Review: Transistor – An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
Deja vu, although often seen in a more negative connotation, gives the feeling of re-occurrence and remembrance — the feeling that things have happened once before. Supergiant Games’ Transistor gives this feeling almost immediately, as the successor to the developer’s wildly successful debut, Bastion, was able to prove three years ago.
However, for all the familiarity that fans of Bastion will certainly encounter while taking the brisk run through Transistor‘s story, it will bring more than just a sense of deja vu — instead, it will empower a bold sense of rebirth, and seeing a familiar place through a whole new set of eyes.
Taking place in the stylish and haunting Cloudbank, Transistor tells the story of vanquished singer turned warrior Red who, after a devastating attack leaves her overwhelmed and without a voice to sing, comes across a mysterious bladed weapon (the titular Transistor) that provides her with renewed strength, an unclear future, and a whole range of powers and abilities at her disposal. Part hauntingly beautiful inanimate object, part weapon of mass destruction, Red and her relationship to Transistor becomes the key focus of the game, and within it lies a narrative filled with depth, plenty of charm, and most of all, a detailed combat system that will easily fill hours of your game time.
Like Bastion before it, Transistor is a top-down action RPG that takes things from an isometric point of view: as players journey with Red from corridor to corridor and room to room, decisions and actions will be made to engage with enemy creatures as strategically and effectively as possible to avoid Red’s loss in a fight. To put it in an easy analogy, if Bastion were the quick, twitchy brawler in a fight, Transistor is the slower, more methodical combatant: while both are noticeably alike in style and looks, Transistor‘s fights bring in a whole new array of strategy and depth to set it apart from its nimbler cousin.
Combat takes center stage, and as such the game’s key mechanics are defined by a combat system that will feel very familiar to action-RPG fans, but refreshing at the same time. Taking the components of an action-title and mixing in elements of RTS and strategy RPGs, Transistor‘s combat provides plenty of fights against its army of sentient creatures, known as “The Process,” with an even bigger variety of combat options.
Think of a crossover between Bastion and Final Fantasy Tactics and you have a rough idea of what to expect from the game, but once you dive in and explore the wealth of combat options at your disposal in Transistor, it becomes quickly apparent that combat knows few bounds.
Red utilizes Transistor and a collection of abilities in-game to fight against the numerous enemy varieties of The Process, from basic hits to a dodge move, to an ability that can hit multiple enemies at once across the map. However, Transistor’s unique capabilities gives Red the chance to slow down time and freeze enemies in an instant; at the press of a button, Red can set up a queue of actions that then get played out with lightning speed and laser accuracy in real-time, like the RPG equivalent of the Deadeye ability in Red Dead Redemption.
While engaged in Transistor’s slow-down ability, Red has a limited meter to select actions such as moving, attacking, or dodging. Once filled, the actions can then be implemented for whatever the player sees fit: a wide string of crafty combos, or an elaborate evasive maneuver to get out of a tricky situation.
Likewise, players can also edit their movement queue however to their liking — removing unwanted actions or changing previous selections is simple and easy, and provides plenty of opportunity to craft a perfect set up of attacks as effective as possible. Once the actions are carried out, Red’s ability meter with Transistor empties, giving players a short amount of cooldown time until it can be used again.
At a first glance, Transistor‘s combat sounds like a majority of action RPG titles, but given the layers of style, depth, and slickness that Supergiant Games adds into nearly every component of the game, it’s anything but ordinary. With each of Red’s Functions including Active abilities that become bolstered by a number of Passive abilities as the player gains experience and levels, the games’s greatest strength is truly its versatility in offering players a way to tailor their combat in any make, type, and style they like.
Using strictly real-time combat works as effectively as solely using the slowdown mechanic; likewise, using a mix of the two also opens up plenty more combat avenues to explore. Switching up and changing your play style from a more rough and tumble all-out brawl style in favor of a quicker, more backstab-based approach changes up a player’s scenario, and even more so the number of options at their disposal. Regardless of the situation, the game always provides many options for players to diversify and try out new combat options, which makes finding that perfect balance all the more enticing, and engrossing.
That being said, like its elusive story and fragmented narrative, Transistor gives easy entry to players with its alluring visuals and gameplay, but some may slip out of its grasp surprisingly easy. Although introduced with a brief tutorial level and a quick-start into its story, afterwards the title cuts off its hand-holding and explanations fairly early, an attribute that may be its double-edged sword.
Players are often providing more style and suggestion, rather than clarity and function — while its narrative starts off on the basis of a revenge tale, it shape shifts throughout the course of the game to something more fragmented and unclear. Likewise, the game’s combat mechanics do not come easily, as the game’s wealth of combat options, while enticing, can also be dauntingly complex.
While its ambition sometimes doesn’t reach the heights of what it is able to accomplish, it’s safe to say that its accomplishments are definitely worth noting. Coming off the heels of Bastion‘s acclaim and praise, this follow-up sophomore title brings both familiarity and something new in an enticing package. Like the striking beauty and poise of its protagonist Red, the game’s visuals and narrative focus sometimes are clouded by grandeur and a single-minded drive for success — but regardless, it all comes together beautiful with a robust combat system, (already) some of the year’s best music, and visual flair that lights up the screen in a neon haze of glare and sunset.
Like the saddest songs that call to us from the depths of our emotions — from despair, to longing, to heartbreak — Transistor may not necessarily be the easiest, or most accessible, title to jump into wholeheartedly in a rush. But given time and a chance to shine, its song resonates beautifully when it hits all the right notes.