Supergiant Games hit the public eye with an absolute bang in 2011 with the release of Bastion, a beautiful, isometric adventure game with top-down shooter elements. Bastion was an atmospheric masterpiece, combining a great art style with clever narration and a soundtrack that few games have managed to best. Now in 2014, Supergiant Games has released Transistor, but does it live up to Bastion’s quality?
The answer to that question is complicated. For all that Bastion was, the title’score gameplay mechanics were ones that we have seen before. Shooting and stabbing aren’t new by any means, but this tried-and-true foundation helped the rest of Bastion shine. Transistor sets out to be different, and from a gameplay perspective, it’s very different. I love different, but different is hard to pull off.
You play as Red, a singer who has lost her voice but gained a very powerful weapon called the Transistor. To call it a sword is misleading, even if it looks like one; the Transistor is more of a thumb drive that holds attacks. You starts off with two—a standard melee “Crash()” and a long-range “Breach()”—but continue to get more as you level up. Each attack has an active ability, a passive ability, and an upgrade ability, and while the Transistor only has four active slots, it has plenty of passive and upgrade slots for mixing and matching.
On the surface, Transistor seems much like Bastion in its gameplay: unlock attacks, pick attacks, use attacks; however, the game decides to do away with much of Bastion’s normalcy in favor of something…well, quite different.
Combat is broken up into turns, though it isn’t turned-based by any means. Activating your turn pauses the enemies and lets you plan out a series of attacks. You have a bar that fills up with each movement, and certain attacks take up more of the bar than others. Once your attacks are planned out, Red executes them, and your opponents either die or survive depending on how well you worked your planning phase.
This is where the problems arise. The planning phase is cool, but strategy isn’t ever really required. Transistor wants you to be strategic, to maximize your time and to synergize the abilities you have, but in practice, you can usually approach fights with a measure of randomness and still succeed.
At about three hours in, I still wasn’t sure if I was actually playing the game properly. I was still relying on my first two main abilities, despite having unlocked quite a few others, and though fights were somewhat challenging, I wasn’t dying very often.
I also wasn’t sure if the combat itself was any fun.
Once your planning phase is over, you’re left running around in real time and waiting for the turn bar to fill back up. This is when you’ll be taking your damage, and that can be frustrating. You can’t attack until the bar has refilled, so the whole thing becomes a measure of running away and hiding until your next planning phase is ready.
Transistor’s gameplay boils down to attack, run away, attack, run away, etc until you’ve won.
If you don’t need to be strategic in a strategy game, then there’s little to be had. Thankfully, there’s plenty of unlockable abilities, and given how the Transistor is set up as a weapon, there’s plenty of combinations to play around with. I did my best at experimenting, but at a certain point it really became obvious that Crash() and Breach() were my best two abilities. I always had them equipped in some fashion.
Red’s health is completely restored after each battle, which I personally found nice. Transistor isn’t an overly difficult game, but as you level up, you unlock Limiters which will make the game harder at your choosing. I stuck with the easy route, but if you wish to have fewer abilities, more powerful enemies, or shorter turn phases, then you can. Using Limiters will reward you with extra experience points, making leveling up faster but not easier.
Transistor isn’t a game focused on combat though, and what combat is in the game is somewhat sparse. It’s paced well, but there’s less of it than one might imagine when purchasing a video game. No, here is a game that wants to, above else, deliver an atmospheric, narrative experience.
And as a narrative, Transistor is…well, different. It’s a game that doesn’t start at the beginning of the story but near the end of it. Not much is known, and as you progress, you’re given more questions than answers to everything about you, the Transistor, and Cloudbank (the city Red calls home).
It’s an interesting narrative frame, but one that’s hard to pull off. If I’m four hours into a game and still not sure what’s going on, that feels more like a flaw than anything else. It’s hard to be invested in a world or set of characters when I still know nothing about them. This narrative frame also puts a great emphasis on the game’s ending where everything needs to be revealed.
Transistor, much to my dismay, opts to reveal little. I left the game still questioning a few key motives and other narrative elements. I feel like I maybe missed some hidden areas with extra information, and I don’t like that feeling. I was legitimately curious about everything Cloudbank had to offer, so to be left wondering leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
That isn’t to say the ending is bad; in fact, I quite liked it. I just didn’t like the persistent mystery about everything.
Graphically, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Cloudbank is an amazing city of tall buildings and technology, and each new area is a joy to enter. I love the art style Supergiant Games has managed to craft, and it’s a prime example of stylistic graphics trumping photo realistic ones. This game will always look amazing no matter how many years have passed.
Transistor’s main focus was to create an experience—something atmospheric and profound—and I believe it has succeeded. The music is nothing short of phenomenal, and the rest of the sound design compliments it. The game’s narration is similar to that of Bastion (where one person is doing all of the talking), which gives off a great sense of intimacy and immersion. Hearing the next piece of dialogue was what truly kept me going forward.
I just wish there was more of it, and I wish more questions had been answered. I entered Cloudbank with massive information gaps and immediately wanted them filled, but I am left wanting, and not in a satisfied way.
I can, with confidence, say that I’ll be replaying this game again on New Game Plus. I feel the need to uncover what I’ve missed.
Final Verdict: 7.3 out of 10
Transistor is a different game, but it’s also gorgeous and compelling. What it does with atmosphere is nothing short of phenomenal, even if everything else falls short. The gameplay is interesting and worth checking out despite the flaws, and I appreciate the narrative ideas even if I didn’t always appreciate the execution. The game is worth your time; I just wish it were a bit better.
Editor’s Note: This review is based off of a single playthrough which lasted about six hours. No limiters were used to increase difficulty.
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