Supergiant Games, creators of Bastion, have finally released their much anticipated hybrid between turn based gameplay and an action rpg: Transistor. In Transistor, you control Red, a famous activist singer in the digital city of Cloudbank. She is attacked by a group known as the Camarata using a sword-like weapon called the Transistor, but a man jumps in the way and is impaled instead. Red, her companion, and the Transistor are mysteriously teleported elsewhere and upon removing the Transistor she realizes that her companion’s mind seems to be trapped inside of it. She then sets out to pursue the Camarata, only to find out that entities known as the ‘Process’ are trying to destroy Cloudbank.
Well, maybe not… but you will be. The story in this game is primarily told through narrative conversation from the person trapped in the Transistor, data files that get updated with information about various characters and events, and little news terminals that provide insight into the status of the city along the course of the game.
It’s a fascinating storytelling technique, and given the specific story we’re trying to tell here it works perfectly… but it does leave you with getting little tidbits of information piecemeal which leads to a great deal of confusion when you only have a small part of the puzzle.
Because Red and the Transistor have such an interesting relationship, confusion is not a deterrent but rather a driving force behind exploration. You’ll find various points of interest throughout the game that trigger little scenes to give you further insight into either the world or the characters and you’ll come to realize just who it is that was trapped inside the transistor over the course of this fascinating experience.
Take a Second to Think
Transistor’s combat system, on the surface, appears to be a pretty standard 4 button action RPG setup. There are a variety of different abilities, known as Functions, that have relatively straightforward and standard effects… you know, different area of attacks, short-range teleport, invisibility, summoning a helper, the usual. There are two things that make this game’s setup absolutely fascinating.
The first thing is that you can combine functions, and this is really the heart of the combat system. Adding a function to another function gives a secondary effect based off the function in question. Combining the Ping() function (and yes, all of the functions are named after computer terms, mostly programming terms) with any other attack function makes it go faster, for example. Over the course of the game you’ll get the ability to combine up to three functions, and use some functions as passive effects. It allows for endless diversity, and some of the effects that functions have for combinations are really unique and interesting.
If the ability to combine functions is the heart of the system, then the ‘turn’ feature is the brain. Any time that your turn gauge is full you can stop time allowing you to queue up actions which will all be completed in succession once you end ‘turn’. Each function has a turn cost which determines how much of your turn gauge it takes, and moving gradually consumes it as well. The downside? While your turn gauge refills, which happens fairly quickly, most of your functions become inaccessible.
Well, I shouldn’t say that’s the only downside because if you run out of HP it will, instead of killing you, trigger a final emergency turn for you providing your turn gauge is full. If it is? Then you ‘Overload’, losing access to one of your functions for a while. Your lose condition here is running out of functions, at which point you game over.
With the game’s difficulty being fairly high overall, management of your turn bar quickly becomes paramount to your survival and you begin taking every chance you get to fiddle with your skills to increase your chances of survival just that little bit more. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed fiddling with a skill system this much. It’s an absolute pleasure.
Make it Hard on Yourself
The way Transistor handles difficulty is a thing of beauty. In lieu of ‘Easy’, ‘Hard’, etc there is one single difficulty. To choose your own playstyle, as you level up you get access to different ‘limiters’ which alter the game.
Limiters can vary from small things like ‘enemies respawn more quickly’ to huge changes like ‘enemies deal double damage’ or ‘Red loses access to two functions when she Overloads’. Why would you ever want to make things more difficult on yourself, you ask? Well I’m glad you asked… you get experience bonuses for each limiter you add, based off the difficulty of the limiter. It’s an intriguing system, and it works incredibly well to allow you to pick your own difficulty and scale it up or down as you wish.
I do wish the base difficulty had been a bit lower with more severe limiters. I think people who are mostly just interested in the story of this game will be chased away by some of the more difficult and punishing encounters, even without limiters – and that would be a real pity. Aside from the bottom tier of difficulty being a bit too high, this system really does a wonderful job of allowing you to cater the experience to exactly what you’d want.
And Reap The Rewards…
When you start to get into this game… you’ll start to realize just how rewarding this game simply is to experience. The visuals in this game are simplistic, elegant, and utterly gorgeous. The fascinating backdrops of the digital city of Cloudbank, the unique character models of both the characters and the ‘Process’ enemies you’re fighting, and even the animations and effects of the abilities combine to create such a cohesive experience. Nothing is out of place, everything visually feels just right. Even the repetitiveness of the enemies doesn’t feel excessive because you’re facing an enemy who is supposed to be repetitious.
There are a number of little touches that just make the game all the more coherent and cohesive an experience. There are terminals that feature polls, news articles, and occasionally messages from the antagonists, the Camarata. The messages give you a better insight into what is happening, the polls give you more understanding of the world itself, and the news articles give you insight into the gradual degeneration of the world itself. The other really important touch is that based off the functions you have access to and how you choose to use them, you’ll unlock little articles about the characters in the game as well as other people from Cloudbank. These little articles give you such incredible insight into the city and the world around you.
But what does the biggest job to immerse you in the world is the phenomenal sound design of Transistor. The soundtrack of this game, while not necessarily the type of music I’m inclined to listen to on its own, does such a fantastic job of creating atmosphere for this game. And the most unique part of this game’s soundtrack is the layering they use. During combat, when you activate ‘turn’, Red begins to hum. And the humming isn’t homogenized, each song has a completely distinct hum track that fits perfectly with the music. Additionally, you can also make Red hum at any time when you’re not in combat by holding down the L1 button on the controller. This sounds like a waste of a button, but it was definitely one of my favourite parts of this game – which says a lot given all the good this game has in it. It is so beautiful to listen to and it simply fits so well, and there are even a few points where the game will react if you hum – for example there is a group of Process that you’re not immediately interacting with who will visibly listen to you while you hum. It is a great way to use a button that the design team doesn’t need to help create ambience.
The other clever side of the sound design is the minimalist use of voicework. The game has a narrator, who is contained within the Transistor itself, who frequently speaks to Red during the course of the game. The only other place they really use voices are the messages mentioned above from the Camarata. Since the vast majority of the talking is done by the narrator, you really get to know these two characters. And then when you get to hear other people speak it has a big impact.
Transistor is a perfect example of what can happen when an artist has a pure vision of what they want to create. When every element of a piece of art works in harmony, the resulting work cannot be anything other than exceptional. While Transistor is not perfect, neither is any work of art.