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Transistor (PC) artwork

Transistor (PC) review

"Unlike anything I've played recently in the best of ways."

Transistor (PC) image

I'm about to say something that will make you hate me. Ready for it? I wasn't nuts about Bastion. Yeah, I'm weird. Look, witty narration and gorgeous visuals are not qualities that I discount, but I could never really get past Bastion as more than a somewhat ordinary hack-and-slash with no real hook. I liked the story; I'd have liked it more if I'd actually been having fun with the game.

So given my (admittedly uncommon) position on Bastion being a bit of a missed opportunity, it's a rather nice surprise that developer Super Giant Games' follow-up title, Transistor, is unlike anything I've played recently in the best of ways. Its combat is a clever pseudo-turn-based take on traditional isometric action RPGs, unique on its own terms and flexible enough that few players will develop the same approach. It's great. That it carries Super Giant's trademarks namely the clever script and effective-but-subdued world-building is just a bonus.

One look at the screenshots and Transistor appears to be Bastion all over again, but anyone who approaches this game like a standard hack-and-slash will get torn apart; attacks are borderline useless in and of themselves, and enemies are discomfitingly strong and agile. The game revolves around a pause-and-queue battle system wherein players rigidly stage movements and attacks while enemies are frozen. You can use your abilities in real-time whenever you're not recharging your "turn" but the robotic Process that serve as your adversaries are so quick and numerous that protagonist Red is nearly defenseless without the benefit of being able to halt time and delicately coordinate maneuvers without hindrance.

Transistor (PC) image

What you get is, almost contradictorily, a lightning-fast action game in which care and consideration are keys to winning. After a "turn" is expended, you're relegated to a lengthy cooldown period wherein your attacks are inactive and Red moves at her standard speed. During these times, you're at the mercy of the destructible cover that litters every arena, and that goes fast. Given how plentiful the Process machines are, it's only a matter of time before you're overwhelmed, and as such, smart, productive use of each turn is essential. Every single step taken during a turn is a potential missed opportunity, so using your attacks efficiently and to maximum effect from the right positions, and ideally to take out as many enemies at once as possible is Transistor's joy.

What keeps the game running beyond its unique combat, though, is the function system. Each ability (or "function") that Red learns can play one of three possible roles, either as a straight-up attack, an upgrade for another attack, or a passive effect. When you unlock the poisonous "Purge" function, for instance, it can be used either to spawn a friendly parasite, add a corrosive effect to an existing attack, or do retaliatory damage when you're struck, depending on which slot it's equipped to. Some of these functions inherently change the way you play, too. Jaunt can make one of your active attacks usable during cooldown, Mask can grant you temporary invisibility after an enemy is killed, Tap can add a chain-reactive effect to one of your moves, and so on and so forth. You can see where there's a lot of room for experimentation here.

To complicate things a bit, whenever your health meter hits zero, you lose one of your active functions for the next two checkpoints. So you can either spend that time under-equipped or use the opportunity to try something new. I like being able to say that no two people will get the same experience from a video game, and that's true with Transistor. The combat is that flexible.

I will say, however, that there's not much to Transistor's gameplay beyond that. The level design itself is somewhat limited in scope and exists largely to either pit you against Process or herd you along to the next battle. That's fine if you enjoy the battle system as much as I did and doubly fine when you consider that Transistor is fast-paced and doesn't overstay its welcome, but if the combat doesn't 100% click with you, you'll likely grow bored with the game. Transistor's only other real hook is its story, though that is admittedly a big hook.

Transistor (PC) image

To be honest, its basic premise a futuristic utopia falls victim to a disastrous scheme carried out by its oppressive rulers is nothing new, even if it's presented skillfully and trusts players to fill in the details through observation. The real meat of Transistor's narrative is in the relationship between its two main characters, which is impressive when you consider that said characters are a silent protagonist and her sword, the titular Transistor. Red lost her voice in an incident preceding the game, but her weapon can talk, and frequently does. It is he who takes on the role of the game's narrator, effectively taking the place of Bastion's Rucks.

While I wouldn't quite put the Transistor on the level of Rucks, his deadpan demeanor and casual dismissal of the frequent and grave implications of the story elicited more than a few chuckles out of me, and I particularly liked the occasional joke wherein interference from a certain enemy type makes him talk like a drunk. More importantly, Super Giant absolutely nails his relationship with Red. Since she can't speak (and only very occasionally communicates through written messages), it's up to the Transistor to carry all of the weight, reading her emotions, conveying his own and frequently (but subtly) hinting at their connection from a past life. It works; you surmise so much about these two without explicitly being told. It's absolutely spot-on writing.

The final piece of the puzzle is the music. If you've played Bastion, I won't waste your time by explaining how gorgeous Transistor is, but I will tell you about the soundtrack, and not because it's good, but because it's more than good. Red was a singer, you see, which makes the loss of her voice a particular hindrance. But the songs from her career creep into the background, scoring hectic battles and often serving as a reminder that while the Process can take away Red's voice, they can't take away who she is. Super Giant even threw in a mechanic wherein the player can press a button at any time to make Red hum along to the soundtrack, presumably in her mind, but nevertheless. There's no material benefit to this mechanic. It's just there because music is important to this particular character.

That sort of affection for the small details makes Transistor a worthy successor to Bastion, and for my money, it's a hell of a lot more fun to play. Plenty of people would argue that Transistor has large shoes to fill, and I say its feet are plenty big enough.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (July 11, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted July 22, 2014:

I totally agree about Bastion. Would've loved it as a graphic novel. Was fairly bored with it as a game.
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Suskie posted July 23, 2014:

Soundtrack of the year, for sure.

Like I said, it's a pretty all-or-nothing game, so I'm not surprised whenever I hear people say that Transistor doesn't really work for them.

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