Transistor Review

Can developer Supergiant Games pull off yet another tremendously successful indie game that’s fun to play and dazzling to look at and listen to? The answer is a resounding yes.

I think it’s fair to say that action-RPG Bastion is an indie darling. There was a lot of anticipation before the game came out and when it was released, it was both a critical and commercial success. Even months after its release, everyone kept talking about Bastion on dedicated websites, forums, podcasts and other media. But Bastion deserved all that attention. After all, the game was special: the painstaking attention to detail reflected in every part of the game made it appealing, the audio-visual presentation was wonderfully crafted and on top of that, the combat was a lot of fun. Needless to say, Transistor, the follow-up to Bastion, has some big shoes to fill. So the question is: can developer Supergiant Games pull off yet another tremendously successful indie game that’s fun to play and dazzling to look at and listen to? The answer is a resounding yes.

That girl can sing!

That girl can sing!

As soon as you launch Transistor, the developer’s intentions are clear: on the one hand, they want to craft a title that exudes style, but they also aren’t afraid of trying new things. But first, things first, let’s start by talking about the story. In Transistor, you assume the role of Red, a mysterious redheaded woman who carries around a sentient sword (known as the Transistor) that serves both as a deadly weapon and as the narrator. Red is a gifted musician living in the City of Cloudband, a steampunk dystopia ruled by a mysterious group of dictators called the Camerata that you need to defeat.

Like Bastion, Transistor uses an isometric point of view and this is more than appropriate to see the combat unfold. Although Transistor appears to be a traditional action-RPG, the game’s actually a turn-based strategy game. As you explore the different environments, enemies appear and to defeat them, you need to go into combat mode by pressing the right trigger. Doing so pauses the action and allows you to use functions (unlockable attacks that you equip in the stations laying around.) The number of actions you can perform is limited and since the environments become grid-based when you go into combat mode, everything you select consumes part of your action bar. Four attacks are mapped to the face buttons and each attack has up to two passive functions attached to them (these cause more damage, make attacks have a wider range and so on.) Once you’ve selected your movements and attacks, all of them take place in a succession and when the main character has performed all of them, you have to wait for the action bar to fill up to perform actions again which leaves you unprotected for a while.

Some of the attacks include slashes and explosions and, since the combat takes place in a grid-based board, your attacks have different range. So some of your attacks allow you to hit everything in a straight line, others are short-range and usually hit a single enemy and so on. Alternatively, you can move around when it’s not your turn and attack in real-time fashion, but these aren’t as effective as the abilities you use when you freeze the action. As you’d expect, when you defeat enemies, they leave experience points behind, but you need to collect these gems as soon as you can or they’ll transform into another batch of enemies.

This is what combat looks like when you enter the "Turn()" mode.

This is what combat looks like when you enter the “Turn()” mode.

As you level up, you can pause the game and set functions which have different effects: some of them give you extra damage when you attack enemies from the back, others cause a chain-reaction effect, others add lightning-based attacks and so on. You can have up to four different attacks at the same time and each of them can be upgraded to have even more effects. Leveling up attacks also reveals details about the characters and their back stories which is a nice touch.

There are some truly impactful moments in this game and they come, in part, thanks to the superb voice acting (which once again uses a narrator to tell the story) and the amazing soundtrack. The music mixes a folk style with techno rock and the result is unpredictably delightful. The main protagonist, Red, doesn’t speak (though it’s worth mentioning she sings some memorable tunes from time to time) so the game relies on the sentient sword to tell this story.

If there’s anything I can complain about is the game’s meager difficulty which feels to easy and forgiving. If you die during combat, an attack’s taken from you and you can’t use it until you use the next access point (which you can find in the game in the form of stations.) That sounds like a significant drawback, but since you can win most fights using the same attack over and over, I never felt despaired whenever I lost powers. Also, I never felt the need to try different strategies or combine attacks in creative new ways which was also a problem in Bastion.

Don’t even think about attacking enemies without pausing the game.

Don’t even think about attacking enemies without pausing the game.

Although this isn’t necessarily a case of style over substance, when the game really shines is in its audiovisual aspect and everything else quickly becomes secondary. Transistor’s set in a neon-soaked dystopia that’s brimming with personality and an intoxicating cyberpunk art style: there are terminals scattered around where you can write, read and send messages; when Red walks, she drags around her sword and since it’s so heavy, the large weapon produces sparks; pressing the left bumper makes Red hum a song and when this happens, a beam of light focuses on her, as well as the booming soundtrack that was playing at the background and the list of details that caught my attention goes on and on. Transistor looks and sounds like no other game in the market and that alone makes it special.

Transistor drips style and that’s its biggest triumph, but everything else doesn’t make the same impact. The combat sounds promising at first and while it has some compelling ideas, I never felt challenged. On top of that, the story isn’t that memorable and while the steampunk setting and engaging protagonists make Transistor feel unique in a sea of independent games, the game doesn’t have the same impact as Bastion. Despite all these missteps, Transistor offers an exhilarating experience that no other game in the market has and for that alone, you should give it a chance.