aesthetic that has changed to suit the much darker atmosphere found in Transistor’s picturesque sci-fi city Cloudbank.
Despite my pickiness, Transistor can feel magical at times, especially as the introduction sets the pace for what’s to come. Immediately I’m thrust into the shoes of Cloudbank’s most famous singer, Red. Beside her is the body of a man with the titular Transistor, shaped like a sword, planted in his chest. From the device I hear his voice calling out to me. He explains that the Camerata, a mysterious organisation have unleashed the Process; an adaptive robotic enemy force that changes throughout the game, reacting to the player’s growing power and the world around it. Somehow along the way Red lost her voice, and now she must track down those responsible. This of course leads to loads of fighting.
Whenever a combat scene begins while traversing the world, a small area is marked off as blocks spring from the ground creating cover, alongside the varied hordes of the Process. These situations act like multi-answerable puzzles, becoming better as the story progresses with more combat functions being available to Red. Unfortunately this complexity within the game-play falls flat as the short runtime hinders the evolution of techniques or possibility of mastery, simply because there isn’t enough opportunity to do so.
The answer to this is a new game plus mode and various challenge stages that are unlocked throughout the main story. However, without a purpose for these battles beyond enjoying the combat mechanics, the beautiful styling’s of Transistor lose the direction they need to feel special. Having all this extra content worked into the main experience, plus growing the scale of the story to match both the fun of the combat and the perceived scope of Transistor’s premise and themes would have benefited the whole package.
The game-play itself is a seemingly normal isometric action/RPG base, with a twist that fans of both Magicka and Fallout 3 will find really interesting. Red accumulates a stable of abilities throughout the story, each with unique powers and uses. Every function has three tasks it can perform: as a primary active ability, an upgrade of a primary ability, or a passive that affects Red’s overall performance. With fourteen total functions and the many ways these can be arranged for different effects, combat never feels stale.
“The game-play itself is a seemingly normal isometric action/RPG base, with a twist that fans of both Magicka and Fallout 3 will find really interesting.”
There are a few clever mechanics in place to ensure you don’t find a favourite configuration of functions and stick with them for the whole game. First and foremost is the need for different utilities and functions to pass through an area or boss with less difficulty. Some forms of the Process become easier when you discover a good combination of functions and strategy to best them. Next are story titbits that are tied to the soul of the character who gives the Transistor a particular function, only revealing themselves if you experiment with the different configurations. And finally is the way functions intersect with death . When you die, a single function is removed from your action bar temporarily. With a total of four possible actives at once, meaning you have to create new or seemingly less ideal combinations to survive until the function comes back, usually after visiting enough checkpoints. The use of a limited points system with each function costing a certain amount to use at a given time prevents Red from becoming overpowered with the use of all functions simultaneously.
It should also be noted that Transistor doesn’t enjoy what would be called a traditional difficulty system. Instead there are what’s called “limiters”. These are gained with each level up and can be optionally activated as buffs to the enemy which in turn provide increased rewards for winning. For someone wanting to squeeze out everything Transistor has to offer, these are a fun way to customise your difficulty and experience in a way that makes the challenge of playing feel like more than the arbitrary decision found in most games.
The centre piece, and the most striking aspect of Transistor’s combat loop is the ability to slow down time, and with a limited number of actions set up an order of functions, and then unleash it on the enemy. The aforementioned Fallout fans will find similarities to the V.A.T.S system, but with an enhanced feeling of freedom and strategy.
The melding of fast-paced action combat with a purposeful strategic mechanic that echoes turn based systems found in other games breathes a freshness into Transistor that unfortunately highlights the contrasting sense of direction between the story and game-play.
Transistor’s story has everything going for it. Beautiful moment to moment writing, and a somewhat hidden set of world building clues that make sci-fi nerds like me froth at the mouth to learn more, but lacking in the conviction to lay down some definite lore. This suggests that the emotions and deeper meanings must be more important than the sci-fi elements. And this would be correct if those were pronounced at all either. Spoilers aside, it was difficult to pin a driving narrative message on Transistor beyond scraps and tatters of half-trodden paths in both the message of the story and the characters and their motives. There is such a thing as being vague in storytelling, relying on the viewer to make assumptions, but Transistor plays a little too fast and loose with that method.
And this is what prevents me from loving Transistor, despite desperately wanting to. You should still play this game, just be ready to feel a slight emptiness over what could have been.