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Transistor Review

After storming onto the scene with the beloved Bastion, Supergiant Games follows up its debut act with Transistor, an action-RPG which follows the adventures of Red and her talking sword.  In the days of 10 minutes trailers and preview gameplay videos, Transistor does something unique in modern day gaming, it surprises you.  For a game as eagerly anticipated as this one, surprises are hard to come by, but you never know quite what Transistor is going to throw at you.  The game’s strength is it’s lack of hand-holding and tutorials.  Transistor never gives you a chance to be bored or reach for the remote because it is always pushing you forward in its purposefully vague world.

One of these surprises is Transistor’s love story narrative.  The night before she is supposed to take the stage for her big show, Red, the game’s protagonist, is attacked by four people.  Their leader, a white-haired scientist named Grant, hurls a sword named Transistor at Red which hits her lover who throws himself in the way to save her.  The spirit of Red’s lover is imprisoned the sword, and while Red has lost her voice, her unnamed lover can still speak through the weapon that killed him.  After claiming the sword for herself, Red begins a journey through the sci-fi-noir city of Cloudbank, searching for those who killed her beloved and seeking answers.

The initial hour of Transistor is going to raise some questions and Supergiant isn’t keen on answers. Even upon finishing Transistor, there are motivations and exposition left unclear.  Supergiant sacrifices detailed storytelling to keep the game moving along.  Terminals littered throughout the city of Cloudbank hold pieces of information, filling in some of the narrative’s blanks, but the game focuses more around the themes of its narrative rather than delivering plot twists and revelations.  The important moments are conveyed through the game’s gorgeously animated scenes and exposition, provided by Logan Cunningham – lending his vocals to Supergiant again after his turn as the narrator in Bastion – who voices Transistor.

The story obviously plays second-fiddle to Transistor’s intelligent and elegant gameplay.  Players can use the sword, Transistor, to execute four attacks at any time.  These attacks are called functions and are equipped at special terminals called Access Points throughout Cloudbank.  Quickly you will find you have more functions than you can use, after assigning four functions to be used as attacks, the remaining functions can be used to upgrade those attacks.  This leads to a fun amount of mixing and matching as you see what functions can be mixed for the best results.  It also makes for endless variety as the combinations allow for the same functions to be used in different ways.  If your health bar is depleted, you will lose one of your attacks and the function will be unequipable for a while.  Again, this creates variety, forcing you to abandon attacks you had come to rely on and to explore other elements the game has to offer.

Transistor throws a decent amount of enemies at you and taking them on in real time isn’t always the best option.  The game allows you to freeze time with the right-trigger and plan out your next handful of moves, monitored by a meter at the top of the screen.  After you have planned your attack, you press the right-trigger again and Red will spring into action, executing the moves in less than a second.  The mechanic is not perfect, sometimes while planning your attack you won’t be able to see an enemy hidden by the game’s interface, or it might not be entirely clear if your attack is going to hit your enemy.  The flaws aside, seeing you battle plan spring to life with Red darting around the screen, annihilating her foes, is a gameplay loop which never gets old.

Supergiant throws a nice variety of enemies at you to challenge your arsenal, changing up the combinations, and leveling up their abilities so you are always trying having to devise new strategies.  The pacing can be a little wonky at times – the game’s final stretch throws the same enemy at you time and time again – but on the whole the game changes location and context enough to keep you from getting bored.  Since the game is all of six hours long, it is nice that it can keep those six hours continually fresh.

While tearing through the hordes of enemies you might find Transistor isn’t difficult enough.  The game forgoes traditional difficulty settings and instead allows the players to add limiters which powers up your enemies, providing specificity for exactly how you want to be challenged.  You can cut enemies’ respawn time in half, upgrade their damage, however you want the game to evolve.  It is a nice way to solve game difficulty, but it does mean the default difficulty is going to be easy.  It’s not a bad idea, but not very well explained and could lead to players wondering why they would want to improve the enemy.

After beating the game’s first boss, you gain access to a Backdoor, which allows you to escape the chaos of Cloudbank and relax in a beachside tree-house.  Here you can play with a beach ball, listen to the game’s soundtrack, and rest in a hammock while Transistor talks about the events of the game.  It is nice to give Red a place to relax, and is the perfect break to the game’s full-throttle pace, but even the Backdoor isn’t all about relaxation.  The Backdoor also provide a series of training areas, which can help improve your skills and become familiar with unused abilities.  There’s not a lot of reward for getting too deep into these training/challenge modes, but they do serve a nice function, replacing boring tutorials which would bloat the game unnecessarily.

The lack of tutorial means Transistor is not looking to hold your hand.  The game will throw you into combat and menu screens with little explanation, leaving you to discover gameplay options and menus you might not comprehend at first.  Transistor relies on your curiosity leading to trial and error.

After each battle finishes you will receive a progression screen, showing you how close you are to leveling up.  There are three steps to take upon reaching a new level – you select a new function to add to your repertoire, choose an upgrade to increase the amount of functions which can be used, and pick a new limiter which you can use to make the game more difficult.  This leveling process is far from deep, as Transistor is an action-RPG focusing more on the action than the RPG, but as you get further into the game you’ll start to become more discerning about what functions you select.  It’s unfortunate Transistor is so short, because by the time you really get the hang of the progression, you’re coming up on the end.

Transistor is a game made for the internet age.  Random facts litter the world, telling you how many people have passed through a hallway or how many voted for the sky to turn blue.  These factoids have less to do with the story of Transistor and more to do with the atmosphere of the world.    Cloudbank is the internet come to a life, gorgeously painted colored with noir-style color contrast.  There are dozens of moments where players can interact with sections of this world, but what is best is when Transistor gets in the act as well.  A few times players can respond to what they’re seeing and Transistor (the character) will respond to the players.

Adding flavor to this digital world is Darren Korb’s amazing score.  Trading in Bastion’s guitar-heavy riffs for something appropriately more electronic, Korb mixes in sultry vocals, harkening back to Red’s singing roots.  Much like Bastion, the link between music and gameplay aren’t anything new, but the intelligent choices of when to use music and what music is used makes it feel different than so many other games.

It’s hard for Transistor to avoid comparison to Bastion as they share so many thematic qualities.  The adventuring through abandoned worlds, the single-voice providing the meat of spoken exposition, the poetic nature of the world, the inhuman enemies, the poignant ending.  That being said, Transistor offers deeper mechanics than Bastion, it is much less straightforward in how it handles and thus differentiates itself in an important way.  Transistor doesn’t spend a lot of time answering many of the questions it creates, which might frustrate some players, but it spends more time thrusting you into its world and gameplay, hoping you will discover what makes it great.  I think – for a lot you – it will be a pretty easy discovery.

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