When Transistor was announced days before PAX East 2013, I’ll admit that I was a little nervous. Bastion is easily one of my favorite games of the last ten years and there was little chance, in my mind, that Supergiant Games would be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice.
Yet by the time Transistor’s credits were rolling, I was left with a grin on my face and only one word on my lips:
Transistor is the story of Red, a popular musician in the city of Cloudbank who narrowly escapes death but loses her voice after a run in with a shadowy organization called the Camarata.
With the help of the Transistor, a glowing, talking sword, Red battles techno-baddies called the Process to find her assailants and stop the total destruction of the city.
Right from the onset, the first thing that stands out about Transistor is how gorgeous it is. With its alluring mixture of art-deco-meets-cyberpunk by way of watercolors, the game features a unique style that not only sets itself apart from Bastion, but other games entirely.
Every environment feels like it’s been meticulously pored over with a painter’s brush, with nearly every detail placed there for a reason. The city is a pleasure to explore.
Over the course of the game, which took approximately eight hours for me to complete, I came to appreciate the desolate, lived-in feel of Cloudbank. Which makes sense given the fact that at its core, Transistor is the story of a civilization on the brink of collapse.
In addition to the game’s visuals, the musical stylings of composer Darren Korb and vocalist Ashley Barrett once again prove to be a powerfully moving duo. Songs like “Paper Boats” and “We All Become” are reason alone to make the soundtrack an instant purchase for any game music fan.
And Creative Director Greg Kasavin’s efficient storytelling shines in Transistor, using brief, emotive commentary that allows Cloudbank’s ambience to bleed through the words.
Praise should also go to Logan Cunningham for his portrayal of the Transistor. While he already proved his VO chops as Rucks in Bastion, his vocal prowess shines, breathing humanity into an inanimate object made of circuits and steel.
Just as the case was with The Kid in Bastion, Red is a silent protagonist. Yet despite her lack of a physical voice, Red still shares her thoughts through various small interactions like commenting on news stories found on terminals throughout the city. It’s a particularly interesting move on Kasavin’s part that tells her story in a way that fits the technological world.
Most story beats, however, are conveyed through the Transistor, while a very small cast of characters also get to have their say.
As for how the game plays, Transistor takes some aspects of Bastion’s design and twists it into a more strategic kind of game. Much like its predecessor, the player must defeat all enemies in any given space before being able to continue onward.
Though most of the game can be played in real time, the thing that makes Transistor’s combat unique is the ability to pause the action and plot out a course of attack. Every planned strike shows up on a timeline at the top of the screen, while numbers showcasing how much damage will be done are displayed next to the baddie in question.
It may be tempting to depend on this feature, but there is a cooldown period that affects its use and all attacks in general, leaving Red exposed. The trick then becomes finding a perfect balance between fast action and methodical strikes that feels very satisfying when executed well.
Rather than afford the player with a number of weapons to choose from, Red only has the Transistor to fight with. To make up for the lack of weapon variance, different functions are accumulated over the course of the game that can either work as an attack, an upgrade to an attack or a passive ability.
When equipped, each function takes up memory on the Transistor, causing players to choose which combinations they want to take with them from one checkpoint to another.
Take too much damage from enemies and the Transistor becomes overloaded, causing one of four attacks to vanish. Run out of all four functions and it’s curtains for Red. Lost functions do come back later after visiting a certain number of checkpoints.
That’s not to say that everything about the gameplay is perfect. At times, the game’s pacing felt oddly predictable. Every new area is almost certainly going to have an encounter and while that’s the nature of the game, it can get stale if you’re fighting the same enemies over and over.
I also found myself particularly frustrated with the dog-like enemy called Fetch found later in the game, though I’m willing to chalk that up to my play more than anything else.
Upon completing the game, a New Game Plus-like mode called “Recursion Mode” opens up, allowing players to start over with their earned level and all their functions carried over, with more difficult Process to fight.
After all is said and done, Transistor is a masterstroke that proves that a near perfect balance between gameplay and art can be struck. It’s a complete package that really ought to be experienced by as many people as possible.
And when Supergiant Games announces their inevitable third title, I for one will not doubt their abilities for a second.
(Editor’s note: A copy of the game was provided by Supergiant Games for this review. Review copies are provided as a courtesy, and do not influence the opinions of Pixelitis.)