Transistor is a beautiful thing. It’s one of those games that comes along and makes you think—but not just about what you need to do to win, how to get the most out of character builds, or what the developers were going for with the story. It gets you thinking about what you love about games, why some touch you more than others, and even how you can’t wait to get back into it again so you can experiment and try something new. It engages and provokes players in the best way.
Transistor takes place in a glorious, majestic city called Cloudbank, which seemed like a Utopia. People voted on things, everyone played their part, and the city shaped itself to meet people’s needs. Except, even the prettiest facade hid a flaw.
You play as a Red, a famous singer who drew the wrong kind of attention. A group called the Camerata targeted her, and attempted to assassinate her. An unknown man was killed instead, by a strange sword called the Transistor. However, while she escaped death, Red didn’t come through the encounter unscathed. She lost her voice in the attack, and the murdered man was clearly someone she knew.
Fortunately, she’s gotten a second chance. Robots called The Process are uprising and killing everyone in Cloudbank. Red can dispatch them with the Transistor. By using its various Functions, acquired from absorbing the consciousnesses of fallen citizens, she could save the day.
Transistor is a thinking man or woman’s game. While it can technically be called an action RPG, it’s really a strategic affair. In fact, there are even puzzle elements. Thanks to the Transistor, Red can execute Turns. With the press of a button, she can execute a series of movements and attacks within moments, faster than opponents can react. She’s allowed to perform as many moves as she can until the action bar for that Turn runs out. These attacks are skills called Functions, and four can be equipped at once. These four Functions can also have additional active and passive Functions equipped to them.
So, you can have a skill equipped, like Breach, but then add another Function to it and create Breach(Spark). However, it isn’t as easy as just setting up a series of attacks during Turns, and then coming out of it with a win. Once you’re done with your Turn, defeated enemies must be collected, or they will respawn. Also, the ones that are still active will pursue Red relentlessly, and since using up your action bar during a Turn leaves you with no attacks, you’ll only be able to run or evade until the bar fills back up over the course of several seconds.
This means that more complicated Transistor battles can feel a little like a game of Chess. You must keep an eye on all the opponents in play, as well as any barriers. These must be kept in mind when attacking, to ensure Red always has someplace to run. At least, until you could set up Jaunt(Get). It’s an incredible combo I tended to rely on, as it would put up walls behind Red when I made her dodge, and was a great way to keep enemies at bay.
Each battle was an opportunity. I could test out all kinds of Function combinations. It made Transistor a very personal experience. While people can share their combinations, not everything will work for everyone. Each person will develop different manuevers, approach situations in different ways, and I found it even helped keep the game fresh.
As amazing as the combat was, though, what really made Transistor special for me were the characterizations. The cast is incredible, even though there are very few people with which players get to interact. And, even the ones we do deal with on a regular basis aren’t presented in traditional manners. Red is a silent protagonist, due to the removal of her voice, yet we have a very clear idea of who she is. She’s determined, and the way she begins to comment on OVC terminal stories, then often rephrases herself once or twice shows that she wants to do what’s right. Red wants to send the exact perfect message, and be sure people perfectly understand who she is and what she intends to do.
Yet, it’s the narrator, the mysterious soul within the Transistor, whom I connected with the most. We know so little about him, and even as the other consciousnesses are absorbed into the transistor and expanded upon as experience grows, he remains a mystery. Despite this, I found him the most human character within the game. He perfectly evokes every emotion, going from devotion, to fear, concern, and many others. Unlike the disembodied voice of the narrator from Bastion, who feels above it all, the man within the Transistor is all too human. I felt like this connected me more to the action within the game.
Of course, the character descriptions assigned to each consciousness and Function help bring people into the game as well. The lore in Transistor is incredible, and I felt encouraged to try and learn everything I could about Cloudbank, its people, and the Process. It wasn’t necessary, story-wise. Someone could easily enjoy Transistor for its service value, but these extra touches bring this dying world to life.
The soundtrack helps as well. Ashley Barrett’s voice is haunting, and Transistor is one of the few games where I’d find myself stopping in safe places, just to enjoy the ambiance. It wasn’t because I wanted to appreciate the pretty views, though it’s always striking and lovely. Darren Korb’s music manages to evoke just as much emotion as the man within the Transistor and the story of the world.
Transistor is an extraordinary game. It’s evocative and engaging. I enjoyed it more than Bastion, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it eventually turns out to be more beloved than Supergiant Games’ debut title. Because as much as I enjoyed Bastion, Transistor felt richer. The story, characters, battle system, music… everything pulled perfectly together. Supergiant Games has topped itself, and everyone wins as a result.
Food for Thought:
1. Red can’t speak, but she can hum. You can trigger it with a press of a button and it’s lovely.
2. If you replay, you can unlock extras of every Function, and then combine them with the same skills to further enhance them.
3. The back door areas offer a nice respite, and while I liked the challenge rooms, I enjoyed the jukebox more.