By Nathan Grayson on May 20th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Transistor is a phenomenal thing in places. Just tremendous. Sometimes overwhelming in its cleverness and subtlety. It had me on the verge of tears from both laughter and a creeping, ever-constricting stranglehold on my heart, and a talking sword (given life by the sultry tones of Bastion narrator Logan Cunningham) was responsible for most of it. This is a very different story from Bastion, arguably a much more personal one. It is, however, also a more natural progression from the latter’s painterly walk on sunshine than its dusky cyberpunk setting might suggest.
All that said, Transistor is a strong tale and a very good game. But it could’ve been much better. Here’s wot I think.
Transistor’s dual nature is a strange one. At many points it seems like this gentle walk through a cyberdystopian rose-gilded paradise, but it also feels rather rushed in places. Hurried and, as a result, less than the sum of its parts on paper, but – thanks to Supergiant’s knack for nailing little details – also more. After a somewhat slow start, the game breaks into a full-on sprint to the finish, and while there are some incredibly strong moments all throughout, the final third or so ends up a bit weak as a result.
It’s weird. I will unreservedly say that I really liked Transistor, but there’s more rough on this diamond than I was expecting. More untapped potential humming along almost silently, hoping that someone, anyone, will hear.
It all begins with an introduction to the titular Transistor. Main character and voiceless (for spoilery reasons) singer Red retrieves the electrically rippling blade from the body of a very close friend after the two were kinda almost (but not completely) murdered by mysterious forces. The blade hums to life at her touch, and her not-exactly-deceased friend speaks to her. The Transistor, then, really is the heart of this game. He’s part-character, part-narrator, and your only weapon of choice.
He is also the game’s soul.
As in Bastion, Cunningham turns in an amazing performance, but Transistor (the character) isn’t Rucks. The game’s early goings gave me that impression, but Transistor is much more… overtly emotionally involved in the proceedings. It’s almost funny, actually. One of the more powerfully, subtly vulnerable characters I’ve come across in games in quite some time is a sword, of all things. A weapon meant to pierce and kill, not falter and babble out heartbroken confessions in what it thinks are its final moments.
Without spoiling too much, the relationship between Transistor and Red (and no, I won’t say what sort of relationship it is) is the core of the game’s story, but it’s nothing terribly revolutionary. The way they communicate is really what makes it – how Red expresses herself despite her total inability to speak, especially. Body language involving the sword, ultra-clever use of message-board-style terminals, split-second decisions she makes. Red is a complex, interesting character whose personality is painted in thin, precise strokes. Quiet moments that reverberate like a Viking shout. Professionally she’s a singer, but that’s not her identity. She is action. She is fury. She is silence. The only thing left when everyone else is long gone.
Transistor and Red really are a duo, though. Both are, in their own ways, equally empowered. A mind and voice without a body, and a body and mind without a voice. And there’s a warmth underlying their interactions. Humanity that drips and gushes between the cracks of a cold, sterile world. As I watched these characters do their thing, my smiles were sweet, my frowns bitter. Transistor composed masterful folktronica melodies on my heartstrings. Well, most of the time, anyway.
I could write multiple articles dedicated to how Red and Transistor’s interactions are handled. I won’t, though. I’ll let you go discover that. We can talk about it again later, and be all like, “And then that one part…! And he said… I KNOW, RIGHT.” We will do this while sitting on a bed and consuming ice cream. Mandatory ice cream. Those are my terms.
Transistor’s overall story, too, is a rather traditional tale given power and life through exceedingly smart storytelling techniques and deceptive depth. It’s an enormous world – if not physically, then from a lore perspective – diced up and squeezed into exchanges, terminals, and abilities. The latter is especially interesting, as it’s one of the smarter marriages of story and gameplay I’ve ever seen in what is essentially an action-RPG.
Each ability is four things: an active attack, an upgrade for other abilities, a passive ability that augments Red’s base stats, and a character. You slowly unravel new information about each character by mixing and matching abilities, giving you a new incentive to vary things up even after you’ve settled into a comfortable, possibly boring plan of attack. Each character helps paint a portrait of a vibrant, culturally rich world – a sort of fusion of 1920s American spectacle and utopian cyberpunk futurism gone wrong – bound up in an endless web of conspiracy.
Ability combos, meanwhile, can range from perfectly practical to downright preposterous. For instance, let’s say I take my already heavy hitting upward strike as a base and then bake in a gooey, molten “crash” attack filling, which melts defenses – clearing the path for even more damage. Then let’s say I take my long-range bouncing energy ball attack and slot that into my upward strike’s other upgrade slot. So now this attack wreaks havoc on defenses and spreads to other enemies.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I once built a three-pronged ultra-long range attack that also turned baddies to my side in brief, five second bursts. Then I just ran around the outside perimeter of a combat zone making half the enemy horde wage bloody bit-hacking war against the other. If anyone ever noticed me, I just used another active ability to briefly turn invisible and scamper away. It felt good. It felt like being a little kid playing blocks, only I had all the blocks and I was using them to beat other children. Then they’d tell on me, and I’d beat up their parents with blocks too. It’s a strange, slightly disturbing metaphor, I’ll admit, but Transistor made it great fun and also I was a troubled child.
It’s an excellent system, and it all makes great sense within the context of the game’s world. The resulting battles are great fun too, albeit pretty much the only thing you “do” in the game. The combat system is an intriguing mixture of Bastion (or Diablo or what have you) style hack ‘n’ slash and turn-based role-player. The twist, however, is that you’re the only one who gets to stop time and take a “turn.” Functionally speaking, it’s a lot like the VATS battle system from Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, with the player queuing up as many attacks as they have action points and then unleashing them rapid-fire on baddies who move like they spilled molasses all over their shoes.
Unlike in Fallout, however, movement also factors here, so turns are one part positioning, one part offense, and one part “oh no I’m all out of turn juice help help help runnnnn.” Positioning isn’t as key as in, say, a true top-down turn-based RPG, but efficient movement and punching through high-tech cybernetic armor with good old fashioned backstabbing will give you a significant upper hand. Playing purely in real-time, meanwhile, is technically an option, but the game’s clearly not designed for it. Encounters just devolve into frantic dodging and button mashing, and you miss out on the glorious satisfaction of watching Red execute your plan (and, like, six enemies) in the blink of a suddenly bleeding eye.
To end the egregiously positive part of the review, Transistor is very good and you should absolutely buy it. As if it even needed to be said, it’s also utterly gorgeous both visually and sonically. Your eyes and ears are in for the grandest of treats (PLAY WITH HEADPHONES AND ALSO EYEPHONES IF YOU HAVE THOSE OR, INDEED, IF THEY EXIST), though I will say that I don’t think there were any musical moments quite as memorable as That One Part of Bastion. There is, however, an entire button dedicated to humming, and it’s delightful. Observe.
Right then, onto the portion where I pick Transistor apart for not being quite as good as it could’ve been.
So many elements of Transistor have the potential to be incredible, but they never quite get there. The story, while largely very nicely told, quickly careens into a powerful but somewhat unconvincing conclusion. Once the game gets going, it moves at a breakneck pace, and a few story and character dynamics don’t get quite enough room to breathe, resulting in weaker motivations all around. Also, a couple plot elements just kinda fall by the wayside as the game dashes toward a clever but ultimately somewhat anticlimactic final showdown.
Moreover, it often feels like the game is telling more than it’s showing, spoonfeeding us delicious morsels of this great world through character blurbs that – let’s face it – function more or less as glorified codexes. All we experience, meanwhile, is a version of this place that’s alternatively a series of battlezones and completely empty, with not even a single cybernetically enhanced tumbleweed ambling by. I understand why, given the story Transistor is telling, but it’d have been amazing to actually play one or two of those backstory segments – if only to briefly exist in a place that, frankly, seemed more interesting before it became a videogame level.
I’m still picking apart the world, the story, and its myriad meanings, though, and I think that’s an accomplishment within itself. Themes of power, change, media, and individuality course strongly throughout, but there are many narrative puzzle pieces to snap together, many dots to connect – some intentionally spaced, others clumsily separated. But maybe that’s what Supergiant wanted. To craft something that would sit with me a little longer than most games. If so, bravo. I still feel shortchanged on the sights I actually saw, but I can’t stay too upset with what I got.
Combat also falters both due to pacing woes and untapped potential. The former comes in the game’s third act, when a single, exceedingly dull enemy type takes center stage and basically serves as filler in the lead up to the story’s final moments. Encounter design just kind of… goes away, replaced by incredibly slight variations on the same thing over and over and over. It feels sloppy. Rushed.
And while Transistor’s fusion of real-time and turn-based ctrl+alt+biffery is brilliant, it’s mostly applied to encounters that rarely go beyond a base level of strategy. The biggest exception to this rule – at least, during your first playthrough, before unlocking the remixed New Game Plus-style Recursion mode – are challenges accessible from “backdoors” into a sort of beachside hub area. Here combat really shines, taking on an almost puzzle-like cadence with opportunities for both creative constraints and wild player expression. These more puzzle-like setups broke me out of the trance created by Transistor’s otherwise straightforward encounters, handing my brain something meaty to chew on. I just wish Supergiant had embraced that side of their own game a little more.
Transistor does technically let you customize your own difficulty on the fly with unlockable limiters that either buff enemies or make your stats go haywire, but they don’t really require a huge reprogramming of your core strategy, and they don’t change which specific enemy types you’re fighting. You just have to be a lot more careful when they’re in play. Recursion (aka New Game Plus, which I’ve made decent headway into but have yet to finish) varies up encounters pretty significantly and really spices things up, but I had to beat the whole game to unlock it. I wish there was a difficulty level in between, or at least the option to play with Recursion-style enemy layouts from the get-go.
That said, Recursion or not, Transistor doesn’t have all that many enemy types. There’s basic dude and laser dude and stompy dude and healer dude and dog dude and annoying satellite shield dude and grenade-lobbing egg dude and girl dude. I might’ve left out one or two, but beyond that you just come up against slightly better versions of those same enemies all throughout. They pick up new tricks as time goes on, but they reach their evolutionary zenith toward the middle of the game. After that, I was never really surprised. There were also a few boss fights, but they were pretty straightforward.
It should be noted, too, that I came across a surprising number of bugs and glitches during my playthrough. Maybe Supergiant has already swatted them all into electric booga-gloop for the final-final release, but I personally endured numerous full-stop crashes and a glitch where visuals wouldn’t load unless I alt-tabbed out of my game and back in. Oh, and at one (admittedly hilarious) point Red went rocketing off screen and into some mad background dimension where I could clomp all over the sides of buildings until I hit… nothing. The void. Ragnarok. A land where not even flimsy cardboard cutout programmer art dared to tread. Eventually I had to take a hit on progress and restart, because there was simply no way back from The Place Between Places.
Curious, I checked in with a couple friends who were also reviewing the game, and while they didn’t encounter quite as, er, colorful of a cast of issues as I did, they were plagued by multiple crashing bugs. So it wasn’t just my machine. At least, not entirely.
Other PC-related nitpicks are less severe. When Transistor isn’t glitching, it runs quite nicely, but I really wouldn’t recommend playing it with anything other than a controller. And even then, ability menus are pretty poorly designed just, like, for humans. The equip screen is a strangely arbitrary oil slick of a mess, entirely contingent on you selecting a non-equipped ability before you can check to see what abilities you do have equipped. It’s a bizarre little annoyance, but after multiple hours, it grates.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that a single playthrough of Transistor won’t take you long. My first run clocked in at around six hours, and I completed most challenges and unlocked every character profile. That said, I feel like it was a good length given that a) I actually like short games, and b) Transistor was already running out of steam by that point. Anything more would’ve been overstaying its welcome. Plus, Recursion varies things up enough that it’s worth another playthrough, especially given that there are some subtle story changes to sift through on top of all the re-calibrated monster mashing.
I do not believe Transistor is everything it could’ve been, but it’s still close enough that I won’t hesitate to recommend it to basically anybody. I critique because I love, and that second part is especially true in this case. Transistor’s got brains, heart, and a knack for always knowing just what to say and when to say it. And also, perhaps more importantly, it knows precisely when it’s better to say nothing at all.